(REVIEW) Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun (Faber and Faber, 2021) is written from the perspective of Klara, an empathic and highly observant companion robot. Early on in the book Klara is purchased by teenage Josie who is seriously ill as a result of genetic engineering for enhanced cognitive ability. Drawing from her idiosyncratic Sun worship mythology, Klara embarks on a quest to save Josie.
This review was recorded as a conversation between Romy Danielewicz and Frank Polatch and transcribed by software with machine learning capacity.
R: I remember that when you first read Klara and the Sun, you told me that you didn’t think any publisher would have accepted this from a less established writer. That it’s just too weird a book. I found this really enticing. Having now read it as well, I am also interested in how Ishiguro’s work resists the idea of good writing as something that is reducible to a series of well-constructed sentences .
F: Yeah, Ishiguro’s books don't really operate on a close reading level of language. Although you couldn’t find a sentence in the book that was flawed, you would also struggle to pick one that was interesting in itself. It's only when you get two thirds of the way through the book that the whole purpose of it dawns on you.
R: Yeah, it's a slow build up . So instead of obsessing over sentence structure, Ishiguro finds value in other experiments. One of the ways this plays out in the book is how Klara sees the world. For example, objects within her perception field are sort of compiled within boxes. This comes through a lot in the descriptions. Having this sort of perspective like you’re always looking through the eyes of the character, is a very good way of making you feel like you're in their head. It had an almost physical effect on me in the late portions of the book when Klara’s powers are kind of attenuated because she surrenders some of her vital fluids in an attempt to help Josie.
F: When she starts to hallucinate.
R: Yeah, objects lose sharpness, people start to resemble traffic cones, things like that. I was in the park while I was reading this, and maybe I was getting sun-struck — also I had just taken my circulation meds. Suddenly there was all this blood coursing through my head and I started to feel somehow vertiginous and at risk, like Klara.
F: What she is going through in that scene is sort of like a panic attack in that her processing power is directly contingent on her internal state.
R: I was really taken by Klara’s endearing qualities like she always wants to stand by the fridge to listen to its comforting hum. I mean, I wish I could derive comfort from that.
F: The big twist with Klara is when she's trying to sabotage this, what did she call it, the Cootings machine? Because her worship of the Sun is linked to the idea that pollution is detrimental to it and that the Sun would be grateful if someone got rid of the roadworks machine. Klara confides in Josie’s father, who comes up with a solution — that some of Klara’s processing fluid could be used to spoil the roadworks machine. She wouldn’t have come up with it herself because she doesn't really discuss or think about her own composition in terms of materials. They decide to try and extract the fluid. The father is an engineer and knows there should be a small opening behind Klara’s ear. He says, I'll just cut the fabric here. Which is when you realize that she's more like a sort of a doll robot. Also earlier, when she is at Josie’s social rehearsal, the boys sort of throw Klara around the room. And you're thinking, well, what size is she? How come the children can throw her around like that? So, she's not a replicant, she couldn't pass as human.
R: Because that's not really their purpose to be lifelike. After all, they're only really used when the child is growing up, they have a limited lifespan. Nobody would shell out a fortune for something really exquisite for a short period of time.
F: I suppose there's a realism to that – I think Ishiguro did speak to Silicon Valley people about this and, you know, the technology for learning from observing behaviour is much further advanced than physically constructing lifelike robots.
R: Klara is basically a person — I think that's not too much to say.
R: Even though she was elaborately constructed and engineered, she certainly has agency within the world of the plot. But to other characters, she is more of a toy. And her personality features are what was marketed to them as a product. This translates quite well into her character establishment — she loves to observe. That's her main interest, fascination with the way things look, and then occasionally ascribing meaning to it.
F: In one interview Ishiguro was asked whether he was afraid or hopeful about the rise of artificial intelligence. And he started talking about the first time a machine learning program has beaten a Go champion.
R: All right, has that already happened? I think my old boss at the café told me something about that. Because it was meant to be the one game where humans emerge superior.
F: Yeah. And I think what Ishiguro was saying is, it's a bit like that story about a computer system someone had created which had to be shut down because it started talking in a language that no one could understand.
R: Not ideal.
F: And the thing about Go is that it’s a highly complicated game with hundreds of years of scholarly attention on the right way to play it. But the machine had only ever observed actual people playing Go, winning games or losing them. And when it won, it played in a way that no one understood, you know, it played with a method that didn't seem to make sense.
R: Like, unorthodox.
F: Yeah. So, it's interesting to think, what is the unorthodoxy of Klara’s behaviour?
R: Something about Klara and the Sun made me think specifically of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, this Philip K Dick book that Blade Runner is based on. The similarity is that both novels deal with an aftermath of something like a third world war or another global atrocity. And people have basically, they've not gone feral or anything, but kind of been through some emotional turmoil. In Do androids… everyone has to prove that they are capable of sympathy by looking after animals. But real animals are almost extinct and ridiculously expensive. That is why everyone ends up owning these electric animals, and the kind of electric animal you can afford is a sign of your status. It’s a bit like that with young people in Klara and the Sun who are socialized by AIs, to an extent. I was thinking that maybe the presence of AIs is meant to compensate for growing up in a gated community.
F: Yeah, there seems to be a sort of loneliness epidemic amongst children.
R: And then Josie’s father is living in some sort of, well, they call it a community, but they all have weapons and it’s highly racially segregated.
F: This is one of the moments where Ishiguro is indicating the wider sinister implications of lack of work.
R: Automation! I haven't really thought about that. I kind of just assumed there's been some form of economic crash but I guess what you're saying, that must be it.
F: I think it's a world where high-end jobs have been replaced by AIs but the low-end jobs haven't necessarily.
R: I guess it's interesting seeing it all through Klara's eyes because she doesn't really seem that tuned into the panoramic aspects of society. Her approach to the world is relational on a very localised level. She is always either thinking of specific humans, or the sun — she doesn't seem interested at all in how the social fabric has been altered.
R: In some ways, Klara’s thinking has a magical aspect — it makes me think of when people first started forming religious systems. For example, when she sees the bull, and then she comes to tie anything bad that happens with the sighting of that bull? ‘A creature of so much anger’, she describes it. It brings to mind mythologies, origin stories.
F: The bull is something that humans would also fear. Bur it's not suggested that Klara observes the fear of Josie’s mum and imitates it, there's something intrinsic to the bull, that is much more threatening than like a car or anything Klara had seen in the city.
R: It’s a powerful trope, reflecting perhaps some ideas about machine learning again — what AIs seem to absorb best of human culture is the imagery of the subconscious (O’Gieblyn, 2021).
F: Mistaking the sun for something with intent is something of a cliché in science fiction, this senseless sort of mysticism. Like, ascribing something with benevolent intent because it is beneficial for you.
R: Maybe it’s actually an adaptation. Because the sun is a life force, something that we all resonate with quite strongly.
F: It’s also because the sun is the first thing that impresses Klara in the book — her and other AIs are solar powered. Is it true that thing about animals, that they consider the first thing they see to be their mother?  Oh no, it’s this children’s story — I think it's called, Are you my mother? It’s about a little bird that get knocked out of his nest. It goes around the house, and encounters a series of things. It goes around saying, Are you my mother? And this reminds me that Ishiguro said Klara and the Sun was originally meant to be a children's book.
F: The characters are sort of like caricatures but then they don't talk in a conventional way — they all speak with this sincere orderliness. They also have these weirdly sort of affective moments of opening up about the personal elements of their life. Here is a family friend, Helen, speaking to Klara.
Helen: ‘Incidentally, before you ask, the answer is yes, I do miss England. In particular I miss the hedges in England, the part of it I'm from anyway you can see green all around you and always divided by hedges, hedges, hedges everywhere, so ordered. Now look out there it just goes on and on. I suppose there are fences somewhere in the midst of it all. But who can tell?’ Klara: 'I believe there are indeed fences, it's really three separate fields fences dividing them.’ Helen: ‘I used to act you know. Sometimes in decent theatres, wretched theatres too. Fences. What are they but stage design? That's the nice thing about England, hedges give a sense of history properly set down in the land. When I was acting, I never forgot my lines. My fellow actors did forget all the time. They weren't much good on the whole. But I never forgot, not a single line.’
F: Ishiguro often creates these characters who sort of obsessed with very insignificant elements from their own past.
R: That’s makes them come to life I guess.
F: Yeah, though there is also something quite disturbing about it. Like they can’t quite hack how to be human.
R: There is a bit in Never Let Me Go when the young organ donors, extremely isolated from society, start to pick up little things from TV shows, touching each other on the elbow, that sort of thing. But there is no individuality to it, they are just copying a scene from Friends. It complicates the line between humanity, AIs, clones, etc.
F: I remember finding that really unnerving. Because it's not just that the characters have a curtailed lifespan. They're also seemingly like, not fully individuals. You know, they're teenagers, but they're not as complex as an actual human teenager.
R: You're kind of left to wonder whether it's because of the socialization they’ve been through, the specific subjectivity of the narrator, or whether it’s actually the case of how they were engineered I found it interesting what you were saying earlier about how all of Ishiguro’s books seem to be about care. In Never Let Me Go, this whole group of people is basically just created to then die in the service of others.
F: Yeah. And once they find out, there's not really any real measure of resistance. Similarly, Klara and the Sun is not a story of artificial intelligence rebelling. The AIs go along with the plans that humans have made for them.
R: That said, Klara has quite a lot more agency than the characters of Never Let Me Go. I think it is because of that mysticism that she develops quite early on. She has so much faith in the power of the sun to change the fates of her loved ones that eventually she comes to enact that change.
R: I think the children's book character of it really helps in making the story be quite clear cut. The only thing I found a bit much in relation to that was the humour, which somehow put me in mind of 80s family TV. Like here, when Melania says:
‘Listen, AF, if you make things worse, I come dismantle you. (…) I find you and shove you in garbage.’
‘Housekeeper, [said Klara], smiling confidently at her for the first time since coming to the house. Thank you for this talk and for your warning. And thank you for trusting me.’
R: So it's meant to be I think, a rousing uplifting bit. But what it really capitalises on is the laughs that can be harvested from having someone speak with a strong accent. Also Klara pretty much channels c3p0 here, coming together in a dubious funny robot and a funny migrant worker skit.
F: There’s another bit with Melania when the mother says to other parents, ‘Melania has made some of those delicious pastries from her homeland’.
R: Milking the authenticity of having access to the labour of someone able to make unfamiliar baking goods.
F: As a quote, it is also characterised by a complete poverty of expression. And this is also true of Ishiguro’s other books. The sentences that come out of people’s mouth are so comically, you know, unoriginal. And they exhibit a strange unselfconsciousness about it.
R: Josie’s mother says that her cello playing could scare a vampire out of his grave. They ceaselessly crack jokes of that magnitude.
F: I’ve got another zinger here, delivered by Josie’s non-genetically engineered boyfriend Rick at her social rehearsal:
Someone asked him. Did I hear you live nearby, Rick. Rick's gaze moved across the faces to locate the speakers. Yes, ma'am. In fact, ours is the only house you can see if you step outside, then he did a small laugh and added, Aside from this one, I mean. Everyone laughed at his addition. And they say, a lot of clean air out here. Good place to grow up, I bet. It's just fine, thank you, Rick said, until you need a fast pizza delivery. Everyone laughed even more loudly.
R: Rick is actually very cool. I mean, out of all these characters, I would definitely hang out with Rick.
F: Yeah. But I mean, I don't think other writers would have allowed those sentences into their books. And they are so weird because they are somehow even more boring and more ordinary then actual small talk would be.
R: It’s interesting in combination with the plain manner that significant reveals are set up in the book, for example: ‘That day I was to learn something very interesting, but it happened in an unexpected way.’
R: I kind of love it.
F: Nothing can ever happen without an announcement.
R: It’s quite soothing.
R: Do you think they’ll make a movie out of it?
F: I've wondered if the fact that the robots are made out of fabric was deliberate attempt to make it unfilmable. It would just look so weird. You know, you couldn't have an actor playing Klara. Or you'd have to have a sort of, you know, where the, the CGI sort of fuzz on them.
R: We can't really make convincing CGI humans, but I think we could definitely make like a convincing fabric robot.
F: Yeah. Or it would be good if they had a sort of, not a puppet you know, but an animatronic thing. If she did look like object but spoke like a human.
R: That would be the C3P0 effect. It’s been done once, they’ll do it again. Those are still the classic robot robots I would say in my personal mythology. R2D2 and C3P0.
Gwern Branwen (2021) ‘GPT-3 Creative Fiction’. Available at: https://www.gwern.net/GPT-3 on 15th October 2021 [Last accessed 15/10/21)
Kazuo Ishiguro (2021) Klara and the Sun. (London: Faber and Faber)
Kazuo Ishiguro (2005) Never Let Me Go. (London: Faber and Faber.)
Meghan O’Gieblyn (2021). ‘Babel’ in n+1, Issue 40 (Summer 2021), pp. 37 – 96.
Nathalie Olah (2019). Steal as Much as You Can: How to Win the Culture Wars in an Age of Austerity. (London: Repeater Books)
 Nathalie Olah (2019) writes very powerfully about how entrenched this idea is in the publishing industry.
 This relationship between individual sentences and wider narrative arc is also interesting in the context of machine intelligence, specifically language processing AIs such as GPT-3. It is essentially a writing tool that works on free association. Having eaten 95% of the internet, it can come up with a narratively cohesive paragraph solely through deciding which word is most likely to succeed the preceding one (here for examples). Many writers hated GPT-3 when it first came about, levelling criticisms that claimed ‘GPT-3 can imitate natural language and even certain simple stylistics, but it… cannot perform the deep-level analytics required to make great art or great writing.’ (Janice Greenwood, quoted by Meghan O’Gieblyn, 2021). I wonder how Ishiguro would feel about this.
 Incidentally, the book is also dedicated to Ishiguro’s mother.
Text: Romy Danielewicz & Frank Polatch
Image: Frank Polatch