During the pandemic I have started reading more fiction again, and any new book arriving through the post has been greeted with some excitement. Yet, I had pre-ordered Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel with a mix of both eager anticipation and an ever-so-slight fear of disappointment. I had liked Ishiguro long before anybody thought of giving him a Nobel Prize, and among the things I always appreciated most about his writing were his deep perceptiveness and his precise description of human emotions. Somehow I thought this would not work for a book on something as technical as AI, and it sat on the shelf for a bit, before I started reading it. I could not have been more wrong.
Klara and the Sun is written entirely from the perspective of its central figure, an Artificial Friend designed as a companion for lonely children and teenagers. So we come to see the world through the eyes of Klara, from the time she waits patiently in the shop to be chosen for her new task, through to the end of her journey. And what we see is surprisingly familiar – the shop, the view from its window, the street outside with its passers-by and tourists – almost mundane, except that some things jar with our expectation and experience.
As a machine run largely on solar power, Klara is drawn to the sun and always eager to be near a window to receive ‘his nourishment’. She worries when the sky is overcast and happy when she sees the sun looking through the tall buildings opposite the shop front, not just because she enjoys its light and warmth.
Klara attributes special powers to the Sun which to her has an almost God-like quality. Once, ‘Beggar Man and his dog’ to her seem to lie lifeless in a doorway until the Sun exercises his ‘special powers’ the next morning and brings them back to life. Likewise, Klara thinks that the Sun must be angered by a mysterious ‘Cootings machine’ which produces pollution in the street and stops the sunlight coming through.
Klara learns through observation as she tries to read the behaviour of the people in the street or the in the shop. She notices when the taxi drivers are fighting and wonders if the ‘Coffee Cup Lady’ and ‘Raincoat Man’ embracing on the street might have been friends re-united after a long separation. Her judgement seems so good that Ishiguro occasionally has to remind us that Klara is not human by describing her distorted machine vision composed of squares and triangular shapes that do not always come together to a coherent whole.
But it is once she moves in with Josie and her mother that we see the full extent of Klara’s learnt emotions and empathy. She quickly picks up the routines of the household, she has learnt to show concern for the teenager’s well-being, she knows when to ‘give privacy’ and when her ‘presence might be required’. She even displays signs of social discomfort and perceives that her dignity is at stake when one of the teenage boys at one of Josie’s feared ‘interaction meetings’ with other kids suggests to throw the AF through the room to test her ability to land back on her feet. She even strikes up a form of friendship with the boy Rick from next door, who is Josie’s childhood sweetheart.