Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun takes on the big questions

It is through Josie’s affection for Rick that we find out more about the dark dystopian world in which the story is set and which threatens to pull them apart. For Josie is one of the ‘lifted children’ who receives online private lessons and is destined for college and an unspecified privileged future, while Rick despite his natural abilities missed out and has to take his chances to escape the life of the hidden underclass which seems to be at war against the system. We find out little about this underground, except that Josie’s own father seems to be one of the dissidents and ambiguous about his own daughter’s destiny. For Josie’s privilege comes at the price of severe health problems which seem to be a result of the genetic enhancement she underwent as a child. When Josie comes close to death, Klara allies with Rick and the Father to help and is prepared to make great sacrifices.

Ishiguro’s novel resonates with some of the greatest dystopian fiction – there is a hint of the engineered children of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the dissident underground of George Orwell’s 1984, and Isaac Asimov’s fascination with robots. We also see recurrent themes from Ishiguro’s own work. Klara shares her sense of duty and devotion with Stevens from The Remains of the Day (1989), while also echoing his distorted perception which tells the reader more about the characters than they can understand themselves. But there is also the persisting question about the nature and value of human life and the ethics of interfering with nature addressed in Never Let Me Go (2005). 

The most obvious point of comparison, meanwhile, seems to be Ian McEwan’s 2019 novel Machines like Me. In fact, Ishiguro’s Klara almost seems like a response to McEwan’s Adam, who also acts almost human, but develops such a life of his own that his desperate owners have to destroy him to regain control. Klara, in contrast, wins the affection and respect of those around her and seems to exceed all expectation, yet, in the end also remains a machine.

As with most of Ishiguro’s novels, however, the plot is not the most important part. The question at the centre of the novel is about the possibilities and limitations of artificial intelligence and what it is that distinguishes us humans from a creature like the Artificial Friend Klara. The response is for the reader to work out. 


By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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