Saturday, March 20, 2021

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

The interview Ishiguro did for this book with Neil Gaiman pushed me to read more of his work. Last week I read (and loved) A Pale View of Hills, his debut novel. After further reflection and listening to a couple episodes of The Gene Wolfe Literary Podcast where they discuss it, I like it even more than I did at first. This one, Ishiguro's latest, will take a similar amount of time to fully process, but I do have initial thoughts.

It is a near future science fiction novel narrated by an AF or Artificial Friend, the Klara of the title. I love the science fictional tool of a narrator whose vocabulary/experience is limited and so descriptions of mundane things become otherworldly. Gene Wolfe is masterful at this, as is Ishiguro here. These AFs are essentially AIs embedded in robot dolls that are able to move and provide a level of companionship for children as they grow. Klara has feelings and is quite perceptive. The first chapter takes place in her store, but eventually she is purchased by a family for a girl named Josie, who is quite ill. I don't want to get into the plot mechanics too much so as to avoid spoilers, so I won't summarize further.

As with A Pale View of Hills, so much of this novel's meaning lies in the subtext. The limited vocabulary of the protagonist makes for a different type of unreliable narrator. Honestly, I'm going to need a reread to fully understand her visual perception as described. But as the novel progresses a world is revealed in which CRISPR-like gene manipulation has created a separate class of people who have genetic advantages. Between the advances in AI and the "Lifted" people, two new prejudices have been folded into an already existing xenophobia. There are hints that one character has joined an alt-right enclave that is as opposed to non-white people coming into their space as they are about the genetic and AI advances. It's very subtle, though. 

The main narrative is, unsurprisingly for Ishiguro, one of deep grief. The mother's grief over her daughter who has died, and around the illness of her remaining daughter. And Klara herself, AI, though she is, reveals this elliptically. One of the most haunting aspects of the book is the solar powered Klara's invention of a sun centered religion of sorts. Her prayers to the Sun on behalf of Josie are heartbreaking. Most AI narratives are asking questions about what makes us human, but Ishiguro's use of religion as a marker is brilliant. As is planned obsolescence as a stand in for death.

After hearing him discuss this novel with Gaiman, I got the sense that I might be diving in and reading all his books. Reading this and Pale View of the Hills only confirmed it. I'm reading An Artist of the Floating World, his second novel, now. More to come, I'm sure.

Highly Recommended

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