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Fiction: Questions of the heart for Ishiguro’s android friends

Review: Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber, €16.99

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Kazuo Ishiguro holds a press conference on a park bench after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. Picture by Ben Stansall/ AFP.

Kazuo Ishiguro holds a press conference on a park bench after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. Picture by Ben Stansall/ AFP.

Kazuo Ishiguro holds a press conference on a park bench after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. Picture by Ben Stansall/ AFP.

I’ve loved Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels since his ghostly debut A Pale View of Hills. Written in 1982, it was set in Japan, where the writer was born before his family moved to England when he was five. Then came his second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, a post-World War II fiction with an unreliable narrator. In his third novel, Ishiguro continued with a note to the English novel of manners with expert finesse in The Remains of the Day, which deservedly won the Booker Prize in 1989.

In other words, Ishiguro has moved seamlessly from one genre to another, from the historical to the hypothetical, for example, and in many ways, Klara and the Sun can be read as a companion piece to his other speculative novel, 2005’s Never Let Me Go, which was about cloning and written with such affecting pathos that its denouement is simply heartbreaking.

As for Klara and the Sun, it is Ishiguro’s first novel since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. The story opens in a store in which AF are being sold. “AI” is a common enough term to us now, but in Klara we have “AF” or “artificial friend”. Klara is also the narrator of the story, and as she tries to work out what is going on, so do we, the reader.

And of course, as a prize-winning author, Ishiguro skilfully withholds crucial information from us along the way. We’re somewhere in America, sometime in the future, and Klara, bless her android processor, is hoping to be chosen by a deserving human child. Josie is that child, and the sun of the title is the sustenance that keeps Klara powered — a solar AI, I suppose you could call her.

Pathos is the dominant chord in the Ishiguro canon, and this latest novel, his eighth, is less orchestral than, say his last epic, The Buried Giant, and more of an ensemble piece. In Klara and the Sun, Josie is a sick child. Mystery abounds. We don’t know what illness is afflicting her; and we don’t know what took her sister, Sal, a death that has made her mother try to create a bond with Klara.

There’s mention, too, of an unsuccessful bereavement doll in the likeness of Sal, which is quite eerie and leads to one of the central plot-points of the novel.

In one creepy scene, Josie’s mother asks Klara to act like Josie. This becomes important later in the novel, when we’re told that Klara is being programmed to replace or become Josie, should Josie not recover. Josie’s friend Rick is “unlifted”, which means he has not had a sort of intelligence upgrade or genetic enhancement, we are led to believe. This creates a kind of class difference between these two star-crossed teenage friends.

In a recent interview, Ishiguro admitted that he believed the novel to be a YA one, but that his daughter, the writer Naomi Ishiguro, persuaded him otherwise. I’m a little surprised by this; I think this novel would have suited the YA market, and may still find a readership there.

Technology has meant advancement, but where does that leave the human? Josie’s father, who has now split from her mother, has been “substituted” from his engineering job, and others are being relocated. Rick’s mum is not a subtle woman, and there were moments reading this novel when I wondered “Are all these characters AI?”; but perhaps that is unfair, after all, our narrator is rather disingenuously called a glorified vacuum cleaner at one point, and later a “darling robot”, so the narrator is coming to us from a non-human point of view, one that’s trying to be as human as possible. And Klara does try her best to be empathetic.

As a fable, while we may not be a long way from Kansas, we are certainly a million miles from Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? with its empathy boxes, mood organs, and renegade androids. Science fiction is now a genre being frequently tackled by so-called literary writers.

And many of us may think that there is no surprise in that; especially when the recent pandemic has catapulted us into a digital and near-dystopian future. Is realism a thing of the past, or what is realism anyway — these are the questions science fiction writers seem to ask.

And yet, Klara and the Sun does not have the mind-bending possibilities that true science fiction fans will crave; JG Ballard’s surreal premonitions, or Margaret Atwood’s trans-human parables. Instead, Klara and the Sun is a sweet and poignant story, and, of course, there is nothing wrong with that. It asks important questions about the human heart, “the hardest part of Josie” for Klara to ultimately learn.

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