Much like Jane Goodall lived amongst chimpanzees to learn their behavior and attempt to understand what makes them tick, humans are fascinating to observe. That’s the theme Kazuo Ishiguro, Nobel Prize-winning author of The Remains of the Day and The Buried Giant, explores in his sci-fi / drama novel, Klara and the Sun. Seen through the eyes of artificial intelligence, we come to understand – much like the titular protagonist – the human condition a bit better.
Klara is an AF, or artificial friend, that’s powered by the Sun. She’s quite different from the other artificial intelligence (AI) around her as she’s more observant and able to experience a semblance of emotions. Without even trying, she’s able to take in details many other AIs aren’t able to. Although Klara is an advanced AF, even she’s found it difficult to find a home since newer models – with newer features – are released all the time. Much like your cell phone, once a new and “improved” model comes out, its popularity soars for that brief moment before it plummets.
While on display in the store that sells AFs, a young girl named Josie spots Klara. Though she’s intrigued by this AF, Josie’s mom takes her away. The second time they cross paths, the young girl tells her mom she only wants Klara, despite mom’s hesitancy to purchase an “older” model. Several months later the young girl returns, and when the store manager praises Klara for being a special type of AF, the mom asks Klare to prove it. Josie has a unique way of walking due to her illness and the mom wants her to replicate it.
Klara does so perfectly. This act of mimicry clinches the deal and she gets to go home with Josie to become her personal AF.
The more time Klara spends with Josie, the more she notices how sicks and frail her charge really is. There are days when Josie is confined to bed, unable to move or have the strength to do her daily activities. Klara learns that Josie is ‘lifted’ – a distinction that likely means genetic editing – which has left her system weak at times. And she isn’t the only one amongst her friends who has been ‘lifted’, aside for Rick, a childhood friend she has a close relationship with. The reason behind the ‘lifting’ is to give the kids entrance into the best schools once they’re older.
On the days when Josie is feeling better, her mom takes her to get her portrait done by someone in town. Not only is he great at making sure the process doesn’t tire Josie, but he holds a special interest in AFs as well. It soon becomes clear why the mom chooses Klara — with Josie’s health on the line, the mom wants to possibly replace her daughter with an AF, one who can mimic her mannerisms perfectly. Absolutely perfectly.
It’s amusing to see society believe it’s benefiting itself without thinking about the consequences that may follow. Yes, the children have been ‘lifted’, but did anyone think about what could happen to their immune system once they’ve been altered? Ishiguro takes us through our blind spots, showing us that replacing someone isn’t as easy as we think it is. His writing is simple, yet effective, letting events unfold for themselves as they occur. The story itself is a slow unveiling of who we are as people, and what we come to expect as a society.
Klara and the Sun gives us a somewhat alternate universe where artificial friends are at our fingertips, ready and willing to do our bidding. Ishiguro provides us with mundane moments but through a new perspective, that of artificial intelligence. Even though it offers a new perspective for us to ponder, he provides us with a warning of what could happen. ‘Lifted’ people or not, we need to consider what it means to be human, how much we rely on things as simple as nourishment from the Sun, and most of all, how fleeting love can be.