By WU Tong

Sixteen years after his first science-fiction-like novel Never Let Me Go (2005) was published, Kazuo Ishiguro revisits the future to produce Klara and the Sun (2021). Many things have changed during those sixteen years; the bland monologue of his latest protagonist evokes a sense of familiarity, and soon, readers find something new in Ishiguro’s famous stories of partial recognition and obsolescence.

The protagonist of the novel, Klara, is an artificial friend. While a traditional AI robot in science fiction is usually designed to handle intellectual tasks, an artificial friend is programmed to provide affective support and company for children and adolescents who are lonely. Klara’s exceptional capabilities of empathy and altruism are mandated by its program design, turning affective companionship and peer-care into capitalist exploits.  In Part One of the story, Klara soon learns that only rich children can afford an artificial friend, and she is as replaceable as any other electronic device. The interaction between Klara and her Manager implies a technology-driven advanced capitalist society. As the story progresses, readers can deduce that this is a society where the lower class are social outcasts who are denied upward social mobility. Alternatively, the elites, despite monopolizing social resources, need to take a fatal gamble to keep their status; in order to retain these resources for their children, the rich need to let them undergo a risky gene-editing procedure.

Against this background, artificial friends like Klara have been designed as perfect companions for privileged children since their parents are often too busy to spend time with them. Her programmed empathy allows her to develop feelings and her function design enables her to provide consistent care and emotional support to the child she accompanies, no matter how unfairly she is treated. This is an ideal altruistic form of care: authentic and unconditional. However, because Klara is primarily merchandise and this care-giving service is part of her supposed function, adults show their different degrees of wariness towards her. The mother of the boy next door makes this conspicuous the first time she meets Klara, “One never knows how to greet a guest like you. After all, are you a guest at all? Or do I treat you like a vacuum cleaner?” Such absentminded comments remind readers of the human-centric exceptionalism that has been a constant theme in science fiction. Popular media such as Blade Runner (1982), I, Robot (2004), Cloud Atlas (2012), and West World (2016) have long used robot labourers and revolutions as allegorical narratives to criticize hierarchical social order and exploitation in the labour market. In these texts, robots become a metaphor for ill-treated, devalued, and dehumanized human workers. 

Klara and the Sun offers similar criticism; however, Ishiguro does not belabour this theme, nor does he create luddite nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ when human beings were yet unplagued by the problems introduced by advanced technologies. A close reading of the caring relationships among the characters positions the text as a forward-looking story. Josie, the child Klara accompanies, is left sick after her gene-editing procedure. Her imminent death transforms the care from her mother into overprotectiveness, leading to exhausting conflicts. Yet when everyone around Josie thinks that she will soon succumb to her illness, Klara, because of her programmed empathy, shows an absurd and obsessive belief in her efforts to cure Josie. Ironically, it is this absurd belief that keeps everyone’s hopes alive; Josie’s family and friends reason that, as an AI robot, Klara must have a strong basis for her belief that Josie can be cured. Here, Ishiguro inverts the familiar humanist plot in science fiction that associates humanity’s value with its capability to have hope and keep faith against all odds. In this story, it is human beings who are worn down by uncertainty, and a programmed robot that inspires hope.

Josie’s family and friends remain hopeful because of Klara’s unwavering belief. This shows us that hope is not an innate human capability that one can tap into when needed. To have hope requires nurturing, maintenance, and even leaps of faith that may seem absurd. While Klara offers hope freely and consistently, she is not an omnipotent genie who satisfies all her owner’s wishes.  To keep functioning and performing her tasks, she needs responses from Josie and her family and friends, just as these human beings need Klara to keep going. What connects and motivates them is kindness and care — emotions that ordinary people like the readers can also nurture within themselves.

Published on: January 27, 2022 < Back >