“From her place in the store, Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass in the street outside. She remains hopeful a customer will soon choose her, but when the possibility emerges that her circumstances may change forever, Klara is warned not to invest too much in the promises of humans.” – the summary on the dust jacket of my copy.
The most interesting thing to me about my experience reading Klara and the Sun is that I didn’t register it as dystopian fiction until after I had finished reading it and looked up reviews that categorized it as such. The elements are all there: sentient AI entities (the Artificial Friends, or AFs) that are almost people but don’t have rights; upheaval of social structure resulting in an isolated daily life; references to some mysterious and dangerous process that endangers people who nonetheless choose to go through it; and a pervasive sense that life isn’t very fulfilling. None of these elements except for the AFs, which are the main story premise, really stood out to me. I think that’s because each element is either under-explored in the novel or is so reminiscent of daily life in the real world that I didn’t even register it as any more dystopian than reality.
The social world of the novel, in which children receive most of their education remotely and their socialization intentionally because there isn’t any in-person school, didn’t really register to me as specifically dystopian on first read. That’s basically what life is like for a lot of kids now, or at least what life was like for them for most of the 2020-2021 school year. It may have also not registered as that extreme to me because I was homeschooled from first to ninth grade and lived similarly for that time.
The other dystopian characteristic of the novel that I thought of in retrospect is the hopelessness of it. Klara destroys the Cootings machine only to find that there are many more of them. Josie gets better only to lose her friendship with Rick and grow up to probably have to make the same heart wrenching decisions about her own children that her and Rick’s parents had to make about them. Klara helps Josie recover only to be left in a junkyard to rot. It’s been easy for me to feel a similar kind of nihilism lately. I’m writing this review from my apartment, recovering from covid. I should be visiting my family right now, but I caught covid right before the trip and had to cancel despite almost two full years of careful mask-wearing and getting all my vaccinations. But because the virus has been able to mutate in the massive populations of willfully unvaccinated people and people who haven’t been able to get vaccinated due to socioeconomic constraints, my own efforts to protect myself and those around me are rendered ineffective. It’s hard to avoid a sense of crushing futility when there’s no way to convince people that they should care about each other. It’s hard to conceptualize what worth any endeavor has in a world that seems to fundamentally reject kindness and reward greed.
I’m left wondering whether Klara and the Sun isn’t very dystopian, or if it is, but so is the world we live in. If it’s the latter, does dystopian fiction need to become even more extreme for it to register for us? If the world becomes significantly better, will people a few decades from now read realist fiction written in our time and register it as dystopian?
The writing itself is very consistent in voice–Klara is observant and intelligent but thoroughly naïve, and this comes through in Ishiguro’s narration. Klara’s observations were one of my favorite parts of the book, although the stretches in the beginning where she just observed things for pages on end got a bit tiresome to read. The intentionally dense tone shines best when there’s tinges of humor in how Klara’s take on the world is played so straight it verges into absurdity. It reminded me a little of the popular internet comic Strange Planet by Nathan Pyle (although I enjoy the premise of the comic, I don’t engage with it because Pyle is anti-abortion), which consists of aliens breaking down common behaviors into their bare literal components, drawing humor out of the things we take for granted. There’s a similar effect in passages of the book where Klara is deadly serious in her hatred for what she exclusively refers to as the Cootings machine, which is some sort of construction equipment that we don’t learn much more about. I don’t know if that part was funny to anyone else or if the word “cootings” is funny only to me, but I got a kick out of it.
The main disappointment of the book to me was the lack of explanation of “lifting.” All we find out is that it’s a way for children to enhance their potential, and that it’s dangerous. We know that Josie’s sister got sick and died from it, and Josie is sick in the same way. I wanted to know more. Was it genetic modification? By what process? Was it socioeconomically gated, so that it was safer if you had more money? I think going into more detail about “lifting” could have enhanced the impact of the story, and I also don’t think it really makes sense for someone as observant and curious as Klara to never ask about it.
Overall, this book was middle-of-the-road for me. The beginning when Klara is living in the store is a bit of a slog, and the book is at its most enjoyable once I got past the first part–when we’re learning more about the world and the characters’ place in it through Klara’s eyes. I saw a couple of reviews say that Klara and the Sun reads like a watered-down version of Never Let Me Go, also by Kazuo Ishiguro. I haven’t read Never Let Me Go, but if you have, you should read Klara and the Sun and then tell me whether I should check out Never Let Me Go.