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'Klara And The Sun' Asks What It Means To Be Human


"Is there any yoked creature without its private opinions?" asks George Eliot in her novel Middlemarch. Much of Kazuo Ishiguro's fiction is told from the perspective of the ancillary, the dependent, the tangential and functionary: In Never Let Me Go, what begins as a boarding school novel gradually becomes dystopian horror, when we realize it is being narrated by clones being raised to have their organs harvested for the general population. In The Remains of the Day, a masterpiece of repressed emotion, a butler comes to feel he has wasted his life in subservience to a Nazi sympathist.

Ishiguro's eighth novel, Klara and the Sun, is narrated by another kind of yoked creature, an AF, or Artificial Friend, a humanoid robot designed as a companion for children. When the novel opens, Klara is in a store full of other AFs, gleaning what she can about the human world from the window, like a goldfish whose whole world is one room. Egoless and naive, Klara believes that her mission is to make her eventual owner happy, and so she has to find out everything she can about human feelings.

Often they are puzzling. At one point, she and another AF, Rosa, witness two taxi drivers getting into a fight. "I tried to imagine me and Rosa getting so angry with each other we would start to fight like that, actually trying to damage each other's bodies," Klara says. She can't.

But — "Still, there were other things we saw from the window — other kinds of emotions I didn't at first understand — of which I did eventually find some versions in myself, even if they were perhaps like the shadows made across the floor by the ceiling lamps ..." Klara is fascinated, and perplexed, when two long-lost friends embrace on the sidewalk across from the store; they seem happy, she notes, but "it's strange because they also seem upset."

Klara learns that people can feel more than one emotion at a time, even contradictory emotions. They sometimes say one thing and mean another thing underneath it. They exchange "secret messages" with their faces. And perhaps the most important lesson is "the extent to which humans, in their wish to escape loneliness, made maneuvers that were very complex and hard to fathom ..."

As Klara becomes more like a human being, there is still a gap. "One never knows how to greet a guest like you," one woman tells Klara after she is purchased. "After all, are you a guest at all? Or do I treat you like a vacuum cleaner?" One of the distinct things about Klara's speech is the way she addresses the people in her life indirectly ("It is nice to meet Rick."), as if the space between "you" and "I" is unnavigable, shifting territory belonging only to people. The nature and size of that territory becomes the novel's primary concern.

Klara and the Sun is set in a near-future, someplace in America. As in other Ishiguro novels, the horror of this world dawns gradually, through a bland vocabulary of menace. Certain children have been "lifted," a process of genetic modification that increases both their chances of success and their propensity for terrible illness. There are references to "substitutions," and homes for the "post-employed."

Klara is eventually bought by Josie, a frail "lifted" child with a mysterious illness, and her chilly mother (known as "the Mother") who dressed in "high-rank office clothes." When Klara comes home with Josie, something odd starts to happen: The Mother begins testing Klara to see if she can imitate Josie's movements and speech patterns. As Josie sickens, she goes to have her "portrait" done, but Klara discovers that the portrait is really a kind of wearable 3-D sculpture of Josie. Here, the reader wonders if Klara, offered the option of replacing the human she is supposed to protect, will take it. All that love and affection, a family life, a romantic life with Rick, Josie's boyfriend. Robots can replace us in our working lives — can they replace us in our emotional lives, too?

Here is the central question of this novel: If Klara learns Josie so well that she can imitate her seamlessly, if she looks, speaks, and acts like her, will she become Josie? The portrait artist assures the Mother, "Our generation ... wants to keep believing there's something unreachable inside each of us. Something that's unique and won't transfer. But there's nothing like that, we know now."

But this isn't a story in which a robot would "turn stupidly on his creator for no purpose but to demonstrate, for one more weary time, the crime and punishment of Faust," as Isaac Asimov wrote of a certain kind of robot replacement fiction. Klara becomes determined to save, not replace, Josie. Klara, solar-powered, has developed a form of devout sun worship, and she concludes that if she makes the right offerings to the sun, he might be able to heal Josie.

Again and again, Ishiguro asks: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have a self? And how much of that self can and should we give to others?

One of the joys of Ishiguro's novels is the way they recall and reframe each other, almost like the same stories told in different formats. Klara's voice, gently puzzled, resembles the butler's in The Remains of the Day as he tries to determine how to relate to his new American employer, who seems to expect him to make jokes. In Klara's quest to save Josie, there's even something of the pianist character of The Unconsoled, who believes that if he is able to give one perfect, magnificent concert, it will somehow repair an old family wound. But most of all it recalls the way that the clones of Never Let Me Go long to catch glimpses of their "originals," the people they are copies of, because they think it will tell them something essential about who they are. Again and again, Ishiguro asks: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have a self? And how much of that self can and should we give to others?

Over the course of two years in the city of Chandler, Arizona, people with rocks and knives attacked a fleet of self-driving cars being tested there by Waymo. The attacks seem to stem from the anxiety Asimov describes, the fear of the robot who turns "stupidly on his creator." But this gentle, lovely, and mournful novel inverts that anxiety. Klara feels no malice, no envy, just a persistent care for those around her. And far from Klara scheming to replace her human companion, there's a sense that some of the people in the novel might actually envy AFs. "It must be great," says the Mother to Klara. "Not to miss things."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.