Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun is a literary science fiction and fantasy novel about an android, an ‘AF’ or ‘Artificial Friend’, assigned as a companion to a sick child.
Unlike genre science fiction and fantasy, Literary science fiction and fantasy tends to skimp on the world building. Klara and the Sun is no exception. It’s really about the characters and the relationships between them. The story explores class, authority, social etiquette and interpersonal politics.
I’ve always seen literary science fiction as science fiction for people who don’t really like science fiction. It’s an acceptable version of science fiction for literary snobs who think that genre fiction is beneath them.
As with other literary science fiction novels I’ve read, there’s a deliberate haziness about the specifics of the world we’re in. This holds true of Klara and the Sun. It isn’t just because we’re in an android’s relatively simple perception of the world. The science fiction feels closer to fantasy. Like Pinocchio, Klara has been transformed, as if by magic.
I was never completely sold on the idea that Klara could be powered by sunlight. Sunlight is another symbolic, near-magical force. Klara understands the sun in a proto-religious way. She’s a sun-worshiping robot. The story has an allegorical quality, the tone of a fable. This seems to be another trope of the literary science fiction novels I’ve read recently.
Klara’s language and ability to make sense of the world didn’t quite tally for me. It contradicted itself, sophisticated in one moment and incongruously basic in another. There are many examples of this in the novel.
In one instance Klara describes a path from one house to another as an ‘informal path’. Why the word ‘informal’? An English speaker might describe such as path as ‘overgrown’ or ‘wild’ or ‘rarely used’. The use of the word ‘informal’ implies a knowledge of the difference between formal and informal and being able to contextualise the difference. It’s subtle. And yet she lacks that subtlety in other cases. Her linguistic capability feels like a translation incongruity. This makes me wonder if the inspiration for Klara comes from a non-English speaker, perhaps a Japanese speaking person, and this was used as the basis for Klara’s speech and language patterns.
Klara is basically a sophisticated android Tamagotchi, dutifully serving a family much like the butler, Stevens, in The Remains of the Day. The sun is really important to her and she refers to it as ‘he’. She also has a limited ability to interpret social interactions.
We don’t get to know much about the world we’re in. Wealthy middle-class people in nice country houses, some in ramshackle houses, children with augmented intelligence upgrades, competition for status, a society that produces damaged adults and children, emotional distance, and lazy parenting.
The first person viewpoint is part of Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘brand’. It’s a point of view that has immediate appeal and impact when starting a novel. The reader literally gets to know the character from the first sentence, through their thoughts.
The downside is that it’s frustrating being stuck inside Klara’s POV, even with her emotion chip, she’s humourless. Sometimes you wish a novel was written in a different viewpoint, and I wished that this one was written in the third person. I felt trapped inside Klara’s world view. I don’t know if it was the intention or not, but it felt claustrophobic. There’s a palpable sense of being stuck inside a slightly annoying and semi-unreliable narrator. This made me question everything (in much the same way that Klara does). It becomes exhausting.
The quality of the writing is remarkably consistent. There are no bad patches, self indulgent flourishes or purple prose moments. I can understand why people might see Ishiguro as a writer’s writer. His craft skills, subtlety, and richly worked themes would be appreciated in any creative writing class.
Having said this, I didn’t feel emotionally involved with the story or with Klara until quite near the end. That late payoff might also be another brand Ishiguro formula.
Klara and the Sun is what one might call ‘serious fiction’. It has big themes and intricate character studies. It has all the hallmarks of award-winning literary fiction.
The novel explores familiar Ishiguro themes: selfless service, the repression of the self, class, the insecurity of the ‘other’ character working within an environment where they lack authority, the observer who doesn’t belong, and the protagonist’s value and relevance based on their perceived ability to serve the needs of others (and their irrelevance when they’re unable to do this).
The setup and inner world of Klara reminded of the clones in Cloud Atlas, the film AI (itself based on Pinocchio), Gattaca, Machines Like Me, and The Windup Girl.
Ian McEwan’s android in Machines Like Me seems more worked out and believable. But, as I’ve mentioned, literary science fiction isn’t really concerned with the functional specifics of genre science fiction. Literary science fiction worlds are symbolic, parables, fables, and allegories. They use science fiction genre tropes to make literary points.
Ishiguro’s skill is that he can write about characters in a nuanced way, one that alludes to a wider resonance, and social significance. It comes alive in its subtext.
Klara and the Sun is definitely brand Ishiguro, its refined simplicity and detached coldness belies a quirky oddness. Where else do you get characters having casual conversations about the philosophical implications of English hedges?