Klara and the Sun is novelist Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, a dystopian story told through the lens of an “artificial friend” (AF) named Klara. Ishiguro is known for his provocative speculative fiction, including the novels Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day. Klara and the Sun similarly alludes to a dark, post-industrial, futuristic world, but it is told through the innocent lens of an artificial mind, highlighting the vestiges of human behavior and brokenness in ways that perhaps an “ordinary” narrator might not be able to manage.
The novel starts out with Klara on display in a store waiting to be purchased. Eventually, she’s chosen by a girl named Josie and her mother, and thus begins her life among human beings. Throughout the course of the book, we learn bits and pieces of the broader world Ishiguro has created, though it remains mostly on the margins of the story. We do discover that it’s a world where some children are genetically edited and specially adept for college, while others can’t afford the procedure. It’s a highly industrialized society full of pollution and waste, and in which everything, from education to parenting to friendship, is technologically mediated. Basically, it’s our current world but amplified and distorted to a scary but not incredulous degree.
Computing the Human
Klara initially thinks she’s supposed to simply be a friend to Josie, who suffers from a mysterious illness, but later learns that she’s being prepared for far darker intentions. Josie has been seeing a man called Mr. Capaldi in the city to have her portrait drawn, but it’s later discovered that really Capaldi is developing a physical copy of Josie that Klara is meant to “inhabit” after the real Josie dies. Josie’s mother approved of Klara because she was able to mimic and keenly observe Josie’s bodily, emotional, and verbal tendencies and habits.
This shocking revelation ushers in one of the primary questions in the book: what does it mean to be a human in a world teeming with artificial beings? In addition, what happens if we think we can successfully evade loss and death? A couple of quotes in the book particularly illuminate this issue. Capaldi tells Josie’s mother,
Our generation still carry the old feelings. A part of us refuses to let go. The part that want 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 that now. We have to let it go, Chrissie. There’s nothing there. Nothing inside Josie that’s beyond the Klaras of this world to continue. The second Josie won’t be a copy. She’ll be the exact same and you’ll have every right to love her just as you love Josie now. It’s not faith you need. Only rationality” (p. 208).
Josie’s father, Paul, however, is skeptical of Capaldi’s audacious claim that AI can seamlessly compute human attributes. What’s the obstacle? A tricky thing called the human heart. He says to Klara,
Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing?” (p. 215)
Paul tells Klara that impersonating the human heart will be the hardest act of computation of all, given the emotional, mental, and (spiritual?) complexity of the human person.
Klara ends up trying another solution to help Josie get better: shutting down one of the factories emitting pollution, which she thinks is directly causing Josie’s illness. Does it work? Guess you’ll have to read the book to find out.
In the end, Klara reflects to her old store manager,
“Mr Capaldi believed there was nothing special inside Josie that couldn’t be continued. He told the Mother he’d searched and searched and found nothing like that. But I believe he was searching in the wrong place. There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her” (p. 302).
It’s uncertain here whether Klara is claiming there is anything like a human soul, or that Josie was irreplaceable because of how she was loved by others. If it’s the latter, Klara’s own personhood is up for debate. If she is an object of love, is she a person? Or is she like a household pet, beloved by her owners but not worthy of human rights and responsibilities? While a luminous and fascinating character and narrator, Klara is not a soul, but a highly observant and perceptive (and loveable) machine. Given how human Ishiguro makes her in the novel, denying her personhood feels a bit wrong and heartless. But maybe that’s the point. Will AI become so human-like that we reconsider the whole notion of personhood and human rights? It seems likely.
This is a deep, heartbreaking, and piquant look at where our culture might be heading in the future. For the record, however advanced AI becomes, there will always be characteristics it will fail to transfer, or “compute,” to use the word of Robert J. Marks, author of Non-Computable You. Ishiguro wonders anew about the mystery of the human soul, whether it can be “continued” by machines, and most importantly, what it means to love.