The novel Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro was only recently published in 2021. The book is very well done and reads easily. The author holds back just enough information to keep the reader hungry for more. This style can feel a little disorienting at first, but curiosity is sparked and I found the text entirely engaging.
The entire novel is told from the perspective of an “AF,” an “Artificial Friend.” The AF is a sentient AI companion for children or young teens. Klara is the AF who presents a point of view for the reader. The first thing we learn about her is that she is highly observant, makes intelligent connections, and worships the sun as a life-giving source. All AFs are solar-powered, so at first, it seems natural that Klara seeks a special relationship with the sun, but after a while, it becomes clear that Klara believes the sun to be like a god. For Klara, the sun resides in a location, a building where it sleeps for the night and has desires, is busy, and has the power to answer petitions.
The Life Cycle of AI
One of the fascinating ideas presented in the novel is the natural life cycle of an AI being. One of the characters even advocates for Klara to live her life naturally, rather than being donated to a scientific or justice-seeking cause. She advocates for Klara to have a slow-demise. Klara’s awareness and existence begin in a shop, where she is for sale, she lives her life with a purpose, makes friends, and builds relationships with family around her, and her life fades slowly at the end. She spends her days sitting quietly and reflecting on her life trying to “sort memories.”
Of course, the real attraction of this novel for me is the exploration of ethics. In sci-fi literature, there is an unspoken assumption that Artificial Intelligence can be treated differently (read ‘less than’) from other humans. Even in a world where humans achieve a level of inclusion that overlooks suspicion or discrimination, AI is allowed to exist in a lower state. This undermines the advancements of such a society since the AI simply fills the lower hierarchy that was once held by powerless humans—foreigners, refugees, etcetera. The result begs the question–has humanity really come all that far? Despite all the advancing technology, humans cannot learn to live with one another in such a way that encourages equity and dignity among people.
Ishiguro very creatively describes the world from the perspective of an AI who discovers each aspect of her life as she moves through it. She awakens in a shop with other AFs, sometimes experiencing interactions from the back, in the middle, and in the window of the shop. She then rides in a vehicle and eventually lives in a house with humans. She describes what is in front of her like frames in a graphic novel. Sometimes a person is distant, taking up only 1 or 2 ‘boxes,’ and sometimes a person is really close, taking up several boxes. Klara’s analytical observatory nature is juxtaposed with her passionate insistence that the sun is a powerful entity that might be able to heal her friend, her human companion. Klara seems very robotic in many ways, quietly observing her surroundings, speaking always in the third person, and arranging herself out of the way when she perceives it is right to do so. However, she has a great capacity for love. and, while she loves her own existence, she is willing to sacrifice her safety and personal well-being for a chance to save her friend. Her naivety is pitiable until it pays off. Then, she is the quiet hero. Klara saves her own little world and retires without reward.
The Essence of Being
One of the themes that come across through the novel is the existence of the spark of life, the thing that makes an individual human unique. At one point, Klara describes this as a neverending sequence of rooms that make up one “heart,” their soul. Even if someone explored all of these rooms so they could imitate that person perfectly, they would never capture all of the essences of that person. And this is because the essence of a person is not carried within one person, but it is carried within the people who love that person. Ishiguro encourages the reader to think about the consequences of losing another person. By loving someone, we become part of the existential means of that person’s existence in this world. In the end, I suppose Klara became part of the young woman she loved, for whom she was a companion. In loving, her own existence became meaningful.
The existential quest for meaning in Klara and the Sun mirrors the search for significance in living which is part of the human condition. Ordinarily, it would be difficult for a human to relate to a robot, especially a robot created to be a companion for children. But, Klara’s quest is mature, beyond the scope of a child, for whom life seems eternally before them. The novel invites the reader to relate to Klara’s desperate desire for a purpose, while simultaneously questioning or even judging her ignorant belief in a deity who would acknowledge her petition. Many of us are like Klara, wanting good things for ourselves and for others. We want to hold onto our belief in miracles and also find contentment in our stage of life. Klara’s life becomes as rich as any human. She spends her dying days reliving memories and enjoying the gift of light from the sun she worships. However, it is not her age, her build, or her intelligence that brings her the most satisfaction. It was her ability to love selflessly that added meaning to her existence.
I strongly recommend this novel, Klara and the Sun as an insightful story about the search for meaning in one’s life.