Absorbing, influential and extremely thought provoking, “Klara and The Sun”, represents the Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro’s bold attempt to grapple with an urgent, relevant, and essential conundrum, by masterfully employing the medium of fiction. Humanity today is close to achieving a degree of intersectionality between man and machine that was hitherto deemed unimaginable. This convergence is pregnant with possibilities, benevolent as well as malevolent. Such a paradoxical potential has led to a cleave where vociferous optimists take cudgels with vehement pessimists. “Klara and The Sun” is a reflective and meditative rumination on the collision and coalescence of humanity and Science.
Klara is an Artificial Friend (AF). AF is a novel euphemism for ‘friendly robot.’ In fact a voluble woman in the book likens Klara to a “vacuum cleaner” possessing humanoid features. “One never knows how to greet a guest like you. After all, are you a guest at all? Or do I treat you like a vacuum cleaner?” Klara is selected by a young girl Josie to be her AF. Before Josie ‘handpicks’ Klara from a clutch of similar AFs, Klara spends her time watching the sun rise and set, through a window in a storefront where she is ‘displayed.’ Klara is an older version of a breed of AFs that has been superseded in both sophistry and capability by a new variant popularly known as B3. However what Klara lacks in ability, she more than makes up for in acuity. An uncanny facility to perceive the emotions and passions of people around her makes Klara a singularly unique and extraordinary AF. Klara has a reverential attitude towards the Sun since solar power is beneficial for her functioning. This ‘plants’ an innocuous albeit unwavering notion in her that the Sun stands for ‘nourishment’, a nourishment that is soothing and all powerful.
Klara’s experience is set in a period, where on account of a phenomenal technological breakthrough, parents are provided the luxury of having their children “uplifted” via a process known as genetic editing. Josie is an “uplifted” child herself. A bright and intelligent girl, Josie suffers from a debilitating illness which in addition to severely restricting her physical capabilities, also threatens to bring to a premature end, her very tenure on earth. The one bright spark (in addition to Klara), in Josie’s otherwise challenging existence is her neighbour Rick. Rick however, on account of certain unfortunate circumstances is not an uplifted boy. Children who are not “uplifted” are almost entirely deprived of enjoying privileges such as admissions to prestigious institutions, and consequential career prospects. They have no choice but to fall back on their innate abilities and natural talents to compete with an aggressive and disparate tribe of similar unfortunates.
As a spectator to the interactions between Rick and Josie, Klara understands the complexities that characterize human behaviour and the sizzling under currents that dominate inter-personal relationships. Even though perplexed at first, Klara, in a gradual manner succeeds in getting a grip over the various emotions that permeate human communication and contact. “I believe I have many feelings, the more I observe, the more feelings become available to me.” Klara’s understanding is also representative of a phenomenal writer at his lambent best. Ishiguro’s inimitable imprimatur of conveying the profound in a most simplistic (but not reductionist) manner makes Klara’s journey a brave exploration of uncharted terrains. Consigned by the intellectual and the rustic alike as a mere assemblage of nuts and bolts strung together by unseen wires, Klara is relegated to the background and is a mere footnote in the grander scheme of worldly things. Yet she demonstrates a mettle and character that would put even the most meticulously groomed amongst all Homo Sapiens to utter disdain.
The Sun rises, spreads kaleidoscopic patterns of light on whatever is touched by its rays, obediently goes down once his work is done for the day, all under the serene stare of Klara. But Ishiguro in his irrepressible style introduces a devious twist which not only upends the normal lives of Rick, Josie and their loved ones, but also threatens to dismantle Klara’s faith in humanity itself. The compassion epitomizing Klara’s very functioning is overlooked by an opacity on the part of humans who wrongly and routinely attribute mechanistic traits to her. The assumption that Klara is devoid of all feelings, bereft of all emotions and impervious to sentiments forms the bedrock of a thinking that is muddled in and by entrenched dogmas.
If Ishiguro’s magnificently Dystopian “Never Let Me Go” wrestled with the ethical dilemmas underlying the humanization or dehumanization of mankind by in the oblique context of organ harvesting, “Klara and the Sun” in a significantly less Dystopian vein attempts a reconciliation between man and machine. As Ishiguro seems to clearly imply, even in a world swirling with pessimism and wreaked by pandemics, there is hope. Lest one be carried away by this seemingly positive import, this is not a hope nested in the Panglossian oeuvre that has besotted the likes of Steven Pinker. Instead, the optimism takes a more measured and nuanced tone that would ordinarily be the prerogative of say, a Daniel Susskind.
While Ishiguro might not have reached the artistic apogee that blazed through the hallways and bedrooms of the immortal Hailsham boarding school, the symbiotic relationship between Klara’s complex humanoid circuitry and Josie’s equally complicated amalgam of human emotions, spurs the reader to believe that there is a place in the world for a new future, a future characterized by sanguinity and succour.