Book Review: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Review by Dr Mike D Williams
Winner of the Nobel prize in Literature and the Brooker Prize, Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest book, published in paperback this year, is a deep and thoughtful reflection on what it means to be human, have emotions and love others. Set at some time in the future when artificial intelligence is developed to the extent that robots can act as an ‘Artificial Friend’ (AF) to humans.
The story is told through Klara, an AF. She waits in the shop hoping to be bought by one of the many customers she observes carefully that browse, walk past her, and opt for the newer AF models put on display by the shop manager. The sun has an important part to play in the story. In the shop Klara loves being able to see the sun – her relationship to this source of energy is a thread that runs through the story with surprising effect. The opening scenes leave you wondering – who is Klara, what can she do and how does she have such abilities to see and reflect on her observations.
A mother and her child Josie decide that Klara is the right choice for them only after the mother has tested Klara’s observational skills by asking her to reproduce the way Josie walks. From this interaction in the shop, you gain a real sense that Klara is almost human, being able to see and imitate her soon to be friend.
From here on the dialogue and storytelling is riveting. Not everything is immediately clear, and the plot operates at different levels as relationships develop between Josie and Klara. Other influences come to bear as illness and a neighbour’s son all have a part to play. Saying too much about the plot will spoil your enjoyment as you untangle the different threads.
It is fair to say that having the main character as a robot but with many apparent human capacities, yet not fully understanding the world, brings into relief questions about what is important in human relationships. Can an AF love a human and vice versa? To what extent can and should we develop AFs? Can they replace human friends? Should we enhance the human so that they can create even better artificial intelligence?
It is written eloquently, and it is described as an ‘extraordinarily rich work of art’. Ishiguro asks deep questions about artificial and human intelligence and the place of emotions, love, and the sense of the self in a world where technology is increasingly a major part of our lives. Stuck for some Christmas reading or a present for someone you love – look no further.