The catch in Klara and the Sun, the latest, highly-anticipated novel by acclaimed British author Kazuo Ishiguro, is that the protagonist, “Klara”, is a robot, an “Artificial Friend”, to be precise.
Ishiguro depicts Klara as a blank page, basically a new household appliance, who eventually becomes a whole personality with some of the better characteristics of humans. This is a noteworthy achievement because it is very difficult to do well, if one considers how people respond to characters and experience reading. In order to enjoy a book, readers have to be able to empathize with the characters, even if a character is a robot.
“She” not “it”
This scenario is challenging for two reasons: firstly, the story is told in the first person, meaning the narrator is an Artificial Intelligence (AI) machine with the appearance of a human female, who is describing what has happened to her, by using machine information processing and sensors. Ishiguro therefore had to “humanize” Klara in order to make the reader sympathize, even empathize with “her” (not “it”). This means that the plot has some unexpected twists to motivate Klara’s near-human behaviour.
Secondly, the questions that Ishiguro raises are to be expected, they’re the ones asked most frequently about robots or AI: What makes something human? What happens to a machine which, though human-like or sentient, cannot die, but can just stop working? Can a machine have feelings? The reader, from the very first page, knows these questions are there, what the probable answers are, and that there has to be an ending, as with all books, and as with all life. Therefore the challenge to the author was how to engage the reader while progressing towards the end.
So, what is fascinating about Klara and the Sun is how Ishiguro depicts the humanization and (probable) acquired sentience of Klara, and how he ends the story.
In order not to spoil the book for those who have not yet read it, I’ll leave out the ending in this review. But it must be said that it left me feeling quite horrible. I pictured that scene and had a lump in my throat, and I read it twice, but I asked myself – Why am I sad? For what? Or for who? Is it Klara? Because though Klara is a machine, she is a whole lot more likeable (better behaved, less conniving) than the humans for whom she is supposed to be a “friend”.
How Klara works
If you have read any Science Fiction novel or seen any film about AI and robots, you will recognize Ishiguro’s descriptions of how Klara functions, and the phases of machine learning that make it possible for her to learn to fit in with the family who buys her as an Artificial Friend (AF) for their child.
I found this aspect of the novel particularly interesting – and quite correctly portrayed, not that it is obvious. Ishiguro does not turn this into a lesson in programming, thank goodness. It all seems very natural and normal.
The process basically involves data collection (input from Klara’s sensors); data training (organizing, categorizing, and making connections); evaluating (what does she know and what does it mean?); making predictions (thinking what might happen and acting on it – in other words, “learning”). For those people who are detail-obsessed, like me, it was very satisfying to see these steps being subtly worked into the narrative.
Steps in machine learning:
- Data collection (input from Klara’s sensors);
- Data training (organizing, categorizing, and making connections);
- Evaluating (what does she know and what does it mean?);
- Making predictions (thinking what might happen and acting on it – in other words, “learning”)
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For example, when Klara “sees”, this is what happens (note that Klara’s voice, as a machine, is stilted and technical, and includes features such as personifying inanimate objects) :
“The Sun, noticing there were so many children in one place, was pouring his nourishment through the wide windows of the Open Plan. Its network of sofas, soft rectangles, low tables, plant pots, photograph books, had taken me a long time to master, yet now it had been so transformed it might have been a new room. There were young people everywhere and their bags, jackets, oblongs were all over the floor and surfaces. What was more, the room’s space had become divided into twenty-four boxes – arranged in two tiers – all the way to the rear wall. “
Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro, p. 71
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The “rectangles”, “oblongs” and “boxes” are the pixillated image of the room as seen by Klara. The twenty-four boxes are the pixillated bodies of the twelve children, with Klara’s visual focus moving the objects around from top to bottom tier according to the importance of the image – eyes, for instance, go into boxes that are on top. This would be like being inside a game of Tetris, with constantly shifting blocks. In this world of shifting visual cues, the most “human” thing in the room is the sun, which Klara says is “noticing” the children and “pouring his nourishment”.
Klara becomes more human-like the more she learns and interacts with her owner, the family, their friends, and “Josie” in particular. But she does seem to be an innocent in a situation where people are emotional and cruel and have nasty intentions. The reader knows it will not end well. This is not like in the film “Ex Machina”, or the TV show “WestWorld”, where the robots win.
How Klara ends up
There are multiple sub-plots in the story, which is set in an unspecified place, in an unspecified time in the future. One is that the children are artificially enhanced when they are born, which gives them special skills and access to higher levels of society, but brings with it an almost invariably fatal disease. So Josie, whose mother chose the enhancement option, is sick a lot of the time and is home-schooled, while her friend, whose mother is not well-off and perhaps mentally unstable, has not been enhanced but is naturally gifted and intelligent.
Another story-line is that Josie’s mother is fairly sure that Josie will die young, and is therefore making plans to have her DNA used to produce a robot version of her: a “Klara” (who usefully provides detailed observations of Josie every look and habit) – but only much more human. Josie’s father is vehemently set against the creator of this clone, a man by the name of “Capaldi”:
“‘I think I hate Capaldi because deep down I suspect he may be right. That what he claims is true. That science has now proved beyond doubt there’s nothing so unique about my daughter, nothing there our modern tools can’t excavate, copy, transfer. That people have been living with one another all this time, centuries, loving and hating each other, and all on a mistaken premise. A kind of superstition we kept going while we didn’t know better. That’s how Capaldi sees it, and there’s a part of me that fears he’s right.'”
Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro, p. 121
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Of course, none of the characters realize that what makes Klara, and robots and clones in general, doomed to fail the test for humanity, is not only the complexity of the physical world, but of human relationships and of course, of human feelings. There is just no way to make scientific sense of love. Love – and what it does to people – simply cannot be analyzed, replicated, copied and transferred. The output of machine learning can only equate the input and the programs used to process the input. Humans don’t understand humans, and they certainly have not unravelled the mysteries of love, so a machine programmed by humans cannot exceed its programmer’s understanding of human behaviour. Unless, of course, the machine learning really works…
The odd thing is, though, that Klara, through her machine-reasoning, ends up showing something that looks like love for Josie. She does something that is illogical, unconventional, unsystematic, risky and self-sacrificing for someone from whom she cannot get anything in return. Is that not an act of love? If Klara does this of her own accord, has she learned to love? And if so, can she feel the pain of losing someone she loves?
I think Klara must have loved Josie because Josie, her mother, her friends, even Josie’s boy friend/boyfriend, are selfish, unpleasant people who are also unkind to Klara. But maybe they are not, because you cannot hurt a machine’s feelings.
What is the value of a defunct machine?
Ishiguro has written a novel which is not difficult to grasp, and has clear and meaningful themes, and an engaging and well-described climax and resolution. The resolution, particularly, leaves a small opening for perhaps another novel featuring Klara, because machines cannot die (their power sources just run out). Critics have called Klara and the Sun a kind of parable or morality tale, but it is too ambiguous and multi-faceted to be only that, in my opinion.
The point, I suppose, is to make the reader consider the justifiability of undertaking the creation of thinking machines, by putting the reader into the mind of such a machine. All the time, I kept thinking, “this is not nice”, followed immediately by, “it can’t be because it is just machine-generated output – this is a robot recalling events, not a person”. But it is hard to distinguish between machines and people, when Klara, every so often, wants a simple thing for herself, such as to watch over Josie while she sleeps, or to feel the sun on her while she sits at the window, or to simply be wanted. I guess that having wants, desires and aspirations are is part of what makes us human.
You should read Klara and the Sun not only because Ishiguro is an extremely adept writer who uses English masterfully, but because he has created a convincingly human AI machine as a main character – something which is extraordinarily difficult to do, if one considers how people experience and respond to reading. It shows his careful observation of the process and results of machine learning in robotics. The way that Klara’s character develops from being a machine to becoming a whole personality with some of the better characteristics of humans, is fascinating.
Ishiguro presents Klara, in a way, as a mirror that objectively and unemotionally shows us what we really are, what we are capable of. He uses the characters of Klara, Josie, and the other members of the household to demonstrate how badly people are capable of behaving towards those who are different from them, particularly towards others who they regard as incapable of feeling or not like themselves. If you ever wondered whether you could feel sympathy for a robot, I suggest you read this.
About Kazuo Ishiguro
Sir Kazuo Ishiguro’s previous novel is The Buried Giant.
Sir Kazuo Ishiguro, OBE FRSA FRSL, is a British novelist, screenwriter, musician, lyricist, and short-story writer. He was born in Nagasaki, Japan, and moved to Britain in 1960 when he was five. Ishiguro is one of the most celebrated contemporary fiction authors in English. Aged 66 years in 2021, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017.
His novels prior to Klara and the Sun are:
- A Pale View of Hills (1982)
- An Artist of the Floating World (1986)
- The Remains of the Day (1989)
- The Unconsoled (1995)
- When We Were Orphans (2000)
- Never Let Me Go (2005)
- The Buried Giant (2015)