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Book Review: Klara and The Sun

Kazuo Ishiguro's new book, Klara and the Sun is an engaging meditation, set in a dystopian world, on the nature of sentience.

Review Summary

Kazuo Ishiguro's new book, Klara and the Sun is an engaging meditation, set in a dystopian world, on the nature of sentience.

Please note: while I am to not spoil the story for you, it's difficult to discuss a book without talking (at least in generalities) about some things that happen during a book. Please keep that in mind as you read.

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Book Review: Klara and The SunKlara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on March 2, 2021
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Science Fiction, General
Pages: 320
Format: Audible, Audio CD, Audiobook, eBook, Hardcover, Kindle, Paperback
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Publisher Synopsis:

Klara and the Sun is a magnificent new novel from the Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro—author of Never Let Me Go and the Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day.

Klara and the Sun, the first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro since he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, tells the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who, from her place in the store, watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her.
Klara and the Sun is a thrilling book that offers a look at our changing world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator, and one that explores the fundamental question: what does it mean to love?
In its award citation in 2017, the Nobel committee described Ishiguro's books as "novels of great emotional force" and said he has "uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world."


Klara and the Sun Book Review

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Klara is a Girl AF, an “Artificial Friend” created to be a companion for upper-class “lifted” children. Hers is a world in which, it seems, social interaction with other kids comes mainly in the form of scheduled “interactions” with “peer-group” members. Adults are carving out different lives for themselves after being displaced at their jobs by AI. There’s a sense, in the background of the story, of future violent conflict.

Fortunately, that aspect of Klara’s society remains as just that — a distant background — so we can focus on Klara’s unique viewpoint.

Solar-powered Klara spends her days in a shop with other Girl AFs and Boy AFs. Manager–we never know her real name– rotates her merchandise around the store in various positions, with the sunny spot in the window being a favorite. Until one day Josie, a girl with a mysterious illness, and her mother buy Klara. From their first meeting, you get the sense that “the Mother”–who we later learn does have an actual name–has very mixed feelings about this new addition to the family. As the story proceeds, our sense of uneasiness in this relationship and where it might be going grows as the Mother alternately makes strange requests of Klara at times and ignores her at others.

Ishiguro is excellent at the old rule of writing: “show, don’t tell.” He immerses you in Klara’s dystopian world through her unique perspective, gradually revealing more but not needing to explain or show everything.

In its 303 pages (in the hardcover edition), Klara’s journey asks us to ponder questions about the nature of the self, how we define sentience and society’s throwaway attitudes. What makes us “us?” Do we have “something unreachable inside each of us”? How do we treat things–or people–once loved that no longer serve our needs?

Is Klara sentient? As we follow Klara’s thoughts and feelings, it becomes harder for the reader to argue that she’s not. While one could conjecture that her feelings of concern for Josie result from her programming, many of her reactions appear spontaneous and genuine. Her sadness at a beggar she thinks is dead or her feelings of happiness about a chance reunion on the street appear natural–even if Klara, herself, isn’t. In fact, at times, Klara seems more concerned about others than some of the book’s humans. 

And Klara seems self-aware. But she does seem to be missing at least one very human thing: self-concern. Klara will go out of her way to do something she believes will help Josie. However, she seems inhumanly unconcerned with things affecting her own being. Situations that humans would find extremely distressing, or worse.

As a solar-powered being, Klara’s ideas about and feelings toward the Sun cross over into the territory of religious belief. While charming, this was one part of the book where I had some difficulty suspending disbelief. It seems to me that an AI — one who some characters assume could be a tutor — might be programmed some knowledge of the cosmos. Enough understanding, at least, to know that the Sun doesn’t go to bed behind a barn on a nightly basis. Still, it’s an interesting exercise to speculate how, if a solar-powered AI created religion, it might look.

Kazuo Ishiguro, as usual, writes brilliantly, and this was an enjoyable read. I read it in a few sittings, and it kept calling me back to read more. However, I gave it 4.5 stars as I don’t think that it’s something that’s going to ask me to keep returning to it once read, as I did with The Remains of the Day.

Klara and the Sun Book Review

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