Book review and synopsis for Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, a literary science fiction novel told through the eyes of Klara, an android.
Klara and the Sun tells the story of Klara, a companion robot (called an "AF" or "Artificial Friend"). Told through Klara's eyes, the book opens with her in the store, waiting to be purchased. She eventually goes home with a sweet but sick girl named Josie and her mother.
As Klara learns about the world around her, Ishiguro reveals to us a semi-dystopian world in the not too distant future. And Klara finds herself discovering truths about people, difficult decisions they must make, and the complexities of love.
The three-sentence version of this: In the not-too-distant future, Klara is a solar-powered companion robot who is purchased by a sick girl, Josie. Klara goes on a quest to try to ask the Sun to heal Josie. It's soon discovered that Josie's parents have a secret plan to possibly replace Josie with Klara (if she dies), but Josie gets better instead.
In Part One and Part Two of Klara and the Sun, Klara is introduced as a solar-powered AF ("artificial friend"), which is a companion robot for children, being sold at an AF store. She bonds with a sweet but sick girl named Josie, who eventually comes back to purchase her. Klara moves in with Josie and her mother and meets Josie's best friend, Rick. Rick is less well off and is not "lifted" (which means he wasn't genetically modified as a child), and the "lifted" kids see him as inferior. We also learn that Josie had an older sister, Sal, who was also sick and eventually died.
In Part Three and Part Four, Klara believes the Sun can heal Josie's illness, and she asks the Sun to heal Josie. Klara believes the Sun dislikes Pollution (because it blocks out the sun) and offers to destroy a machine she has seen emit a lot of pollution (a construction vehicle) in exchange. Klara completes her quest, but she soon sees the machine has been replaced by a new one. Meanwhile, Klara learns that Josie's parents (Chrissy and Paul) are planning a "portrait" of Josie that is really a robot version of Josie. They want Klara to "learn" to be Josie so they can someday transport Klara's consciousness into robot Josie, in case Josie dies.
In Part Five, Klara knows she has failed to stop Pollution, but she asks the Sun to heal Josie anyway. She believes that the Sun is a champion of true love (based on seeing it shine brightly on a day she watched two people being reunited), and she assures the Sun that Josie and Rick's love is worth saving. (We also learn that Josie sickness was a possible side effect of being "lifted", and Sal died because of it.) One dark day, as Rick shows great kindness to Josie's mother even though she is cruel to him, the Sun suddenly emerges and Josie seemingly starts getting better.
In Part Six, the years pass and Josie is healed and headed to college. She and Rick have grown apart, since not being "lifted" like Josie has set them on two different life paths. Klara is given a dignified end of living out her "slow fade" in the Yard (a place where old machinery is placed), where she contentedly replays her memories in her head.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro is a “soft” science fiction book (dealing with the implications of science fiction without much emphasis on the science behind it). Ishiguro fans likely know that he’s no stranger to the genre, having penned other sci-fi titles in the past (The Buried Giant and Never Let Me Go).
In this case, Klara and the Sun set in a semi-dystopian world with two distinct classes of children: “lifted” and “unlifted”. Upper-class children also often have AFs, meaning “Artificial Friends” which are basically robot companions. Klara, our protagonist and the narrator of this story, is an advanced model, a 4th Generation B2 AF.
The ramp up of the plot takes a little time, since Ishiguro first has to establish the reality the book exists in. The book is set in the not-so-distant future where much of it is familiar, though there are a number of societal changes that Ishiguro gradually reveals small details of. Still, as far as world-building goes, it remains a fairly fuzzy sketch of what things could look like, since the details of the world are scant and leaves a lot to imagined by the reader.
Given that this is, of course, literary fiction, the book is probably more interior that your typical sci-fi novel. There’s more of a focus on the nuances of Klara’s perspective and the relationships around her. The plot does takes a distinctively Black Mirror-esque turns — if you’re familiar with that television series, there’s some major “Be Right Back” vibes. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t resolve that plot line in a entirely satisfying way, though that subplot does serve an important function in the book.
Klara and the Sun probes at complex questions about the relationships in the book and what it means to love or care for someone. In some ways, the book can be seen as being more about Josie (the girl for whom Klara is a companion), though viewing that through Klara’s perspective provides us with a refracted lens to view that world and Josie’s relationships. What Klara understands, and often more importantly what she misunderstands, provide the contours to this tale and are crucial to analyzing the themes and events of the story.
I don’t know if this book was intended as an illusion to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (I would guess yes), but it was certainly reminiscent of it in some ways. Plato’s Cave is about how people base their knowledge on their limited perception of the world. It illustrates it by imagining people chained in a cave seeing shadows reflected on the wall, unable to see they are not real objects but shadows cast by a fire they cannot see behind them. And if one were to manage to escape outside the cave, they might reach the conclusion that sunlight could blind them since their eyes had not yet adjusted. Similarly, Klara’s perceptions are severely limited by her experiences. Her relationship with the Sun and its light is defined by the conclusions she draws from her limited knowledge of it.
Overall, I enjoyed the writing in the book and felt that it kept my interest, but there’s a number of plotlines in this book that don’t feel fully formed. The resolution of the book makes sense when viewed simply as being Klara’s perspective, but leaves so many things unexplored that it feels disappointing nonetheless. I would say that this would be my main criticism of the book, though it’s hard to discuss in depth without spoiling the book.
Beyond that, there were other smaller issues as well. For example, the book is narrated from the perspective of Klara, who is a robot-slash-android. I thought most of it was good, though there were a few parts of the book that were less convincing to me.
Early on, Klara sees a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk with his dog, who she assumes is dead. When he awakes, she assumes that it is because the Sun has healed him. This all makes sense and is a charming example of how Klara tries to understand the world based on what she knows. Since Klara doesn’t need sleep and gets her energy from the Sun, she assumes humans do as well. As Klara sees more and learns more, she sometimes has to revise her assumptions about what she previously learned (which in the world of artificial intelligence is known as “machine learning”.)
However, later on, when Klara is taking care of a sick child who needs frequent rest, Klara still hasn’t pieced together that the man wasn’t dead. Given how intelligent Klara is and how she has seen the child sleeping and waking up, it seems odd that she still hasn’t applied her understanding of the concept of humans needing sleep to the man she once saw on the street reawakening.
It’s a relatively minor detail, but things like this made me feel like Ishiguro’s vision of his world wasn’t as fully thought out as you’d ideally like to see.
There’s also some plot contrivances that aren’t well explained. The plot is partially driven forward by Klara’s misunderstandings about how the world works. There’s not really a reason given why Klara feels she needed to hide away what she’s up to from the other characters — except that the plot no longer works if someone corrects her. Again, in the context of this book, this is a pretty minor point, but I thought it could’ve been executed better.
There’s also other little issues with portraying Klara’s robotic tendencies, like how Klara never speaks in second person (referring to someone as “you” as opposed to in third person). I understand this is meant to remind us that Klara is a robot, but from a technology perspective, it makes little sense. Programming in a second person perspective is not particularly complicated, especially considering how powerful Klara is as a computing device. It would make more sense for Klara to struggle with things like tone, sarcasm, metaphors, hyperbole or irony as opposed to something very basic like second person vs third person. I was disappointed in things like this since it seems to show a lack of understanding of the types of things AIs have trouble with.
Read it or Skip it?
Klara and the Sun is an interesting and relatively accessible, though imperfect, “soft” science fiction novel. I low-key enjoyed it, but by the end I was still hoping for something a little more to make me feel really enthusiastic about it. The unexplored parts of the book seem like a missed opportunity.
Some people will enjoy this book simply because it probes at some interesting questions when it comes to artificial intelligence and is written with a gently melodic tone that is pleasant to read. But I imagine many, if not most, will also feel at least a twinge of dissatisfaction with the ending. I would go as far as to say that none of the plotlines in the book are really explored fully.
I’d recommend this book to people who like “gentler” novels, who enjoy soft science fiction and who are used to reading literary fiction. If you’re someone who doesn’t typically read literary fiction, I should warn you that it’s a fairly interior novel, focused a lot on how Klara sees the world around her, and it leaves a lot of questions fairly open-ended. I think people who are accustomed to more literary books and who don’t mind some ambiguity will enjoy this one more.
The book is told from Klara’s perspective. In what way do you think this adds (or even detracts) from the story? Do you think this perspective benefitted the story and if so, in what ways?
Do you think Klara has feelings? What did you think of Rex’s comment that Klara (and other girl robots) are “greedy”?
At one point Klara wonders how she’d react if she were reunited with Rosa again after a long absence. Based on what we know of her, how do you think she’d react?
When Klara encounters the bratty kids, she thinks that they may not be unkind by nature, but that loneliness is driving their actions. What did you think about her assessment and about the behavior of the kids?
When the boys want to toss Klara around to test her landing and coordination abilities, what do you think of one of the girls’ statements that it’s “evil” to do so? Do you think it’s morally repugnant to act in such a fashion to a robot? Would it change what you think at all if it’s confirmed that they are designed specifically so that actions like that cannot hurt or damage the robot? What if it’s specifically marketed in a way as to inform consumers that doing so will not hurt that type of robot?
Do you think the same people who would treat a robot poorly are the same ones who would treat other people poorly? Why or why not?
The theme of loneliness and how different characters manage their feelings around it comes up frequently in Klara in the Sun. Why do you think Ishiguro focuses on this theme, and in what ways did you see it play into the story?
Throughout the book, Josie seems torn about being the type of person that society wants her to be and being who Rick or Klara want her to be. Do you think she handles this well? What do you think she sees acting the way society expects as part of being a “grown up”?
Klara, in her quest to understand the world around her, misunderstands some things. What are some of the things she forms incorrect assumptions about, why do you think Ishiguro writes it this way, and in what ways does this contribute to the story?
Occasionally, Klara’s vision becomes a series of boxes. What do you think these boxes mean and what does it tell you about how Klara processes information?
What do you think about the concerns that Paul and Chrissy have about the plan to turn Klara into Josie? Do you think the practical or ethical concerns would weigh heavier on you if you had to make that decision? Do you agree with their decisions, why or why not?
When asked about the difficulty of possibility to fully understanding Josie’s heart, Klara says that she thinks it’s possible, but then later revises that opinion. What do you think of this? Do you think it would be possible?
Who do you think loves Josie the most and in what ways do the characters love for Josie materialize in different ways?
Based on this book, what do you think Ishiguro thinks about the uniqueness of humans or of science’s ability to explain everything? What do you think of it? Why do you think each AF in Klara in the Sun has quirks to its personality and do you think if we created similar robots that would also happen?
What do you think about the world in which Klara in the Sun takes place? People who are “lifted” have a very different life than those who are not “lifted”. How does this compare to the world we live in? Do you think their system is good or fair? Do those two things mean the same thing to you? Is it efficient or the optimal way to maximize the use of the population’s talents and skills?
Why do you think Josie gets better?
Towards the end of the book, Mr. Capaldi asks if Klara would be willing to be taken apart so that he can study her inner workings, but Mother feels that Klara deserves better than that. Do you think for a robot that being taken apart is a less “worthy” end? Do you think for someone who cares about that robot that it makes sense to feel that it’s somehow “worse” for that robot?
At the end, Manager hints that Rosa had a worse fate than Klara. What do you think she means by that and what do you think happened to Rosa?
What did you think about Klara’s “slow fade” and do you think she was happy with it?
Without wanting to spoil the entirety of the book, I wish only to say that I believe your main criticisms of the book to be flawed. Having just read the book myself, I took away a different interpretation of Klara’s beliefs and behaviours – which does explain what frustrated you. In fact I think there are multiple explanations but at the end of the day – Klara is an unreliable narrator because she simply does not know everything about the world she inhabits. Once you accept this and you try to piece together information through her eyes, I believe you can come to see this novel as truly brilliant.
If somebody is being put off reading this book by the above review I would like to say actually – it’s a fascinating novel.
I believe the reason she speaks in third person is that AFs are programmed that way to limit human attachment. Given what we know of the ending it would be emotionally damaging if they were perceived as too human, therefore this type of speech makes sense.
I thought this book was about the future. About how pollution is killing people lkke Josie and Rick. And about how we are replacing people with robots but we can never replace what makes each of us truly unique. It was interesting that Klara is so well programmed that she really understands the subtlety of human interactions better than imperfect humans do. I wasn’t sure what “lifted” meant – did it mean gentically “improved “? I must admit that although Klara was empathetic and wise I was always aware she was a machine and for that reason found the book, though brilliant, to be less satisfying.
Hey Chris — I enjoyed your thoughts on this book! And yes, I’m pretty sure that being “lifted” means they’ve been genetically improved (but for a small number of kids, it has a side effect that causes them to get sick and die)
I completely agree with Alex. I found this book fascinating and to describe it as “soft” fiction and “flawed” vastly underestimates Ishiguro’s aims and skill. It is not intended to be a realistic portrayal of AIs, but deliberately explores this story from the perspective of an unreliable and limited narrative perspective. When that perspective is from the naive commentary of our essentially robot narrator, her observations are, like those of some children, quite startlingly insightful. There is so much pathos shown-I think we are deliberately supposed to feel a lack of resolution at the end-I found it quite disturbing how easily the family could “dispose” of Klara and I thought it raised some really interesting questions about our relationship to the environment, each other and to AI robots that could infact become more emotionally intelligent than human beings.