Book review: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

How will things turn out for a thinking, lifelike robot who knows nothing about the world, after she’s purchased by a family whose reasons for buying her may not be as they appear? How will such a home appliance process ordinary, day-to-day conversations between family members and others, and then react to the gradual uncovering of the underlying motivation for her purchase? And how will the robot feel to be “with them but not of them”?

In Klara and the Sun, we get to see the world from the point-of-view of the robot. Klara is all innocence, an AF (Artificial Friend) who has few preconceptions about how people and things relate to each other. But from her place in a shop window at the opening of the book Klara notices one thing in particular: the apparent influence of the Sun on what is happening around her. She carries this memory with her as she applies her robotic sensibility to life with the family who take her into their home, as a friend for their sick child Josie.

I was attracted to the idea of reading another ‘robot novel’ – noticing how well this one was doing in the best seller chart – after having read and reviewed Ian McEwan‘s Machines Like Me a couple of years ago (this one has minor similarities but major differences). And of course the identity of the author made it a particularly enticing prospect.

British novelist, screenwriter, musician and short story writer Sir Kazuo Ishiguro OBE FRSA FRSL was born in Nagasaki, Japan, but moved with his family to Britain in 1960 at the age of five and adopted British citizenship in 1983. He’s widely recognised and honoured as one of the world’s leading authors of fiction and won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his novel (later filmed), The Remains of the Day. Reading his Wikipedia profile, it’s interesting to hear him describe his relationship with Japan, and how “I grew up with a very strong image in my head of this other country, a very important other country to which I had a strong emotional tie … In England I was all the time building up this picture in my head, an imaginary Japan”. This idea of ‘building up a picture’ strikes me as resonating very closely with the journey undertaken by Klara in this novel.

It doesn’t matter that the plot is quite flimsy, but … the very fact that it’s hard to describe goes to the heart of its uniqueness. Klara’s intense observations of people and her surroundings are certainly quirky; and yet they fascinate because they reveal to us automatic observations which we all (robotically?) make every day. She describes her first encounter with the inside of a car; she takes great interest in people’s body shapes; and the way people stand and arrange themselves into groups is, from Klara’s point-of-view, something of unusual significance.

Ishiguro weaves a wide range of themes and ideas into what appears to be a fairly straightforward tale in the opening chapter or two. Some critics have focused on the ‘love story’ element of the novel, but for me it was these oddnesses of a robot’s analysis and processing of scenes and relationships that sparked numerous reactions. Not much is made in everyday life of how people arrange themselves in groups, but Klara’s descriptions remind us that these configurations often act as a code with hidden significances. (The standard text on this field of study is Erving Goffman‘s Relations in Public1. I’m interested to see that the book is nowadays available for free as a downloadable pdf here). And the way Klara describes perceiving scenes, and even emotions, as being contained in ‘boxes’ jogged my thoughts not just about how AI processes images and text but also about cubism and maybe even linguistics. All very strange, but all interestingly unusual.

In Klara’s heliocentric world, things are slightly out of kilter. Klara over-analyses, whether about what people are saying, their ethical choices, their manners or their true intentions. She has obsessions, as with the Cootings machine which pumps out pollution, but at the same time is very like all of us.

And, despite having been created by humans (are we back in the world of Frankenstein?), she has an individual personality – though, following instructions, it becomes increasingly like that of Josie, the family’s sick daughter, with implications that drive the book’s latter stages …

There’s both drama and comedy, love and betrayal, a glimpse into the future and an examination of how, actually, we live right now. It’s multi-layered, it’s surreal, it’s sci-fi, it’s thought-provoking and – it’s well worth a read.


Kazuo Ishiguro: Frankie Fouganthin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


1 Erving Goffman, Relations in Public (New York, Basic Books, Inc., 1971)

Leave a comment

Filed under Arts, Book reviews, Science, space and astronomy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.