Does the onlooker see more of the game? Klara and the Sun Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is not the first author to use the technique of examining a non-human’s reactions, thoughts and feelings to discover more about human thought and emotion, and perhaps in the end, to come nearer to knowing what is unique about a human being.

Ishiguro has created an android, an Artificial Friend or AF. Klara is sympathetic, engaging and considerate: she has to be – that’s how she’s programmed. Her story has poignancy and pathos – that’s how Ishiguro writes.

In Ishiguro’s near-future world, teenagers study from home, on mobiles, and rarely meet their friends, which partially explains the existence of AFs. Moving through the book a reader realises that this society has differences, even gulfs, between haves and have-nots, between those who have elected to have their children’s intelligence boosted, and those who either lack the means or do not wish to do so, between those who are employed and those who are not – possibly because they have been replaced with robots or other forms of artificial intelligence. Jodie, the daughter of a successful business woman, chooses Klara.

From the first phrase a reader is immersed in Klara’s viewpoint, and experiences the world through the filter of Klara’s interpretation. Klara’s way of recognising what she sees is to divide her view into areas or ‘boxes’, and then subdivide what she sees in each box into recognisable shapes, and then recombine them into an object that she is familiar with, maybe a person she knows. The process is like a drawing tutorial, or of course, computer facial recognition. Klara’s naivete charmed me.  But it was hard to believe a robot (or AF) who had sufficient intelligence and knowledge to help Jodie’s friend, a teenager who designed and made a flock of robotic birds, would not understand the differences in the way an AF depends on sunlight and the way a human does.

The book is written in the first person, so I was interested to see what pronoun other characters used when speaking about Klara. Even the group of teenage boys who objectify her as Josie’s new AF, consistently say she and her. It reminded me of how most people speak of babies and pet animals, whose gender may not be obvious. Usually, a speaker opts for either he or she, or avoids the dilemma by using a phrase like ‘lovely baby’ or ‘your dog’. In my experience most people avoid saying it, except, now I think of it, when talking about pet snakes or stick insects. I now have to go back to I, Robot (Isaac Asimov) and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Philip K Dick) to see what happens there.

Ishiguro suggests that one of the drivers for human actions is people’s fear of loneliness. One of the outcomes of Covid lockdown has been the increased number of pet owners, and questions are being asked about whether there is any danger these animals will be neglected when lockdown conditions cease. By the end of the book Ishiguro is asking what responsibility a human would have towards an AF once the human’s need for the AF has passed. I cannot forget that Anna Sewell asked a similar question (about horses) in Black Beauty. I like to think that another behaviour driver for many people is sympathy, even empathy, for non-humans – and that the appeal of characters like Ginger in Black Beauty, Boxer in Animal Farm, and Flush as described by Virginia Woolf, is justification for that belief. But maybe this is sentimentality, which is often characterised as being mawkish, or self-indulgent? I need to read more!

Will I re-read Klara and the Sun? I already have, and now I’ll certainly lend it to friends with a note inside saying ‘please return’.

Does considering human life through Klara’s viewpoint help me to understand more about human nature? It has helped me be more aware of which aspects in my own I want to nurture and which to try to eradicate.

About lifelonglearner

Teacher in Southern England enthusiastic about exploring ways to learn and teach, and evangelistic about sharing them. Specialism is Physics, but that's just a useful starting point.
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