Artificial Friends and Real Artificers

A Reflection on Kazuo Ishiguro’s "Klara and the Sun"

Reading a novel by Nobel laurate and Booker prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro is like walking down an interesting trail unaccompanied. There is not quite as much signage as might be desired, and the reader finally arrives at a small cave with room for one person to sit and ponder the journey. With only an obsolescence-plagued protagonist for company, one feels the full weight of Ishiguro’s worlds. The author does not merely portray loneliness, he effects it.

Some of us keep coming back for more, including Ishiguro himself. Readers may wonder if he believes he has finally solved the problem of loneliness with Klara and the Sun (2021). The book is populated with lonely people, but they seem to be really helped by Klara, an AF (Artificial Friend) selected as a companion by a girl named Josie, who suffers from a serious illness caused by genetic engineering. Klara stands out to humans as being unusually observant. She skillfully translates her observations into better understandings of the people around her, and Josie relies on Klara to navigate turbulence with her parents and friends.

Klara succeeds at this, and also figures out when she serves everyone better by disappearing into a closet. When she learns that her real purpose is to help not only Josie, but all those who live in fear of losing Josie, Klara risks her own life to meet this broader demand. She is the answer to the problem embodied in every previous Ishiguro protagonist. Klara can make sense of a floating world, she has no feelings vulnerable to being hurt, and she can even make a sacrifice of her own body without bringing on the horror of death. Klara cures loneliness perfectly, paying no price of pain herself, and therefore allowing those she serves to receive her cure without guilt.

More than an It, Less than a Who

An Artificial Friend without some plausible humanity is no better than a robot built out of cardboard and tinfoil. Ishiguro’s writing of Klara is astonishingly convincing on this troublesome point. Klara observes that her relationship with Josie has times of warmth and coolness. She refers every experience to her memory of other experiences that either explain the current situation or inform her future interpretations of human behavior. She describes herself as having fear or having excitement.

Some factors offset Klara’s human-sounding properties, such as references to her unusual field of vision, and the slow revelation that she is solar powered. Klara deciphers pathos by way of logos, but avoids the human failings of this method. She never concludes that a person’s inconsistencies indicate stupidity, malice, or hypocrisy. She simply tries to make things right, showing the courtesy each of us wishes to receive from everyone else.

The most unsettling aspect of Klara’s existential status is her religion. Klara is a believer in the Sun. Her understanding of the Sun’s power, interests, and benevolence norms all of her other perceptions. Klara’s perfect reproduction of human emotional processes is shown by slight but recurring “off-ness” and uncertainty. Klara as a religious adherent also shows incomplete understanding, disappointment, doubt, and awareness of all of these deficiencies.

Klara is, as the kids say, perfectly imperfect, which is the most human thing about her. What Ishiguru really builds in her world is an AI utopia. AFs solve the problem of human loneliness without introducing any harms to humanity. Students of science fiction will recognize the narrative crisis where the robot could go evil, but the thought never enters Klara’s mind. Her rationality is a bit inhuman—just enough to keep people from owing her anything—but never inhumane.

Author as Artificer

But Ishiguro is no slouch as a world builder. Not only is Klara artificial, Klara and the Sun is artificial. If Ishiguro does not account precisely for the miracle of science that allows Klara to be only insightful and good, neither does he account for every detail of her story. Klara herself is unable to quantify exactly what is good about the Sun. He is simply the Sun, the source of her life. She has a need for him that she never questions, or even quite recognizes. Her existence is implicit proof that the Sun is powerful and good.

When Klara’s duty as a Friend moves her to petition the Sun for help, she can ask for nothing more articulate than his “special nourishment.” And when the Sun appears to respond to her request, readers do not know how or why, or if the whole thing is just a coincidence. Certainly, it would be an unlikely and wholly unexplained coincidence. Certainly again, coincidences gain our attention by their unlikeliness and inexplicability.

There is a sense in which the question of Klara’s religion is as unsatisfying as Klara herself, but both of these things point back to a central question: does artificiality matter? Is there something about humans that is both immeasurable and real? If so, could Klara (or any form of AI) arrive at this pitch-perfect replication of humanity? Would this then allow the obliteration of human loneliness? Klara concludes that even her best occupation of this immaterial territory would fail, because an essential element of a human heart is its place in the hearts of others.

What, then, of the Sun? Is he truly omnipotent, beneficent, and interested in Klara? Does his place in the artificial heart of Klara make him real? Does it make Klara real, does it hurt to become real, do androids dream of electric sheep?

What kind of sheep do you dream about?

Ishiguro doesn’t answer these questions, leaving readers with mystery. Klara is a mystery; the Sun is a mystery. You, artificial reader, are a mystery. You did not make yourself, so you cannot solve your problems. Ishiguro has run narrative experiments on many kinds of human relationships and shown all of them wanting. To have an AF find company in someone more real than the “real” people around her is a bit of genius. It is the reason we keep finding ourselves back in his caves built for one.

But no one can last long in the cave. The chronic human problem of loneliness can be hacked at in a number of ways. A person can try to treat it by means of others whose artificiality equals his own, and is subject to the same glitches. He can kick the can down the road and manufacture his own companion, less glitchy but also less companionable. Or he could do something very strange, and follow the example of an imaginary robot in a fictional story: he could look to the Artificer that his own life and strength make evident, and see what may be on offer there.

is coauthor of LadyLike (Concordia 2015). She has written for a variety of websites, magazines, and books. Her day job is housewife, church lady, and school mom. 

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