There’s a moment in “Klara and the Sun,” Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel since winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017, in which the protagonist, Klara, and another character, The Father, are discussing whether artificial intelligence may ever fully replicate what it means to be human. The Father is skeptical, and likens the human heart to a house with many rooms: “‘But then suppose you stepped into one of those rooms’ he said, ‘and discovered another room within it. And inside that room, another room still. Rooms within rooms within rooms.’” Klara — herself an AF (artificial friend) — disagrees, and thinks there must be a limit, a point where every aspect of a person can be understood.
This scene stands as a metaphor for Ishiguro’s entire approach to writing. His books are famous for all dealing, to various degrees, with the same themes: memory and the self. They do so from different angles and in different genres (this is his second foray into speculative science fiction, the first being 2005’s “Never Let Me Go”) but the journey is always the same: each book is another room in the same house.
If you are already a fan of Ishiguro, this is great news. You’re in safe, comfortable hands. Since 1995’s “The Unconsoled” — his mid-career “difficult” book — Ishiguro’s writing has become increasingly unembellished and more direct. It is perhaps maturity, a sign of a writer who has mastered his form and is now recrafting, refining. It is a superficial directness that is deceptively simple, as his books are often more about subtext than what is on the page.
“Klara and the Sun” is no different. This is a typical Ishiguro world: a melancholy place where people misinterpret each other, where much is left unsaid, where everything is on the brink of falling apart, but also where there is always a sliver of hope.
Set in a near future, where artificial intelligence robots are affordable but still novel enough to debate and cause alarm, the story centers on Klara entering the life of Josie, a sickly adolescent. Josie’s older sister has already died of some unnamed illness and her mother — The Mother, in Klara’s formal register — is gripped by the fear of losing her as well. The Mother buys Klara as a companion for Josie, ostensibly to assuage her guilt for working full time, and we follow Klara from the store into Josie’s home and their fraught family life.
In this sense it’s a classic “fish out of water” sci-fi story where the non-human narrator amusingly misunderstands human foibles and makes elementary mistakes about the nature of things that turn out to be enlightened nuggets of inspiration. Out of the mouth of babes, and all that. One central example is Klara’s worshipping of the sun, which she thinks is a powerful deity that sleeps in the barn on the horizon. It’s both a wry ribbing of the human propensity to invent supernatural narratives to explain the unknown and a clever piece of sci-fi insight: a solar-powered being would inevitably worship the sun, since it is literally the life-giver.
“Klara and the Sun” is a very contemporary book. As with all speculative sci-fi these days, the climate crisis is never far away, and the theme of othering — another Ishiguro favorite — is infused through every scene: Josie is othered by her illness; teenage neighbor Rick is bullied by his peers because his mother opted out of giving him genetic “lifting”; The Father has joined a “community” on the fringes of society that looks suspiciously like a white supremacist group; and, of course, Klara is an AF, a machine treated with contempt for being subhuman. Ishiguro is excellent at dealing with othering, and the frustration and loneliness that comes with it. One can’t help wondering how much moving from Japan to the U.K. at the age of 5 still underlies his choices and themes as a writer. Rooms within rooms within rooms.
One thing that is completely new is the lack of confusion around why a “literary” novelist would be writing “genre fiction.” When Ishiguro’s last novel, “The Buried Giant,” came out in 2015, much of the press focused on why a serious writer would engage with fantasy fiction, leading to one hilarious interview where he had to explain to a baffled critic that the dragon was just a dragon, not an allegory or literary device. Thanks to Ishiguro and other heavyweights like Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell, genre jumping — something film directors do all the time but is frowned upon in authors — is becoming normalized.
“Klara and the Sun” is both a new Ishiguro novel and a classic Ishiguro novel. If you aren’t already a fan then this book is unlikely to change your mind. But for the rest of us, the chance to explore a new room with an old friend is always welcome.
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