Klara and the Sun book review: If robots could feel

Express News Service

Klara is a unique Artificial Friend (AF) with unusual insight and outstanding observational qualities. Companions for the youth, AFs get their nourishment from the sun’s rays. They are meant to help encourage in children empathy as well as a conscientious and studious attitude. Unlike most AFs, Klara carefully watches and absorbs the actions of passersby from the place where she is displayed inside a store. Often what she notices about human nature and the world outside disturbs and puzzles her. She tries to make sense of mortal concepts, and struggles to comprehend convoluted emotions, which she routinely encounters on the streets outside through the store window.

When an unwell, 14-year-old girl, Josie, purchases Klara, she begins to adjust to her new life in the family’s home. At the house, she finds a spot from where she loves to watch the last part of the sun’s journey for the day. It is while living with Josie that Klara further unravels several mysterious truths about human beings.

While Klara is programmed to think and feel like a human, human beings around her seem to be confused about whether to treat her as a person or simply a gadget. At an interaction meeting, young people give Klara commands as they would to a machine, mishandle her and test her coordination as they would with an object. She realises that youngsters can be erratic, fickle and hurtful; and they may make promises that they do not necessarily keep.

Further, Klara observes the extent to which humans, in their wish to escape solitude, make manoeuvres that are “very complex and hard to fathom”. Moreover, when lonely persons bare their hearts and vent their emotions to Klara, they little realise that she has sentiments of her own too. Ironically, Klara finds that individuals often experience a need to “prepare a side of themselves to display to passersby”—just as they might in a store window.

When the family asks Klara to “learn” Josie in all her entirety so that she may “inhabit” the body of an AF they are creating of their daughter—in order to “continue” her once she is gone, Klara realises that simply an impersonation of her mannerisms will not do the trick. In this context, the book brings up a relevant ethical debate: While science has proved beyond doubt that there is nothing more that “our modern tools can’t excavate, copy, transfer,” it involves something very deep to learn someone’s heart—and what makes each person special and individual. It is then that Klara makes a secret pact with the sun, seeking its special nourishment to cure Josie.

With eight acclaimed works of fiction to his credit, Japanese author Kazuo Ishiguro has been a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Booker Prize. His work has been translated into over 50 languages, and he was honoured with a knighthood in 2018 for Services to Literature. In this, his latest book, Ishiguro writes brilliantly in the first person of an AF—imagining what everyday occurrences, such as seeing the outdoors for the first time, sitting in a car and figuring out human beings, must feel like to a robot.Through Klara’s sophisticated understanding, he makes stark and poignant interpretations about the complicated behaviour of humans from the perspective of an outsider.   

In many ways, the book is also a realistic prediction about the increasingly isolated world that we live in. Needless to say, it’s disconcerting to envision a future where we will resort to technology to seek companionship and keep loneliness at bay. With Alexa and Siri already household names that many cannot do without, AFs are very well a potential possibility, especially in a post-Covid world where young people find themselves increasingly secluded and in need of camaraderie—whether authentic or simulated.

Klara and the Sun
By: Kazuo Ishiguro
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 307
Price: Rs 699



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