Book review: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (no spoilers)
–Reviewed by Nadeen Kharputly
The most recent novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, one of Britain’s most famed contemporary writers, doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for a book review for the American Association of Pet Parents. Klara and the Sun (2021) is a dystopia that invites us to meditate on the role of artificial intelligence in human societies. But stay with me; this novel has profound implications for how we think about companionship, particularly in the context of human and non-human animal relationships.
The novel is set in an unnamed city in a distant future and is narrated from the perspective of Klara, an Artificial Friend (AF) who is adopted into a human family of two (a mother and daughter). We don’t quite know exactly what Klara is or what she looks like, just that she is an advanced artificial intelligence device with humanoid features. AFs exist solely to provide companionship for families, particularly young people. This is a novel that’s set so far in the future that people – at least the characters we meet – are somewhat isolated from one another, and children in particular need to have “interaction meetings” in order to receive socialization. In this rather dismal context, AFs serve an essential function as companions.
At the beginning of the novel, we find Klara waiting in a shop to find her “forever family.” The first section of the novel is long; Klara spends a great deal of time describing the daily happenings of the shop while she waits to be purchased by a family. Already the initial premise feels familiar to anyone who has worked in the adoption or rescue sector, because the period of time in which Klara is waiting for her forever home is long and nerve-wracking. Each potential encounter with a prospective family makes us hold our breath. A significant amount of tension is built into this section of the novel, and I felt it especially as someone who has worked to get dogs adopted. There is great relief when Josie, a sweet young girl, shows up and chooses Klara as her companion, even though she has the option of selecting an AF with much more advanced technological features.
But at the same time, there’s also something very peculiar about Klara’s new family. Because the narrative is from Klara’s point of view, we don’t have full insight into exactly what’s going on until about midway into the novel (and I’ll spare you the spoilers here – if you want to find out exactly what the deal is with Klara’s new family, read the novel!). Klara has exceptional observation skills, and the narrative is written in a way that highlights both her tremendous insight into the world of human interactions and relationships and her naïveté about more existential issues, like illness, death, and divine presence. The novel begins with Klara learning from her human family, but it ends with the family learning from her intensely hopeful view of the world.
The novel’s non-human perspective is precisely what makes this story so powerful. It’s less of an action-driven narrative and more of a story about human nature from the perspective of a non-human character. Because the story is from Klara’s point of view, we as readers follow Klara’s journey as she learns more about the world around her. Early in the novel, everything that Klara knows lies in the confines of the shop’s four walls. When she leaves the shop to join Josie’s family, the narrative opens up to the newness of everything around her, such as the first moment that she experiences what it’s like to stand outside.
There’s even a memorable scene when Klara goes to a scenic waterfall area with Josie’s mother and sees a bull in the distance. Having only ever seen bulls depicted in magazines, Klara is filled with dread; the sight of the bull makes no sense to her, and she’s convinced that something terrible is about to happen. Klara’s fear seems misplaced to us and the humans around her, but it also invites us to step outside our human-centered perspective and understand just how peculiar and frightening the world can be to a non-human being. This moment in particular got me to reflect on Patricia McConnell’s work-a behavioral expert whose dog-training expertise is based on centering and understanding the world from the dog’s point of view (rather than from a human-centered perspective). Her advice is grounded in an empathetic view of how overwhelming our world can be to a creature who has no understanding of our constructs. Rather than training our pets to adhere to our norms, shouldn’t we also try to understand their perspective so that we can gain a better understanding of who we are and how to best inhabit this world alongside other species?
Klara’s perspective is valuable in that regard because it offers us a way of understanding how companionship might be experienced from a non-human point of view. Many of us, particularly here in the U.S., consider our pets to be members of our family. But we don’t really have insight into how exactly our pets understand their place in our homes and families. What does companionship mean, really, when humans and non-human animals occupy entirely different realms, in terms of cognition, emotion, and even physical stature? That’s one of the central questions that Klara and the Sun left me with. I certainly didn’t intend to read this novel with human and non-human animal companionship in mind, but by the end I interpreted the story as a powerful reflection on companionship from a perspective we don’t normally consider.
Genre: narrative fiction, speculative fiction, dystopia, contemporary literature
Who should read this book:
Anyone interested in thinking about companionship broadly through the lens of literary fiction, or about human and non-human animal relationships through an ethical lens (specifically re: AI and technology)
Who should not read this book: anyone who isn’t interested in speculative fiction, anyone who wants very concrete details about the fictional world presented in the novel
The takeaway: the story is told through the perspective of a non-human character, encouraging us to think about our world – specifically the concept of companionship – through a different perspective
Nadeen Kharputly is an unrepentant dog lover. When she’s not hanging out with her best boy Wiley, she’s an educator and researcher whose expertise is in contemporary American literature and culture. She grew up in Kuwait and lived in California before moving east to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, where she spends plenty of time in nature.