Saturday, May 1, 2021

Review of Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

I hope I'll never be forced to sit down and write a desert island list of books. There are simply too many choices. But a novel I would definitely consider is Kazuo Ishiguro's transcendentally magnificent The Remains of the Day. Putting the reader into the psychological shoes of a person/character and tying a perfect bow knot, before they know it the reader is also questioning their perception of reality; the self-imposed barriers we place on ourselves are no longer sub-conscious. It is the definition of sublime. And Ishiguro's catalog has only intrigued me since. Seeing that another novel was released in early 2021, I bought it sight unseen. How does it stack up?

A fable of sorts, Klara and the Sun is the story of the Artificial Friend, Klara. At the beginning of the novel, she stands every day in her shop's window, absorbing sunlight to power her batteries, and waiting to be bought. Observing street life through the window, she comes to a limited understanding of how human relationships work. Eventually purchased by a wealthy family, Klara goes to a home where she befriends a young teen girl in very poor health named Josie. An uplifted girl, Josie shows sparkles of intelligence but her physical condition is weak at best, a situation which Klara helps her through. Getting caught up in the relationships of Josie's home, Klara must use all of her learning and understanding to help Josie through her difficult time, if she can.

The opening third of Klara had me extremely worried. The touch and feel generic (in the context of a century's worth of science fiction), I kept wondering where Ishiguro would make his mark. Is this just Aldiss' “Super Toys Last All Summer Long” or Westworld again? But my concerns were unnecessary. Ishiguro does make his mark, and he does it like a graffiti artist's signature: uniquely.

What would seem incongruent in a story about AI and droids, one of the major themes of Klara and the Sun is belief. Belief in the broader sense not the religious, Ishiguro would seem to highlight this aspect of existence as critical. How Ishiguro develops this theme would spoil the story, so suffice at saying, like The Remains of the Day, the power of the mind, not to mention the manner in which the mind conflates reality with non-reality in a manner unique to the individual, continues to fascinate Ishiguro.

But there are certainly other themes. One is the haves and the have nots, particularly opportunities for physical and mental upgrades that technology and gene editing may someday soon make available. A second is the contemporary parent-child relationship (as opposed to the traditional). Josie's mother plays a key role in the story. Not always an empathetic role, there are strong echoes of the patterns of behavior we see emerging in modern society. Expectations outpacing reality, the mother disassociates herself from her role as mother without even knowing it. And lastly is the environment. While never directly stated, Klara spends the novel seemingly in a battle with cooling units. Where she is solar powered, global warming seems to have reached a point where mobile cooling units mechanically condition the air to help balance temperatures.

It's early in 2021, and there are a number of novels yet to be released in the year, but for now Klara and the Sun is lining itself up to be a 'best of' contender. Ishiguro's style is not to dazzle, rather to deploy a more sublime sense of narrative—to sneak up on the reader, imbuing them with theme and meaning in a way that makes them believe it existed all along. Dystopias may be a dime-a-dozen these days, but I think it's fair to say the novel would seek to put a ray of light through the darkness in a fashion significantly more relevant than a lot of the gimmicks in media these days.

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