Klara and the Sun: A Surrealist Dystopian Novel

A book review for Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. Warning: may contain spoilers.

Klara and the Sun

Klara and the Sun is a dystopian science fiction novel set in a future where social caste is determined by genetic engineering and “artificial friends” are used to keep kids company. The story is told through the eyes of Klara, an artificial friend (AF) chosen to befriend the sickly but upper-caste child Josie.

What makes Klara and the Sun unique among dystopian novels is its subtlety. At every turn, Mr. Ishiguro resists the temptation to exposit on the concepts which make the world dystopian, preferring always to show and not tell, very comfortable with leaving details unsaid. The book reminded me very much of another Japanese author, Haruki Murakami. Both Mr. Murakami and Mr. Ishiguro employ surrealist themes that make the reader question their understanding of the world’s rules. Some readers may find this jarring, but I found it refreshing. Ultimately, details about the world are secondary because the book is not primarily about its dystopianism. Dystopia is only the backdrop to a much more personal story about relationships, love, and identity.

Warning: Spoilers ahead

Like Gattaca, Klara and the Sun envisions a genetically stratified society. In Klara, parents who can afford to may “lift” (read: genetically modify) their children to give them enhanced academic ability. Lifted children have access to elite educations and careers. Children whose parents choose not to lift them (or cannot afford to) face discrimination and limited prospects. But the lifting is not without risks—some children get sick and some die as a result of it. Such is the case with Josie, whose mother increasingly worries about her health.

Klara and the Sun explores the mimicability and replaceability of humans. Unbeknownst to Josie, her mother has an ulterior motive for choosing Klara to be her AF. Klara is exceptionally observant, especially with regard to human behavior. The mother, worried that Josie will soon die, has chosen Klara to be a potential replacement. Egged on by the ghoulish scientist, Mr. Capaldi, who believes that there is nothing inherent in humans that can’t be mimicked by machines, the mother asks Klara to observe Josie’s mannerisms so that she can “continue” her. Klara, in her innocence and eagerness (or perhaps, nature) to serve, obliges.

Klara herself is the source of much of this book’s themes and tensions. It is through Klara that the book’s surrealism comes out. Klara does not see the world as we do. Aspects of her sensory experience defy explanation. She also experiences the Sun in a mystical way we can’t easily comprehend. One day, Klara observes a beggar who she thought was dead wake up after exposure to direct sunlight. She is convinced that the Sun has power to heal Josie and she devotes herself to convincing the Sun to do so.

The book explores what it means to love. Though artificial, Klara works harder and sacrifices more for Josie than any other character. More than Josie’s mother, more than her father, and more than Rick, her boyfriend. Klara is utterly selfless. And yet, she does not bat an eyelid when asked to potentially replace Josie. The juxtaposition of Klara’s utter devotion to Josie and her cool willingness to replace her gives the reader pause. In the end, Josie does not die. Whether it is because of the Sun or not is left to the reader’s imagination. After Josie grows up and everyone has moved on, Klara is relegated to the same fate as any other appliance: the scrapyard.

The final point the book makes is about identity. In the scrapyard, Klara meets her old manager, the one who sold her to Josie’s family. They catch up, and Klara reflects on what she was asked to do:

“Manager, I did all I could to learn Josie and had it become necessary, I would have done my utmost. But I don’t think it would have worked out so well. Not because I wouldn’t have achieved accuracy. But however hard I tried, I believe now there would have remained something beyond my reach. The Mother, Rick, Melania Housekeeper, the Father. I’d never have reached what they felt for Josie in their hearts. I’m sure of this, Manager.”

“Well, Klara, I’m glad you feel things worked out for the best.”

“Mr. Capaldi believed there was nothing special inside Josie that couldn’t be continued. He told the Mother he’d searched and searched and found nothing like that. But I believe now he was searching in the wrong place. There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her. That’s why I think now Mr. Capaldi was wrong and I wouldn’t have succeeded. So I’m glad I decided as I did.”

Klara teaches us that our identity is not our own. Our identity also exists in the minds and hearts of others. Even if there was nothing inherent in us that couldn’t be imitated, we still couldn’t be replaced because our identity rests outside ourselves. By that same token, we can’t simply will a change in our identity—it belongs to others as much as to ourselves. In a culture that says identity belongs to the self, this is a lesson worth heeding. For Christians, we are reminded that identity ultimately belongs to God.

It took me about 6 hours to finish this book. Mr. Ishiguro writes in spare but elegant prose that makes for a brisk read. I highly recommend this book to anyone.

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.