Klara and the Sun

Klara and the Sun

by Miriam R. Kramer

Whether ancient Greeks who believed in Helios riding his chariot across the sky, or Egyptians worshipping Ra, king of the Egyptian gods, humans have drawn inspiration and attempted to increase the fertility of crops and animals by venerating different gods of the sun since our beginning as sentient creatures.  Spring has arrived in the northern hemisphere, and with it the earth’s eternal renaissance of blooming flowers and riotous fauna emerging after a fallow, frozen period. From now on we live the lengthening days until our sun-drenched summer solstice. The writer Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, recently released the novel Klara and the Sun, a subtle, beautiful science fiction novel about a complex robot of delicate understanding whose love for the sun helps her find ways to bridge the uneasy gap between our tendencies to cross ethical boundaries in our quest to advance science and the marvels we can achieve through testing those boundaries.

Klara is a Girl AF (Artificial Friend), on sale in a store in an unnamed city at an unnamed time. Boy and Girl AFs are available for purchase to children of higher social status with wealthy parents to monitor the children’s health, keep them from being lonely by offering their children companionship, while encouraging them to succeed in their studies. In Klara’s store, she tries to recognize not only visual patterns and engage in simple conversations with other AFs and “Manager,” but also move closer to the window, where she can examine human behavior.

While AFs are droids, they are also made to be unique and therefore more like humans than early robots. They are even individual to some extent within their particular models. Unusually perceptive and observant, Klara distinguishes herself to “Manager” as a highly intelligent droid, quick to put the puzzle pieces of her observations together and use them as building blocks for increasingly sophisticated levels of understanding. Solar-powered, she follows the paths of the Sun throughout the day, watching his patterns across the floor and tracking his daily disappearance over a building in the window. She craves his touch and watches him to find a way to predict what she sees as his own patterns and whims in pouring his “nourishment” across his surroundings.

When a child comes up to the window and talks to Klara, she is allowed to respond and obey the proper rules of etiquette by looking the child in the face and responding as a way of encouraging the child to buy her. Josie, a girl who comes from a high-status family, has been “lifted,” meaning “genetically altered” to give her higher intelligence and therefore better prospects towards upper mobility. The downside for Josie is that the alteration has made her prone towards illness. Her older sister, Sal, had passed away after being lifted.

As Josie talks to Klara, Klara relies on an unusual sense of intuition to see that she is the right AF for this lonely, sickly girl. Josie promises her that she will be able to watch the Sun disappear under the horizon instead of at the top of the building across the street, and that they will, in effect, track the Sun together. Unlike most AFs, Klara asserts her own will, refusing to encourage another child to pick her until Josie returns to the store. When Josie and her stressed, unhappy mother return to the store, the mother also must be convinced that this AF can learn everything there is to be learned about Josie, for reasons to be revealed.

When Klara returns home with Josie, she becomes a part of the household in one way while holding herself in reserve to watch it and begin to understand emotional complexity. Already prone towards, and we assume programmed for, empathy, Klara’s skill and intelligence lies in being able to not only recognize emotions but also begin to understand how several can co-exist at the same time.

She also has at least a limited understanding or feeling of symbols that evoke feelings, from seeing a bull in a field as a symbol of destruction or a view of smoky “Pollution” emerging from a machine as a disgusting death force cutting off the Sun’s ability to heal and grow those in his path. Her simplicity of viewpoint sometimes makes her more observant and straightforward than her human family, and better able to brush aside the blinders humans place on themselves by viewing the world through their own insecurities and passions.

As she tells the story of her existence viewing Josie, Josie’s beloved friend, Rick, and Josie’s divorced parents, among others, Klara describes a level of delicacy and formality to her desire to give privacy to Josie, whose loneliness in part stems from taking lessons by herself with only a tutor giving her instructions over an oblong (smartphone or tablet). Josie’s peers are forced to come together for semiregular social interactions intended to make them better able to attend college en masse. They have been genetically edited to become better versions of their natural selves, but in the process have become isolated and less able to relate naturally to one another.

While she cannot put herself in the place of fully inhabiting Josie and her family’s emotions, Klara understands how to react to them in the best interests of Josie, even to the detriment of herself. In fact, Klara herself has a determined personality and optimistic viewpoint. As an AF she is AI (Artificial Intelligence) at a later stage of advancement than we currently know. In her simplicity, she worships the Sun as a god, the way earlier civilizations worshipped it. She looks to it for the solutions to Josie’s health and happiness, ascribing to it qualities such as goodness and benevolence.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s skill is immense. Even as he allows us to infer Josie and her family’s emotions through Klara’s formally put yet still empathetic understanding, he reminds us of her status as a robot in showing how she views the world through engineered eyes. The physical objects of her gaze disintegrate into boxes, planes, funnels, cones, and even jagged shapes whenever she becomes disoriented under physical pressure or her own limited version of emotional stress. Yet she can pull herself together regardless, and even selflessly pursue Josie’s welfare, by recognizing human beings’ love for one another as the main reason the Sun she worships should grant humanity the “nourishment” that is her own lifeblood as a solar-powered AF.

Klara and the Sun is a novel of tremendous beauty, power, and poetry. For a book presenting so many complicated ideas, it is very approachable. Ishiguro brings up much-discussed questions of bioethics and the ethics of artificial intelligence while offering no simple solutions. What aspects of genetic engineering or artificial intelligence are morally acceptable or necessary, and what aspects of so-called progress move us backwards? Is Klara more authentic in some ways than her Homo sapien owners? Are her values healthier and more indicative of less advanced but happier communities? Is Josie and her family’s society, in which genetically modified “lifted” children are considered hierarchically superior to those “unlifted” better for humanity? Is love the human quality that cannot be quantified and reduced, equivalent to the Sun in its power and ability to engender health and happiness? Can love be felt by a machine? Is self-sacrifice as human or healthy a quality as self-interest?

Ishiguro means for us to feel the tension between viewing Klara as a B2 series Artificial Friend or a quasi-person with the empathy some human beings have trouble feeling. Without being able to judge her value system, I find Klara to be the humanity in the machinery. She is ironically primal, an archetypal disciple worshipping her one and only God, the Sun. As a highly advanced example of artificial intelligence, she is willing to sacrifice herself to achieve the goals that make her human family’s lives worth living.

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