Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro does not disappoint with this latest novel set in a technologically advanced society that feels not dissimilar from our own. We see and understand the world through Klara, an advanced and keenly observant Artificial Friend whose sole purpose is to help the child who owns her. Hopeful and haunting at the same time, Klara’s story leads to big questions: What qualities make a person unique? How do we value people and things in our society? What does it mean to love?
Here is the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who, from her place in the store, watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her. Klara and the Sun is a thrilling book that offers a look at our changing world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator, and one that explores the fundamental question: what does it mean to love?
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When we were new, Rosa and I were mid-store, on the magazines table side, and could see through more than half of the window. So we were able to watch the outside – the office workers hurrying by, the taxis, the runners, the tourists, Beggar Man and his dog, the lower part of the RPO Building. Once we were more settled, Manager allowed us to walk up to the front until we were right behind the window display, and then we could see how tall the RPO Building was. And if we were there at just the right time, we would see the Sun on his journey, crossing between the building tops from our side over to the RPO Building side.
When I was lucky enough to see him like that, I’d lean my face forward to take in as much of his nourishment as I could, and if Rosa was with me, I’d tell her to do the same. After a minute or two, we’d have to return to our positions, and when we were new, we used to worry that because we often couldn’t see the Sun from mid-store, we’d grow weaker and weaker. Boy AF Rex, who was alongside us then, told us there was nothing to worry about, that the Sun had ways of reaching us wherever we were. He pointed to the floorboards and said, ‘That’s the Sun’s pattern right there. If you’re worried, you can just touch it and get strong again.’
There were no customers when he said this, and Manager was busy arranging something up on the Red Shelves, and I didn’t want to disturb her by asking permission. So I gave Rosa a glance, and when she looked back blankly, I took two steps forward, crouched down and reached out both hands to the Sun’s pattern on the floor. But as soon as my fingers touched it, the pattern faded, and though I tried all I could – I patted the spot where it had been, and when that didn’t work, rubbed my hands over the floorboards – it wouldn’t come back. When I stood up again Boy AF Rex said:
‘Klara, that was greedy. You girl AFs are always so greedy.’
Even though I was new then, it occurred to me straight away it might not have been my fault; that the Sun had withdrawn his pattern by chance just when I’d been touching it. But Boy AF Rex’s face remained serious.
‘You took all the nourishment for yourself, Klara. Look, it’s gone almost dark.’
Sure enough the light inside the store had become very gloomy. Even outside on the sidewalk, the Tow-Away Zone sign on the lamp post looked gray and faint.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said to Rex, then turning to Rosa: ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to take it all myself.’
‘Because of you,’ Boy AF Rex said, ‘I’m going to become weak by evening.’
‘You’re making a joke,’ I said to him. ‘I know you are.’
‘I’m not making a joke. I could get sick right now. And what about those AFs rear-store? There’s already something not right with them. They’re bound to get worse now. You were greedy, Klara.’
‘I don’t believe you,’ I said, but I was no longer so sure. I looked at Rosa, but her expression was still blank.
‘I’m feeling sick already,’ Boy AF Rex said. And he sagged forward.
‘But you just said yourself. The Sun always has ways to reach us. You’re making a joke, I know you are.’
I managed in the end to convince myself Boy AF Rex was teasing me. But what I sensed that day was that I had, without meaning to, made Rex bring up something uncomfortable, something most AFs in the store preferred not to talk about. Then not long afterwards that thing happened to Boy AF Rex, which made me think that even if he had been joking that day, a part of him had been serious too.
It was a bright morning, and Rex was no longer beside us because Manager had moved him to the front alcove. Manager always said that every position was carefully conceived, and that we were as likely to be chosen when standing at one as at another. Even so, we all knew the gaze of a customer entering the store would fall first on the front alcove, and Rex was naturally pleased to get his turn there. We watched him from mid-store, standing with his chin raised, the Sun’s pattern all over him, and Rosa leaned over to me once to say, ‘Oh, he does look wonderful! He’s bound to find a home soon!’
On Rex’s third day in the front alcove, a girl came in with her mother. I wasn’t so good then at telling ages, but I remember estimating thirteen and a half for the girl, and I think now that was correct. The mother was an office worker, and from her shoes and suit we could tell she was high-ranking. The girl went straight to Rex and stood in front of him, while the mother came wandering our way, glanced at us, then went on towards the rear, where two AFs were sitting on the Glass Table, swinging their legs freely as Manager had told them to do. At one point the mother called, but the girl ignored her and went on staring up at Rex’s face. Then the child reached out and ran a hand down Rex’s arm. Rex said nothing, of course, just smiled down at her and remained still, exactly as we’d been told to do when a customer showed special interest.
‘Look!’ Rosa whispered. ‘She’s going to choose him! She loves him. He’s so lucky!’ I nudged Rosa sharply to silence her, because we could easily be heard.
Now it was the girl who called to the mother, and then soon they were both standing in front of Boy AF Rex, looking him up and down, the girl sometimes reaching forward and touching him. The two conferred in soft voices, and I heard the girl say at one point, ‘But he’s perfect, Mom. He’s beautiful.’ Then a moment later, the child said, ‘Oh, but Mom, come on.’
Manager by this time had brought herself quietly behind them. Eventually the mother turned to Manager and asked:
‘Which model is this one?’
‘He’s a B2,’ Manager said. ‘Third series. For the right child, Rex will make a perfect companion. In particular, I feel he’ll encourage a conscientious and studious attitude in a young person.’
‘Well this young lady here could certainly do with that.’
‘Oh, Mother, he’s perfect.’
Then the mother said: ‘B2, third series. The ones with the solar absorption problems, right?’
She said it just like that, in front of Rex, her smile still on her face. Rex kept smiling too, but the child looked baffled and glanced from Rex to her mother.
‘It’s true,’ Manager said, ‘that the third series had a few minor issues at the start. But those reports were greatly exaggerated. In environments with normal levels of light, there’s no problem whatsoever.’
‘I’ve heard solar malabsorption can lead to further problems,’ the mother said. ‘Even behavioral ones.’
‘With respect, ma’am, series three models have brought immense happiness to many children. Unless you live in Alaska or down a mineshaft, you don’t need to worry.’
The mother went on looking at Rex. Then finally she shook her head. ‘I’m sorry, Caroline. I can see why you like him. But he’s not for us. We’ll find one for you that’s perfect.’
Rex went on smiling until after the customers had left, and even after that, showed no sign of being sad. But that’s when I remembered about him making that joke, and I was sure then that those questions about the Sun, about how much of his nourishment we could have, had been in Rex’s mind for some time.
Today, of course, I realize Rex wouldn’t have been the only one. But officially, it wasn’t an issue at all – every one of us had specifications that guaranteed we couldn’t be affected by factors such as our positioning within a room. Even so, an AF would feel himself growing lethargic after a few hours away from the Sun, and start to worry there was something wrong with him – that he had some fault unique to him and that if it became known, he’d never find a home.
That was one reason why we always thought so much about being in the window. Each of us had been promised our turn, and each of us longed for it to come. That was partly to do with what Manager called the ‘special honor’ of representing the store to the outside. Also, of course, whatever Manager said, we all knew we were more likely to be chosen while in the window. But the big thing, silently understood by us all, was the Sun and his nourishment. Rosa did once bring it up with me, in a whisper, a little while before our turn came around.
‘Klara, do you think once we’re in the window, we’ll receive so much goodness we’ll never get short again?’
I was still quite new then, so didn’t know how to answer, even though the same question had been in my mind.
Then our turn finally came, and Rosa and I stepped into the window one morning, making sure not to knock over any of the display the way the pair before us had done the previous week. The store, of course, had yet to open, and I thought the grid would be fully down. But once we’d seated ourselves on the Striped Sofa, I saw there was a narrow gap running along the bottom of the grid – Manager must have raised it a little when checking everything was ready for us – and the Sun’s light was making a bright rectangle that came up onto the platform and finished in a straight line just in front of us. We only needed to stretch our feet a little to place them within its warmth. I knew then that whatever the answer to Rosa’s question, we were about to get all the nourishment we would need for some time to come. And once Manager touched the switch and the grid climbed up all the way, we became covered in dazzling light.
I should confess here that for me, there’d always been another reason for wanting to be in the window which had nothing to do with the Sun’s nourishment or being chosen. Unlike most AFs, unlike Rosa, I’d always longed to see more of the outside – and to see it in all its detail. So once the grid went up, the realization that there was now only the glass between me and the sidewalk, that I was free to see, close up and whole, so many things I’d seen before only as corners and edges, made me so excited that for a moment I nearly forgot about the Sun and his kindness to us.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and other material that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, a moving tale by a contemporary literary master about the power of love to heal and forge connections even beyond the realm of human consciousness.
1. The setting of Klara and the Sun is sometime in the future, when artificial intelligence (AI) has become more integrated into human society. Which elements of the novel felt familiar to you at the time of reading, which felt hard to imagine, and which were easy to imagine as a possibility for your lifetime?
2. Klara is prized for her observational qualities as an Artificial Friend. How do the tone and style of her first-person narration help to convey the degree of her attention to detail?
3. Does the term “Artificial Friend” resonate at all with you now, as a contemporary reader in the age of social media and the internet? What’s the difference in the level of interaction between children and their “artificial” versus their real/human friends?
4. The details of Josie’s illness are kept vague. Based on what we learn from the conversations among Helen, Chrissie, Paul, and Rick about the choices parents make for their children in this world, how might that have affected Josie’s condition?
5. Sal, Josie’s late sister, is said to have died from a disease when the girls were younger. What shadow does that loss cast on the family and over the novel as a whole?
6. Before Klara goes home with Josie, Klara and the other AFs have a rapport with one another, especially with Rosa. What do these conversations, thoughts, and feelings suggest about the sophistication of the AI technology in the novel, or about the unknown depths of the AFs’ consciousness?
7. What does Klara’s connection to the Sun suggest about the nature of her inner world? Is her understanding of its power based mostly on what seems to be the plain facts of her existence—that she is powered by solar energy—or something deeper?
8. Rick and Josie carry on a quiet but intimate relationship through their drawings. What is unusual about their friendship and their plan for their future, given the social hierarchy for children based on their class and economic privilege?
9. Discuss Klara and the Mother’s trip to Morgan’s Falls together. How does the natural setting help the Mother to reveal some of her vulnerabilities and fears? Why do you think the Mother makes the choices she does for her daughter?
10. Discuss the scene at the diner with Helen, Rick, and Vance. How are these concerns about a child’s ability to succeed, and the measures that people will take to alter those outcomes, similar and different from what happens in society now? Were those efforts to win Vance’s favor fruitful in the end? What might Rick have been able to do to advance society’s dependence on technology had his drone development and other engineering been supported?
11. Consider some of the ways that the characters in the book socialize: the “quick coffee” with the Mother and Josie, the kids’ “interaction meetings,” Josie and Rick’s drawing meetings, and the sessions Josie has with Mr. Capaldi. How did you interpret the tone and atmosphere of these moments of connection between humans?
12. What was your opinion on the plan to turn Klara into an avatar of Josie? Who would have benefitted most from Josie being able to “live” on in another form? Would you have made the same choice for your child or a loved one in the same situation?
13. Klara and Paul share a moment of concern and consideration regarding her ability to learn Josie’s heart, which he describes as: “Rooms within rooms within rooms . . . No matter how long you wandered through those rooms, wouldn’t there always be others you’d not yet entered?” (216). What do you make of Klara’s response about the finitude of such metaphorical rooms? Would you say, in your own experience, you’ve been able to explore and learn all the rooms of your own heart, or another person’s?
14. Would you describe the relationship between Klara and Josie as love? Where did you notice what seemed like genuine love to you in the novel?
15. The novel engages in an important conversation about the harm that is being inflicted on the planet through the symbol of the Cootings Machine. How do the events of the novel comment on the value of nature to the health and well-being of humanity, and even to nonhuman beings?
16. What did you make of Klara’s personification of the Sun, particularly in her final plea to save Josie? She observes in the layers of glass “that in fact there existed a different version of the Sun’s face on each of the glass surfaces . . . Although his face on the outermost glass was forbidding and aloof, and the one immediately behind it was, if anything, even more unfriendly, the two beyond that were softer and kinder” (273). Have you ever experienced nature and other nonhuman entities in a similar way? What value does this have in our ability to experience compassion for each other?
17. What did you think of the place where Klara is sent after Josie is finished with her? What does this bring up about the moral and ethical considerations of integrating more AI into society? Did her fate bring to mind that of any people you know?
18. Who, in the end, seems more human to you—the people in the novel, or the AFs?