The Best Friends are Artificial – Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun

by Varun Gauri

The narrator and main character of Ishiguro’s new novel is Klara, an Artificial Friend (AF, for short). In other words, she’s an artificial intelligence, a robot, a machine. Klara’s job is to befriend and care for a sick young teenager, Josie.

Why would Josie, or any human being, want to befriend an artificial intelligence?

To being with, Klara is “really cute.” Her hair is “neat and short.” Not only does she resemble a human, Josie observes, but Klara looks French! Klara is also “really smart.”  She has “many unique qualities,” perhaps foremost “an appetite for observing and learning,” unlike many of the other AFs, especially the ones that have all the latest technical advances but which people don’t seem to take to. For these reasons, Josie instinctively picks out Klara at the AF store.

Klara’s descriptions of human life are direct and novel. The reader notices her language, which, as James Wood observes, powerfully makes the real truly strange, defamiliarizing, and thereby renewing, our perceptions of the world. For instance, she repeatedly acknowledges the sun not for its warmth or the lovely shadows it casts, as a human narrator might, but for the sun’s “patterns” and its “nourishment,” as a a solar-powered machine would, one imagines. Her accounts of human emotions are alternately astute and bizarrely precise: “My impression was that the Mother was at that moment the most lacking in tension I’d witnessed since my arrival.” Klara is especially attuned to the ways in which loneliness creeps into human life, and says this about the importance of Josie joining her mother for morning coffee before the mother leaves for work: “I understood then that if she failed to join the Mother for the quick coffee, there was the danger of loneliness creeping into her day, no matter what other events filled it.”

The metaphysical instability in Klara’s being, the question of whether Klara has a self, creates awkwardness. Josie’s father doesn’t know how and whether he’s supposed to greet her; a family friend wonders if Klara  is a “guest at all” or “do I treat you like a vacuum cleaner?” A few of Josie’s obnoxious teenage friends debate grabbing Klara by the wrist and throwing her across the room to test her coordination skills, until one says “that’s evil,” and Josie’s friend Rick intervenes. Most excruciatingly, Josie’s mother’s treatment of Klara (I’m trying not to give away the plot here) is both loving and exploitative, the poignancy intertwined with the ambiguous status of Klara’s “heart,” or soul.

At the same time, Klara’s emotional life appears more transparent, and perhaps happier, than that of her human friends; and this quality appears related to her enigmatic, airy self. While Josie and her mother fight over her illness, Rick and his mother clash over his limited ambition, and Josie’s parents fight over their daughter’s future, Klara, upon seeing two taxi drivers nearly come to blows, says:

I tried to imagine me and Rosa getting so angry with each other we would start to fight like that, actually trying to damage each other’s bodies. The idea seemed ridiculous, but I’d seen the taxi drivers, so I tried to find the beginnings of such a feeling in my mind. It was useless, though, and I’d always end up laughing at my own thoughts.

It is a wonder to Klara that human beings, such as Josie and Rick, or Rick’s mother and her ex, are tender with one another for a period, yet behave antagonistically and vindictively in another. Klara attributes these misunderstandings to the complex emotional acrobatics people undertake to circumvent loneliness: “Perhaps all human beings are lonely. At least potentially.” Meanwhile, Klara does not appear troubled by the way people compare her to other AFs, or even by Josie’s cutting remark, to her friends, that she should have gotten one of latest models instead of Klara. Klara reflects on Josie’s comment with understanding:

Not only had I learned that ‘changes’ were a part of Josie, and that I should be ready to accommodate them, I’d begun to understand also that this wasn’t a trait peculiar just to Josie; that people often felt the need to prepare a side of themselves to display to passers-by – as they might in a store window – and that such a display needn’t be taken so seriously once the moment had passed.

For human beings, on the other hand, it’s hard not to take these “store window” emotions seriously, and personally, because, for reasons of personal and social survival, people are constantly assessing the intentions, the “shape,” of the people around them, and of themselves. People adopt these “shapes” because they need to fit into society in the way, Klara says, she sees “insects hovering . . . nervously exchanging positions, but unwilling to abandon their friendly clusters.”

Josie and Rick play a game in which Josie draws cartoons and Rick fills in the characters’ thought bubbles. One of Rick’s thought bubbles triggers their expectations of a future together, and the vague “plans” that linger unspoken between them; when Rick writes the phrase —  “The smart kids think I have no shape. But I do. I’m just keeping it hidden. Because who wants them to see?” — the differences between them are surfaced; Josie and Rick’s friendship deteriorates. Klara isn’t surprised, as she has intuited that the bubbles “represented the thoughts, sometimes the speech, of the picture people, and that as such, [Rick’s] task carried some danger.” Interpreting one another is a dangerous game, one that risks loneliness.

Klara doesn’t experience this need for a shape, in relation to other people, because all her experiences, as an AI machine, are fragmented, or potentially fragmented. At crucial moments, her visual field is partitioned into boxes, which causes the “shapes” (or selves) around her to disintegrate or merge or reform, making navigation difficult. As Klara is walking to the barn on a crucial errand,

The field became partitioned into boxes, some larger than others, and I pressed on, conscious of the contrasting atmospheres between one box and another. One moment the grass would be soft and yielding, the ground easy to tread; then I’d cross a boundary and everything would darken, the grass would resist my pushes, and there would be strange noises around me, making me fearful that I’d made a serious miscalculation . . .

Even the sun, like a deity for Klara, becomes partitioned when reflected through a series of glass surfaces — “what I might at first have taken for a unified image was in fact seven separate ones superimposed one over the other as my gaze penetrated from the first sheet through to the last.” Klara knows her self to be a partitioned being. This is what allows her to carry herself lightly, and to behave generously, even to the point of sacrificing her own well-being for Josie. Klara’s generosity arises from the knowledge of a partitioned self, releasing her from the need to hold onto her self tightly. In other words, the artificiality of her experience —  the knowledge of her own constructedness — is precisely what makes Klara a good friend.

And yet. Despite Klara’s knowledge that selves are fragmented and unreal, that people change, that love is fleeting, that the sun shines impersonally and indifferently on all, she makes a special plea on behalf of Josie and Rick, for the sake of their happiness. Klara actings lovingly, on behalf of selves that aren’t real, and for the sake of teenage love, which can’t last. A friend of Josie’s mother, a scientist, believes this kind of special pleading, this wish for partiality, prayers for special treatment on behalf of ourselves and our loved ones, which all human beings engage in, is an old prejudice:

Our generation still carry the old feelings. A part of us refuses to let go. The part that wants to keep believing there’s something unreachable inside each of us. Something that’s unique and won’t transfer. But there’s nothing like that, we know that now. You know that. For people our age it’s a hard one to let go. We have to let it go, Chrissie. There’s nothing there.

Klara becomes a source of hope for her friends. She knows her special pleadings are wrong and keeps them to herself (her only deception in the story), as if embarrassed. She also knows that Josie, like all human beings, can’t do without partiality, personal love, all those old feelings, so she decides, in this fable, to do what it takes to maintain hope and optimism for Josie and her friends and family, among them Rick’s mother, who is deeply moved, and seemingly speaks for them all: “Oh you darling robot! I do so hope you’re right.”