Klara, the narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s newest novel, is a solar-powered artificial robot friend who, as the novel begins, spends her days in a store for AFs, waiting for some child to come along and choose her. Each model of AF is known for specific qualities, and although Klara’s generation is not the most advanced generation and is known to have some minor power issues, it is also programmed to be more empathetic than AFs of later generations. And this proves to be an important quality when Klara is chosen by Josie, a preteen girl with chronic health problems.
Klara’s job as an AF is to keep Josie company and provide emotional support. In her commitment to the job, Klara also comes to want to help Josie with her illness, perhaps enlisting the aid of the Sun who powers and gives life to everything, something Klara feels within herself and observed from the shop window. And so she forms a plan.
One of the things I love about Ishiguro is that he tells books that seem straightforward on the story level, but that have complex characterizations and lots of emotional depth. To make a robot the emotional core of the story might seem to stretch his abilities, but Klara is fully convincing as a person with her own drive and desires. Her motivations may be programmed in, but she shows enough independent thought and feeling to make her desires matter. I wanted her to succeed because it would make her happy, not because it would be good for the humans around her.
Thinking about this book in comparison to The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, I find myself pondering the ideas of independent thought and motivation. Stephens the butler is a born servant, who seems to have sublimated his own desires to be a servant. And the desires of the characters in Never Let Me Go are rendered almost irrelevant because of the state into which they are born. Like Klara, Stephens and Kathy exist to serve. How they differ in their attitudes about their state and how the book seems to treat them narratively would make for an interesting comparison.
In the case of Klara, a lot about her thinking makes her different status clear. She sees the Sun as God, which makes intuitive sense, given that she’s solar powered. Her ways of thinking are literal, yet there’s a poetry to the fact that she sees the Sun as having emotion. She has free will, but it’s all directed to serving Josie. The other characters acknowledge that she has free will, but only up to a point. She can be used and treated in ways that would be abominable for a human, yet even there she’s given some degree of choice. She’s both free and not. Stephens can resist but doesn’t, and Kathy tries but finds she can’t. For Klara, the desire to serve is rooted so deep in her programming that do anything else would make her someone else.
I loved reading about Klara and pondering how and why her life matters and how and why every life matters. I love that Ishiguro makes me think and care and wonder.