‘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.’
Ishiguro’s Klara is set some time in the not too distant future and lets us compare two feats of engineering, Klara, an AF, an Artificial Friend, developed to be a friend for teenagers and the teenager in question, Josie. Josie who is “lifted”, that is to say as we learn near the middle of the book, genetically engineered, a choice her richer parents were able to make because if you’re not “lifted” you have no real chance of an education.
The story is told by Klara, from the beginning in the shop waiting to be bought, where we learn through Klara of her observations and deductions, Klara is a B2 as illustrated in the opening quote and of course has a very particular relationship with the sun which gives her all of her “nourishment”. Whilst in the shop window, Klara made two observations which were to form her vision of the world, firstly a machine working in the street outside which giving of large amounts of smoke temporarily hides the sun and secondly a drunk passed out on the street who comes around when the sun shines strongly on him.
Soon after being bought by Josie, Klara learns that Josie is very ill and may die (genetic engineering seems to be a risky business, Josie had had a sister that had died at her age and as we learn, if they manage to live through this age then they’ll be ok). So she tries to reason how to save Josie and thinks back to her earlier experience:
I thought too about the time the sun had given his special nourishment to beggar man and his dog and considered the important differences between his circumstances and Josie’s. For one thing many passers by had known beggar man and when he’d become weak he had done so on a busy street visible to taxi drivers and runners, any of these people might have drawn the sun’s attention to his condition and that of his dog. Even more significantly I remembered what had been happening not long before the sun had given his special nourishment to beggar man, the Cootings Machine had been making its awful pollution.
We learn that people think of AFs as having superstitions but we see through Klara that a partial understanding of the world around you can lead to this. Can the sun help Josie? Through Klara’s observations we learn of the toll of human suffering the technology brings, of people losing their jobs, of communities fighting back. More directly, firstly we see in the shop the differences between the AFs, each with their own personality and then hear Josie’s father wonder about the ironing out of differences between the lifted children:
Mr Paul is an expert engineer I said turning to face him, I was hoping he’d be able to think of something, but the father kept gazing through the windshield at the yard I couldn’t explain it to mosey earlier in the diner, I couldn’t explain why I hate Kapaldi so much, why I can’t bring myself to be civil towards him but I’d like to try and explain it to you Klara if you don’t mind, his switch of subject was highly unwelcome but anxious not to lose his goodwill I said nothing and waited I think I hate Kapaldi because deep down I suspect he may be right that what he claims is true that science has now proved beyond doubt that there is nothing so unique about my daughter, nothing there our modern tools can’t excavate, copy, transfer, that people have been living with one another for all this time, centuries loving and hating each other and all on a mistaken premise, a kind of superstition we kept going while we didn’t know better, that’s how Kapaldi sees it and there’s a part of me that fears he’s right.
Josie’s mother would like Klara to learn to be Josie, to replace her for a while if she were to die, to ease the pain. It of course never gets to this and as the book comes to an end, and Klara to the end of her useful life, her observations as to what makes a human individual and why she would not have been able to replace Josie ring true. Finally a whole AF life, for an exceptional AF to really understand humans.
A most enjoyable book well worth reading.
First Published in English as “KLARA and THE SUN” in 2021 by Faber & Faber.