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Putting the human in humanoid: on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun

The arrival of a new Ishiguro novel is undoubtedly a main event in any year’s literary calendar. This month, the Nobel and Booker Prize winning author Kazuo Ishiguro released his eighth title, Klara and the Sun.

Ishiguro has long been a pillar of contemporary literary fiction. Though not without his detractors, many of whom critique the slow pace of his plots, it is in fact this unobtrusiveness that has garnered him applause. It takes a writer of incredible skill to let uncomfortable silences linger, to avoid the impulsion for melodrama and narrative twists exacerbated by our ever-diminishing attention spans, favouring instead the shock and the feeling of the real – of our social interactions and our cultural mores. And although Klara sets off to a slow start, that confidence is rightly apparent as the novel progresses, reflecting the gradual education of its narrator.

Klara is structured around the observations of its titular narrator, a humanoid ‘Artificial Friend’ brought into the household of her new human owners, the teenager Josie and her mother. Ishiguro expands on the classic sci-fi conceit of artificial intelligence entering domestic life (one that is becoming increasingly plausible), considering the possibilities of artificial emotion and affection in a world in which health and intelligence are increasingly optimised through genetic engineering. While such a wide narrative scope might appear burdensome, the novel’s lack of detailed exposition prevents it from getting weighed down by its own technological world-building. Klara credits its readers with the intelligence to reach their own conclusions by showing, not telling, how its futuristic setting works. We readers, like our narrator, must observe and have faith not only in our perceptions but in the intentions of those around us, even as they might appear to be selfish. The result is an immersive experience that privileges doubt and vulnerability, those most troubling and human of feelings.

The novel works as an implicit companion piece to what is perhaps Ishiguro’s most famous book, Never Let Me Go. Without diverging Klara’s secrets, this newer work delicately inverts the former’s exploration of how artificial life might enhance human existence – considering instead the implications of humanity’s messy emotions on artificial intelligence, and how these forms of sentience might coexist. Indeed, Klara is the latest product of a career that has always centred the complexity of human relationships and the dignity of consciousness.

This latest publication by one of the world’s most highly esteemed living writers is a work of quiet sensitivity that will reward patient readers with its prescient observations and curiosity – a book, I’m sure, that will reveal more of itself with every reading.

Image: Andy Kelly via Unsplash