Klara and the Sun

What was Ishiguro trying to do with this unconvincing robot tale?

An author can use robots in lots of ways. Too often they are just another monster, the threatening and unnatural beings who excitingly menace the protagonist or the whole of humanity. Very rarely an author explores how the robot mind might work – difficult, because we really have little idea of how a humanoid robot might achieve conscious thought. Often the robot merely thinks like a naïve and/or over-logical human. (It never falls into a trance or comes out with inexplicable nonsense, the way real-life computers sometimes do.) Some of the best stories use the robot as a means of reflecting on the human condition – the film Blade Runner, for example (you might claim Frankenstein was similar in that respect).  I really don’t know what Klara, Ishiguro’s companion robot in this near-future story is for. (Spoilers for low.)

She is like a naïve human in many respects. Somehow solar-powered, she thinks of the Sun the way a human might a god, invoking its power and help. Her view of the world, if I understand correctly, is split into frames, though she has a view across the frames, so you’d think a good programmer would easily iron that issue out. Her mind, however, is neither interestingly strange in itself nor an illuminating analogue of the human. Her story, as the companion of Josie, a girl made ill by the genetic improvement therapy now common, is ultimately inconsequential except for what it tells us about human reactions to robots. The trouble is, what it tells us is inconsistent and unconvincing.

Perhaps the least believable thing is the way people go along with Klara. She hatches a mad scheme to help her family based on her weird ideas about the sun. They willingly help her execute this plan, which is partly nutty superstition and partly criminal, without ever demanding to know what she’s up to or being given any explanation. At some points they profess an extraordinary readiness to accept Klara emotionally as an actual family member; but once Josie has gone to college, they deposit her, still fully conscious, in a dump.

I said the story is set in the near future, but some things are odd. Klara is bought from a big, old-fashioned store in the city centre – they still exist? People seem to be using tablets but calling them ‘oblongs’ for some reason. Most of the kids have had their minds enhanced by genetic therapy, but they talk and act like dim-witted normal ones, actually less sophisticated in their speech and behaviour than the one kid who missed out on the therapy. Maybe that is fairly believable after all.

It’s a mildly engaging story with some thought-provoking passages, but I don’t know what we are to take away at the end of it.