If you are looking for a summer read, and are a fan of Kazuo Ishiguro, I heartily recommend his latest novel, Klara and the Sun. Full disclosure, I am a fan of his storytelling style, and his books often fit in nicely with the work of the CBC as we work toward our human future. In his book Never Let Me Go Ishiguro tackles the issue of human cloning by presenting us with a world where children live in an idyllic private English school and spend their days painting beautiful paintings. Little do the children know, they have been cloned by people who will call upon them when they need an organ donor – and then their usefulness will be completed. I reviewed this book here.
In Klara and the Sun Ishiguro tells his latest story through the voice of Klara, an Artificial Friend, (AF) to young 14-year-old Josie. An AF is a humanoid machine that is powered by the sun, or as Klara says she receives, “special nourishment” from the sun.
The story opens with Klara on display in a store with other AFs. She spots Josie and hopes that Josie will select her. That is not to be the case and Josie and her mother leave the store without purchasing an AF. Time passes and Klara wonders if she will ever leave the display. She has already been replaced by an even newer and better model of AF, the B3. But alas, one day Josie returns with her mother and convinces her mother that Klara, even though she is the B2 model, is indeed the AF she wants. The store owner explains that the B2 model specializes in empathy and Josie’s mother agrees to allow Klara to come home with them.
We soon find out that Josie had a sister who died of some undisclosed illness and Josie herself is quite ill. Klara sees part of her duty as Josie’s AF, is to bring the special nourishment the sun gives to help Josie heal. Josie’s mother on the other hand, has concocted a plan for how Klara can help her in her grief if Josie is to die. At one point, Josie is too sick to go on a special outing with her mother, so she takes Klara with her and comments on how she is not so lonely with Klara around.
The issue of artificial intelligence and robotics is addressed too as the story unfolds. Many people have already been “substituted”, meaning they have lost their jobs to AF’s. Josie’s father, an engineer, has been substituted and remarks that being substituted was “one of the best things to ever happen to me” since he is now able to focus on doing things he wants to do. At one point, Josie and Klara go to the theater and a woman complains that not only are the AF’s taking jobs, but now they are even taking seats away from people who want to attend the theater. But as we know from the beginning of the story, that even the AFs are just one model away from becoming obsolete and relegated to the trash heap.
Service is often a theme in the writings of Ishiguro. In Never Let Me Go the clones unwittingly serve their masters. In The Remains of the Day, the butler serves his master, a Nazi sympathizer. And in Klara and the Sun Klara serves Josie, a young girl with a serious illness. So, for you who are lovers of Ishiguro’s books, Klara and the Sun will not leave you disappointed. He writes beautifully and allows us to imagine the not-too-distant future of a world where artificial friends walk amongst us. What he shows us though, is that while AFs may make nice companions they will never replace human friendships.
- Jennifer Lahl, MA, BSN, RN, is founder and president of The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network. Lahl couples her 25 years of experience as a pediatric critical care nurse, a hospital administrator, and a senior-level nursing manager with a deep passion to speak for those who have no voice. Lahl’s writings have appeared in various publications including Cambridge University Press, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Dallas Morning News, and the American Journal of Bioethics. As a field expert, she is routinely interviewed on radio and television including ABC, CBS, PBS, and NPR. She is also called upon to speak alongside lawmakers and members of the scientific community, even being invited to speak to members of the European Parliament in Brussels to address issues of egg trafficking; she has three times addressed the United Nations during the Commission on the Status of Women on egg and womb trafficking.