When I was young, I kept a large basket of stuffed animals, Beanie Babies, and Cabbage Patch Kids in the corner of my room. The Cabbage Patch Kids were hand-me-downs from my older sisters, and they had little outfits knitted, in an unusually sentimental gesture, by my grandma. There were too many for me to play with regularly, and I would sometimes lie awake looking at the basket and feeling guilty about their neglect. Once or twice, I assuaged this guilt by dragging the basket to the center of my room, sitting down next to it, and taking out one doll at a time. “I love you,” I would tell each in turn. “I’m sorry I can’t play with you more often.” Then I would put it back and take out the next, knowing that this would never be enough to make up for the weeks and months of abandonment.
Klara and the Sun—British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, and his first since winning the Nobel Prize in 2017—is narrated by a robot named Klara, created to serve as an AF, or Artificial Friend, to lonely children. The novel begins in an AF store, where Klara spends her days observing the passersby outside, trying to understand the human world she will one day join. While she is hopeful about her future, readers glimpse what might await AFs like her: Josie, who eventually buys Klara, promises her that she will live in her bedroom, “not in some cupboard or anything.” Later, at a party, two teenage boys threaten to throw Klara across the room, saying that their own Artificial Friend “lands on her feet every time” and hinting at the abuse many AFs may experience.
Although the early chapters focus on the exploitation of AFs, the novel gradually redirects our attention from Klara to Josie. Why is she lonely enough to want an AF in the first place? Ishiguro reveals that Josie too has been the subject of scientific experimentation. Along with other children from her social class, she has been mysteriously altered in order to become smarter, so as to be more competitive in the college admissions process. This “lifting,” as it is called, seems to have been directed by her mother, Chrissie, who hopes to secure Josie’s future in a world populated by the swelling ranks of the “post-employed.”
Despite its futuristic premise, Klara and the Sun is aimed at our present. It explores many of the subjects that fill our news feeds, from artificial intelligence to meritocracy. Yet its real political power lies not in these topical references but in its quietly eviscerating treatment of love. Through Klara, Josie, and Chrissie, Ishiguro shows how care is often intertwined with exploitation, how love is often grounded in selfishness. And this dynamic is not only interpersonal but central to today’s politics as well. Love, Ishiguro reminds us, is not always an antidote to exploitation and repression; it may even be the thing that makes us complicit in large-scale violence.
Ishiguro’s fiction has often explored the subject of complicity, but he has usually set these stories in a real or counterhistorical past. An Artist of the Floating World, published in 1986, features an aging artist reflecting on his participation in the Japanese imperialist movement. The Remains of the Day, which came out three years later, tells the story of a British butler who realizes that he has spent his life in the loyal service of a Nazi sympathizer. More recent works have also explored the forms of self-delusion that allow violence to flourish, but they’ve shifted from historical Britain or Japan to worlds of Ishiguro’s own invention. In his 2005 book, Never Let Me Go, he imagines a counterfactual 1990s England that triumphs over disease by producing a subordinate class of human clones whose organs are harvested. The novel is set at a boarding school where clones are raised by reformist liberal caretakers who give their young lives a veneer of normalcy but do nothing to challenge the organ-harvesting program that will eventually kill them.
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Of all of Ishiguro’s previous novels, Never Let Me Go is the one readers are likeliest to connect with Klara and the Sun. The narrator of Never Let Me Go, a clone named Kathy H., can be seen as the template for Klara. Both have been taught to please the people who exploit them, and both are keen to perform well at such a task. In both novels, readers are presented with a similar narrative structure: Ishiguro unspools his plot gradually by using narrators who themselves are only just coming to understand the worlds in which they live. In a particularly nice touch, the latter novel restricts its metaphors to Klara’s own restricted range of experience. While still living in the AF store, she reflects that her shifting emotions are “like the shadows made across the floor by the ceiling lamps after the grid went down.” Once she moves to Josie’s house, the sky is described as “the color of the lemons in the fruit bowl” or “the gray of the slate chopping boards.”
The differences between Never Let Me Go and this novel are as revealing as the similarities. Klara is almost immediately established as inhuman, but Ishiguro spends the rest of the novel humanizing her, helping us chart the development of her own complex inner life. In Never Let Me Go, we follow the opposite trajectory: When we meet Kathy and the other clones at the start of that book, we have little reason to believe they are anything other than normal human children; it is only as the story unfolds that we learn that they are clones and, as such, are viewed as inhuman by their society.
Ishiguro’s study of the way we dehumanize others—even those who are essential to our survival—has led critics to explore the radical underpinnings of his work. Writing in the New Left Review, Nancy Fraser notes that the novel should remind us of “those whom our social order…treats as spare parts—as sweatshop labour, as breeders, as disposable workers.” Mimi Wong adds that Never Let Me Go is a “masterpiece of racial metaphor.” While the race of Kathy and the other clones is never mentioned (and the film version casts them as white), Wong argues that their subordination mirrors both historical and contemporary forms of racism.
Klara and the Sun also allows us to draw similar parallels between Ishiguro’s science fiction and real-world exploitation. But there is one striking difference in the way these books depict oppression: In Never Let Me Go, the clones’ exploitation by humans hinges on people’s ability to dehumanize and forget them. Their lives are invisible to those who will one day use their organs. But in Klara and the Sun, the AFs’ exploitation hinges on people’s ability to humanize and know them. The AFs are harvested precisely for the kinds of human interactions they provide their human owners. While both novels consider the exploitation of so-called disposable workers, this book focuses on those we exploit primarily for emotional labor and care work—a timely commentary during a pandemic in which the essential workers who care for us are too often treated as disposable.
Anne Whitehead notes that in Never Let Me Go, empathy produces cruelty as much as care; empathizing with those close to us may be our justification for harming others. In Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro makes a related argument: When our affection for others emerges from our own loneliness and desire for connection, it may never shed itself of selfishness and violence. Josie empathizes with Klara enough to solicit her consent (“I don’t want you coming against your will,” she tells her at the store) and to treat her as a confidante and friend, but this kind of empathy is not enough to undo the uneven basis of their relationship. If Never Let Me Go demonstrates how easily we can exploit those we never have to see, Klara and the Sun shows how easily we can exploit even those we claim to love.
At the end of the book, Klara reflects back on a mad scientist character named Mr. Capaldi, who had “searched and searched” to discover any special essence that could distinguish human beings from AFs. Klara concludes that he was “searching in the wrong place.” There is “something very special,” she realizes, but it isn’t something inside us—a soul, a spirit, a consciousness. Instead, it is inside those who love us. Klara delivers this moral with full, nauseating sincerity, but it is in fact doubly tragic. First, this moral reminds us that Klara herself has been excluded from acts and feelings of genuine love, and second, it signals that she has not really understood the other characters in the novel, whose expressions of love are deeply flawed.
The limitations of human love are perhaps most visible in the relationship between Josie and her mother. Klara often tries to side with Josie, helping to steer their tense Sunday breakfasts away from “danger topics” like schoolwork. But Klara also becomes complicit in Chrissie’s cruelty toward Josie—a dynamic that first becomes apparent during a day trip to a waterfall.
Josie’s lifting has left her mysteriously ill and often bedridden. For this reason, she is thrilled when Chrissie promises to take her and Klara to a favorite hiking spot. But shortly before the much-anticipated trip, Chrissie tells Josie that she is too sick to go and takes Klara alone instead. Then, at the waterfall, Chrissie asks Klara if she will imitate Josie. In Josie’s voice, Klara tells Chrissie, “It’s okay, Mom, don’t worry. I’ll get well soon.” Klara is not only an artificial friend to Josie, then, but a substitute for her. To Chrissie, Josie herself proves to be a kind of doll, cherished but easily left behind or replaced.
The one meaningful relationship in Klara and the Sun—the one hopeful beacon of love—is found between Josie and a boy named Rick. They are neighbors who have grown up together and vowed to love each other forever, even though Josie is lifted and Rick is not. In a beautiful set of scenes, the two communicate their feelings to each other through what they call the “bubble game.” Josie, lying ill in her bed, draws figures—of herself, him, others—and passes them down to Rick, who sits on the floor at her bedside, adding speech bubbles to the drawings. Through this game, they discover the places where their interpretations of the world align and talk about the places where they do not. They discover a love that is defined not by one person impressing their desires onto another but by mutual understanding.
One of Josie’s drawings is covered with a tangled mesh of sharp-looking objects, with a “tranquil space” in a bottom corner where “the figures of two small people could be seen, their backs to passers-by, walking away hand in hand.” Klara is moved by this image, and she eventually comes to believe that Josie will be healed, if only Rick’s love is strong enough. She’s right, in one way. In the end, Josie does get better, but she and Rick drift apart. Unable to attend the same college after Josie’s lifting, they “show kindness to each other” but are “now preparing such different futures.” Even love cannot transcend the dynamics of class.
Rick’s final conversation with Klara may also lead us to wonder how real their love ever was. “Josie and I will always be together at some level,” he explains. “I know I’ll always keep searching for someone just like her.” One might, at first, read this as a romantic sentiment. But it also suggests that, for Rick, Josie is substitutable. Like Chrissie, who has Klara act as Josie when her daughter is sick, Rick will find someone else who can play the role of Josie in his life. If Klara concludes that the love of others makes human beings special, then it is disturbing to see that those who love Josie see little unique about her.
One of the most startling moments in Klara and the Sun comes when Rick’s mother, Helen, accuses Josie’s father—casually, over sushi—of having “fascistic leanings.” Typically, fascism in an Ishiguro novel is a bit like sex in a Henry James novel: a pervasive presence, but one that can only be hinted at or circled around. Indeed, the characters gathered at the table react to this damning charge much as one might react to an unexpected sexual joke. “Mum, for God’s sake,” Rick sighs, while Josie’s father reminds Helen that they cannot have such a conversation “in front of the kids.”
In earlier works like An Artist of the Floating World and The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro treated fascist violence as a half-repressed, unspeakable memory. Situated at what Francis Fukuyama called “the end of history,” these novels view the violent clash of ideologies as a thing of the past. As Ishiguro explained in his Nobel lecture, his generation “grew up against the backdrop of the great clash…between capitalism and communism and witnessed what many of us believed to be a happy conclusion. But now, looking back, the era since the fall of the Berlin Wall seems like one of complacency,” one in which war, inequality, austerity, far-right ideologies, and “racism, in its traditional forms and in its modernized, better-marketed versions,” have been left to fester and grow. Klara and the Sun is Ishiguro’s first post-Brexit, post-Trump novel, and it tackles rising far-right ideologies head-on; fascism, he suggests, is no longer unspeakable.
Indeed, it is only barely disavowed by the novel’s liberal characters. While Josie and Rick eat sushi with their parents, Rick’s mother explains that she once loved, and perhaps still loves, a man with similar fascistic leanings. “He always has done though I always tried not to notice…,” she trails off. For his part, Josie’s father defends his fascist allegiances by explaining that they give him a sense of belonging and community: “I’m sharing my life with some very fine people,” he explains. This may or may not be a reference to the supposedly “very fine people” Donald Trump saw marching for white supremacy in Charlottesville, Va., but either way, the exchange between these two characters demonstrates how our own loneliness may draw us toward violence or cause us not to notice it.
Ultimately, Klara and the Sun warns us against any naive faith in the power of love. We cannot trust that Rick’s love for Josie or Josie’s love for Klara will undo—or even challenge—the social hierarchies and the structures of power that define the modern world. Instead, we must do the harder work of recognizing the places where affection and violence produce each other, where love distracts us from fascism, where care shades into exploitation. Klara and the Sun is a story as much about our own world as about any imagined future, and it reminds us that violence and dehumanization can also come wrapped in the guise of love.