Kazuo Ishiguro may seem to be telling folkloric tales in his most recent books, but they are actually quite philosophical and contemporary. In Klara and the Sun we meet a number of AF’s on display in a shop in a city very like London. The Manager rotates the AF’s into and out of the front window hoping to attract the attention of a teen who will convince an affluent parent to buy an attractive friend, dedicated only to them. Klara and Rosa are both B2’s, with the newest B3 models hot on their heels. They follow all the manager’s directions to try to attract a buyer. A teenager named Josie admires Klara and tries to convince her mother to purchase her but then she disappears. Klara takes a chance and turns down a potential buyer because she is waiting for Josie to come back. Manager lets her get away with it, but tells her she will not be allowed to turn down a buyer again.
Klara is an unusual AF because she pays attention to what is going on around her and draws conclusions from what she sees in the store and outside the front window. She watches when the sun seems to resurrect the Beggar Man and the Dog and when it smiles on the reunion of long separated lovers. She is shocked when the Cootings Machine comes to park in the street with its 3 funnels that vacuum pollution and send it out into the air, turning day into night.
This is a future, perhaps a near future, when some children are genetically “lifted” in their childhood years if parents so choose. A social gap arises between those who are lifted and those who are not. Josie is “lifted.” Her best friend from a young age, and now her boyfriend is Rick, who was not “lifted.” For some young people being “lifted” can cause illness and even death. Josie is at the critical age when she is ill and she could die. That’s when her mother buys Klara for her. Klara goes home with Josie to their home in the suburbs.
I believe this is a story about soul; do we have one, can an AF have a soul, what is a soul. Perhaps Ishiguro is answering back to someone like Yuval Noah Harari who doesn’t put much stock in a human soul in his book Sapiens. To Harari we are animals, human but not “lifted” above any of the other animals on the planet. In fact, to Harari our big brains have been more of a liability than an advantage, especially to the planet we call home.
But Ishiguro may be suggesting that our soul may be a function of what we do, of how we live our life. If even a robot can do something that seems soulful, could believing in a soul prompt us to do better, to be less selfish. Klara undertakes a task that she thinks will cure Josie but she is unsure how her own abilities will be affected by the bargain she accepts and the sacrifice she must make to complete it. We can’t help but compare Klara’s optimism to the way Josie’s mom, Chrissie, gives in to the past experience she has had in this matter and sets a truly selfish and rather macabre plan in motion. If Klara had chosen to go along with Mother’s plan how would things have turned out differently, for everyone?
Do we have a soul? Do we build a soul by believing that we can affect the universe in positive ways? Is soul the same thing as character? Regardless of how you answer these questions or others you might arrive at, it is almost certain that you will find Klara an extraordinary AF indeed. This one speeds by. Make sure you stop and ponder the ideas as well as the story.