I’m a huge Kazuo Ishiguro fan, so you can probably imagine how excited I was when I found out a new book of his was out. The prospect of actually reading Klara and the Sun1 got me to agree to write a book review in The Walleye again after so long away. I figured that not only would this provide a bit of healthy pressure to get me reading it immediately rather than just adding it to the pile of books to neglect for years, but also that, after so much experience writing in that format, it shouldn’t be too tall a task, so I should be able to fit it in reasonably well in spite of the new direction my writing’s taking. That said, I also hoped that reading the book would provide fuel for my essays. Typically, when I’ve written reviews in the past, I’d accompany the brief piece in The Walleye with a longer review I’d post online, but this time I thought I’d try something a bit different and write a more focused, in-depth analysis on specific aspects of the story. And it thankfully worked out, for I was hit with the thought while reading that, while the aspect of Klara and the Sun questioning what, if anything, separates humans from thinking machines should be readily apparent, how the author uses this to comment on human society may be less obvious. While racism does factor into his commentary, I want to more specifically analyze what Ishiguro suggests about contemporary, working-class social conditions mainly through his portrayal of Klara and her interactions with others.
In Klara and the Sun, Klara is an Artificial Friend (AF), a thinking and feeling robotic humanoid intended as a youth’s companion, but seeing her as representing the worker opens up all sorts of interesting ideas and interpretations. Let’s start our analysis from the beginning: the AF store. The way Ishiguro describes Klara’s experience before she’s purchased evoked aspects of a working-class education or a low-level worker in a service industry trying to find her footing, for multiple important reasons. Though it’s likely not as severe a flaw as readers may initially think, the biggest weakness Klara has throughout the story is arguably her ignorance. This most strongly stems from her isolation, and we see how this develops and is maintained at even this early stage. Apart from her own assessments of her surroundings, her main source of information is other AFs, who presumably piece together all they know from their similarly limited perspectives. She does learn things from the store’s manager, but this is complicated. Manager is often impressed at Klara’s observational skills and understanding of the world around her, so she’s occasionally forthright in her explanations, but this appears to only be true of brief exceptions, where she quickly understands that a misstep occurs and she retreats back into cautious talk.i More often, she spends her time grooming Klara and the other AFs to be docile and obedient in order to appear desirable to prospective buyers and eventually, “properly” serve them.ii These concepts mirror working-class reality, where individuals are shaped into conforming and obedient subjects useful to the upper classes, starting early on and continuing throughout life.iii And the way Ishiguro describes this here is fitting. Workers will often listen to mentors who have reason to direct the worker’s development in a way that benefits owners over the worker, even to the worker’s detriment. The presentation of filtered information to this end will often be acceptable enough to the worker to maintain their docility, but occasionally something comes through that the worker mistrusts.iv In these cases, unable to get a reasonable explanation from the mentor, workers need to rely on the advice of peers who are unfortunately subject to the same sorts of conditions. In these ways, workers can arrive at ideas they find satisfactory, but their isolation and resulting ignorance means these ideas may be terribly misinformed.
Another concept that is presented early on in the story but is reintroduced throughout is the “othering” and belittling of AFs by humans, mirroring such behaviour occurring between classes in the real world. The first we encounter of this is Klara’s incredulity when a customer talks about an AF’s mechanical issues right in front of him as though he wasn’t there, and as though it seemed perfectly normal to the customer to do so. Klara experiences such treatment in time, as well as being subject to a myriad of similarly belittling exchanges.v It may appear that the occasional measure of kindness or respect somewhat offsets this, but this is complicated. Kindness afforded to Klara throughout the story is almost always accompanied with comments or actions that demonstrate things like the selfishness or emptiness behind the gesture. Humans will often ask her permission, which at a surface level appears respectful, but this is misleading. Klara will often not be in a position to refuse and the asking humans presumably know that she’s designed or trained to be helpful and agreeable. As such, they likely have an expected response in mind when they ask, meaning this should likely be viewed more as an illusion of autonomy. One of the few exceptions to all this is with Josie, Klara’s companion and owner, who appears genuine in her kindness, though this does change as the story progresses and Josie both gains personal resentment toward Klara and becomes more influenced by social norms.
Another person who has a unique relationship with Klara that to some degree goes against these norms is Rick, Josie’s best friend.vi Rick is more open and honest with Klara than most. We’re introduced to this behaviour during Josie’s interaction meeting, when he sticks up for Klara after the teens gang up on her cruelly and then the two speak alone afterwards. It becomes clear that Rick identified with Klara after the youths’ treatment of her mimicked their recent treatment of him. In this way, Rick is the important bridge between machine and lower-class worker in Klara and the Sun because Rick is both considered socially inferior to other youths and his experience holds many similarities to Klara’s—an important reason this analysis holds credence, suggesting that it was intended by the author rather than just a possibility because nothing contradicts it. Rick is the only youth we knowingly encounter who isn’t “lifted” (genetically altered) and, on account of this, he’s considered less capable in ways that have important ramifications. He is reminded that he doesn’t belong within polite society, not only from the very obvious, direct words of the parent at Josie’s meeting,vii but also by the way he’s treated by the other teens—Josie included—who seem to believe that they’re being kind to him even when they single him out, talk down to him, and talk about him to his face as though he isn’t there.viii But this discrimination runs deeper into society than just this kind of social prejudice: Rick’s prospects are limited, also on account of his genetics. Atlas Brookings, the university Rick’s repeatedly pressured to apply to, is presented as one of the few that accepts students who aren’t lifted and, even there, more than ninety-eight percent of the students are said to be lifted. The social interaction Ishiguro presents here mirrors superficial kindness masking hostility working-class individuals are subject to from those who believe they’re “better”—frequently belonging to the upper classes or those in positions of authority, more commonly when under pressure from or within the safety of their peers, as Ishiguro shows here—while the lack of prospects available to Rick directly relates to the opportunities withheld from the lower classes.ix
And this brings us back to the central theme: What, if anything, separates humans from thinking and feeling machines? The crux of Ishiguro’s discussion is put most plainly by Josie’s father, Paul, to Klara, whether there’s such a thing as “[t]he human heart. … Something that makes each of us special and individual.” While it’s possible that the author intended to pose this problem as presented on a superficial level, a class-based commentary also presents itself when considering how such an idea relates to both Klara and Rick. In Klara’s case, people appear to assume ways in which she’s different or lacks human traits largely due to preconceptions and superstitions they have regarding both robots and humans, though we also witness characters actively suppressing their thoughts when they begin to see these differences fall away.x As for Rick, by the nature of the difference between him and the lifted children being genetic or biological, it seems as though it’s deeper, demonstrable, and important. But he’s shown to be intellectually gifted, which suggests that it holds little practical difference between him and the others and, as such, may simply be another form of superficial justification for the discrimination he experiences. Both cases suggest that others are searching for reasons why they’re different—why they’re better—than our worker stand-ins, that they believe it from the get-go, that they’re able to convince themselves of this without good evidence to support it, and that they can easily disbelieve evidence to the contrary. Because this is directed only at our worker stand-ins, the implication seems to be that this is a common attribute of the upper classes, that they want to believe that something innate separates them from the lower classes and serves to justify the advantages they enjoy.
And yet, in spite of this, both Klara and Rick are offered paths of entry into the upper class, though each comes with its price. For Klara, it means revoking everything about who she is in order to replace Josie if she dies. For Rick, it means becoming and remaining submissive while his mother is humiliated in order to appease Vance, his mother’s contact who has influence in the selection process at Atlas Brookings. Both instances suggest something that Ishiguro has to say about class mobility. Submission is in line with the expectation of the worker as a docile and obedient subject, but here the author implies that climbing the social ladder can destroy the worker’s individuality—which Ishiguro seems to suggest the upper classes don’t believe in or at least don’t care about—and that disrespect for one’s roots may be intimately and uncomfortably tied to the quest for “a better life.”xi Both Klara and Rick ultimately reject their offers, but to different ends. In Rick’s case, he abandons the prospect of a formal education. Though we don’t get to see his eventual fate, he appears to be happy, stable, and moving forward in the world when we last encounter him. As for Klara, instead of simply performing her duty, she spends the majority of the story attempting to find a cure for Josie and, well beyond the expectation of everyone else, she succeeds. Despite doing more for her owners than they could imagine possible, she still ends up outliving her usefulness and is subsequently abandoned. Here, we see how the worker, no matter how capable they are and no matter what value they may have previously brought to the upper classes, can expect to be abandoned if and when they’re deemed no longer useful—when their labour is no longer marketable. Being a good employee isn’t enough to save you.
In the end, Klara is visited by Manager, who offers superficial comfort and reassurance that all is well and as it should be, reprising her role as a mentor who encourages ignorance and docility. The well-trained worker that she proved to be, Klara obediently accepts her fate.
i. Out of the few instances where this type of forthright discussion occurs between them, the most telling to me was when Klara noticed that some children who came to the window were briefly sad or angry. Here, Manager betrays that owning an AF, especially of the calibre sold at their particular store, is something of a mark of prestige or affluence prohibited to the lower classes––going against Klara’s understanding that an AF’s purpose is to avert loneliness, though Klara apparently fails to understand this.
ii. The importance of obedience above all else became apparent during the incident with the girl with short spiky hair, when she chooses Klara but Klara fails to respond appropriately and the girl ends up leaving with a newer model instead. Though Manager admits that Klara may have been correct in her assessment and that the outcome was positive, she still reprimands Klara for her disobedience. Here, we see the importance placed on obedience: It’s better to be obedient and lead to a potentially poor outcome than to have some measure of autonomy in order to bring about something better.
iii. This largely occurs through the influence of disciplinary techniques and systems, but is also caused by the maintenance of ignorance through the control of information by educators, employers, political leaders, and other gatekeepers of knowledge alongside contributive working conditions, such as the forcing of thoughtless labour. I plan to expand on these concepts in future essays.
iv. There are a small number of times Klara or other AFs are shown to mistrust Manager. The most apparent is that all the AFs sought the front alcove in the store above all other positions in spite of Manager’s repeated assertion that AFs were as likely to be chosen no matter where they were situated.
v. Klara is constantly exposed to a kind of low-level hostility, often presenting as humans talking down to her, ordering her around, or outright ignoring her presence, but two specific encounters come to mind as particularly striking. One is when Rick’s mother, Helen, muses aloud to herself in front of Klara that she doesn’t know how to greet her, wondering if it’s proper to treat her like a vacuum cleaner, and goes on to ask a favour of her as though nothing inappropriate occurred. The other is when Josie’s mother, Chrissie, refuses to believe that Klara has feelings even after Klara attempts to explain that she does. The former stood out simply by being a more extreme example of what seems to be shown to be relatively common human behaviour; the latter stood out because it came from someone who believed she was growing closer to Klara at the time, and later went on to believe, or at least suggest, that she could love Klara “like nothing else in this world.”
vi. Rick does periodically mistreat Klara or demonstrate that there are ulterior motives for his kindness. This often has more to do with his relationship with Josie than anything to do with Klara. For example, at the time of his initial coldness toward Klara, he mentions that Josie got an AF despite previously saying that she never would. When taken together with later events—such as his expressed concerns that Josie becomes a different person when interacting with different groups of people or his suggestion that she hides her true self during their “bubble game”—his poor reaction likely stems from his worries that Josie is changing, becoming more and more influenced by society and growing away from him.
vii. “You shouldn’t be here at all.”
viii. The sudden cruelty Chrissie shows Rick near the end of the story also suggests that her continual kindness toward him up to that point may not have been meaningful, that one of the few people from the upper class who we got to see treat him well may have been harbouring resentment toward him for some time.
ix. The case for class-based inequality in the UK’s education system is presented clearly in an interview with Diane Reay in The Guardian from 2017.2 A 2019 Maclean’s article by Shannon Proudfoot looks at the issue in Canada more specifically3—though in the case of the latter article, disadvantages working-class students have to contend with are glossed over more in favour of the psychological and emotional impacts that come with class mobility for those starting from within the working class.
x. Paul is explicit with Klara that he is afraid that humans don’t have anything in them to make them special, but he desperately wants to hold onto the belief that they do. Though it’s never explained overtly, I suspect that Chrissie’s horror she experiences when observing Klara impersonate Josie is similar: that she begins to see what little separates them, but she recoils in her refusal to accept it.
xi. And Ishiguro’s commentary here resembles what Proudfoot describes in the aforementioned Maclean’s article.3
- Ishiguro, Kazuo. Klara and the Sun. Knopf Canada, 2021.
- Ferguson, Donna. “ ‘Working-class children get less of everything in education – including respect.’ ” The Guardian, 21 Nov 2017. www.theguardian.com/education/2017/nov/21/english-class-system-shaped-in-schools. Accessed 1 Jul 2021.
- Proudfoot, Shannon. “What does it mean to be working class in Canada?” Maclean’s, 16 Jul 2019. www.macleans.ca/society/what-does-it-mean-to-be-working-class-in-canada/. Accessed 1 Jul 2021.