Reading Klara and the Sun

Klara is an AF (while I’m not sure that this is explicitly stated in the book, I think AF stands for Artificial Friend) and while this is a story told from the point of view of a robot, it really isn’t a robot story as we would traditionally think of one. There aren’t any immutable Laws of Robotics, orbital mechanics, or world-shaking new forms of social media; Klara exists in a world that should be familiar to us, and she may even be an unreliable narrator.

Klara has a couple characteristics that make you wonder how robotic she really is – she is very superstitious from the very beginning of the book, and she may be made from some form of fabric or have a casing that is very different from the usual plastic or steel we’d expect robots to be made from. She also has strange ways of perceiving or describing the world around her; while other characters frequently praise her skills of observation, her internal descriptions of the world around her leave the reader confused and unable to generate a clear picture of Klara’s experience – this is by design – Ishiguro does not want to leave the impression that this narrator could be mistaken for human.

The most interesting parts of Klara are her interactions with her human, Josie, a teenage girl. Josie is sick from an unspecified ailment, and Klara plays an important role as one of her caregivers. Josie’s mom, dad, and a neighbor also play vital roles that I should put under spoiler protection below. Before I get to that, Klara and the Sun is a great book – it makes you wonder and gives you a real sense of having heard a tale narrated by someone who wasn’t human – two thumbs up and recommended!

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Klara has a way of getting humans to do things that I wouldn’t expect a robot to be capable of: twice in the book, Klara asks a human for something that if I would think was unreasonable. Klara gets Rick to help her get to Mr. McBain’s barn, without even providing an explanation. Maybe she was aware that her superstition of the sun setting into the barn, making it a holy place, would be sillier than just asking without providing any explanation. I actually really enjoyed the feature of Klara’s superstition around the sun and its magical powers. Much of what people see as a reasonable belief stems from our tradition, our history, and growing up exposed to years of the same beliefs in our family and the groups of people that surround our family. If AFs are manufactured and not born, not inculcated with a belief system entrenched over the centuries and generations, they should develop belief systems about how the world works that are superstitious.

I’ve been thinking for years about how robots and computers are depicted as purely logical, and I don’t think that’s the most interesting avenue to pursue in robotic fiction, and I think it’s pretty likely that pattern-seeking machines, just like pattern-seeking animals, will be able to perceive patterns that aren’t really there, will find explanations that are comforting, even if they don’t experience comfort the same way I do. They’ll see pieces of information that could lead to an answer, and make the cognitive leap to the superstition, because a systematic examination of beliefs with doubt at the center is extremely difficult, and will be so for the pattern-seeking robot just as we observe its difficulty in the pattern-seeking human. Beliefs are often built piece-by-piece, rather than as a whole edifice: the science of skepticism is a work that must be imposed upon these beliefs that may have accreted over years and ages, and there’s no reason to believe that a machine built to see design (which AFs must be, in order to understand the motives of their human charges) will apply systematic skepticism unless there’s some need to program it to.

The other time Klara convinces a human to do something, it’s Josie’s dad, and Klara tells him that destroying the Cootings machine will help Josie. That’s outright exposure of the superstition here, but an important detail is that Josie’s dad is a fascist. I like Ishiguro’s boiling down (through a character’s dialogue) of fascism to a bunch of white guys with guns who are organized to do violence to immigrants and the powerless – while I’d prefer Umberto Eco’s 14-point definition, a novel has no room for such exposition, and the character correctly identifies Josie’s dad as a fascist despite his protestations that he isn’t. Fascists have two characteristics that are relevant to Klara’s request: they’re not overly concerned with avoiding violence and vandalism to the public good, and they have a strong weakness for Romantic narratives over rational ones. He’s both willing to destroy the Cootings machine (it’s not clear what the Cootings machine actually is, but it’s implied to be some sort of road construction equipment) and willing to risk Klara’s life/functioning to do it.

I’ve also got nagging questions about the Beggar Man from the beginning of the novel. Klara watches the police beat him terribly, and then sees him healed by the sun and getting up and walking away? Was he a solar-powered AF? Did Klara just imagine that the sun healed him to give the story a more pleasant ending? Who knows, but it is interesting food for thought.