Kazuo Ishiguro was a social worker before he was a novelist. Between 1979 and 1982, he worked at West London Cyrenians, a charity that provided support and accommodations to the homeless. While there he applied, rather on a whim, to a new creative writing program at the University of East Anglia. Upon graduating a year later, Ishiguro returned to Cyrenians. He tried to wake up early and write for ninety minutes before work, but found this increasingly difficult as his job grew more demanding. Luckily an editor at Faber had already bought his first novel. Published in 1982, A Pale View of Hills was a notable success, earning him a Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and a place on Granta’s list of Best Young British Novelists. Then twenty-eight years old, Ishiguro quit his day job in order to write full time.
Though Ishiguro has said in more than one interview that working with the homeless influenced his fiction, he has also been careful not to write about his social work directly. This is in part because, as he admitted a few years ago, “I always felt vaguely guilty that I learned so much [then] that helped me in my fiction writing.” Yet social work is an implicit theme throughout his fiction. From his first novel to his eighth and latest, Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro considers what it means to care for and attend to others, and what happens when that attention gets abused, withdrawn, or distorted. The emotional labor of care—and care institutionalized as labor—forms a repeating central drama around which Ishiguro’s plots turn, regardless of the genre he is writing in.
In The Remains of the Day (1989) and The Unconsoled (1995), the intense devotion of butlers and bellboys to their work eclipses what might have been more meaningful personal relationships with family and lovers. Christopher Banks, the detective in When We Were Orphans (2000), forgoes romantic fulfillment in a misguided commitment to the abstract cause of, as he puts it, “trying to save the world from ruin.” Ishiguro’s most explicit depiction of the welfare state, in Never Let Me Go (2005), in which young clones briefly act as “carers” before donating their organs to ailing humans, imagines care work to be nihilistic at worst and weakly compensatory at best. His novels stage the contradictions between society and self, collective labor and individualist pursuits, feeling for a group and feeling for yourself. They are cautionary tales about good intentions.
This is no less true of Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro’s first book since he won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature. Completed just before the pandemic, the novel is eerily prescient, taking place in a future where jobs are in decline, social conflict is on the rise, and children increasingly stay at home, taking virtual classes over their “oblongs.” It depicts isolating times of technologically mediated distances and dwindling material resources. Enter Ishiguro’s eponymous narrator, Klara, a solar-powered robot programmed to be an Artificial Friend (AF) to a human child.
When Klara and the Sun begins, Klara has not yet found her human. Or rather her human has not yet found her: “It’s for the customer to choose the AF,” chides the manager of the store where Klara and other robots are sold, “never the other way round.” This rebuke comes after Klara refuses, Bartleby-like, to engage yet another interested buyer—a demurral, the manager correctly suspects, based on Klara’s belief that she has already promised herself to a fourteen-year-old girl named Josie. “Children make promises all the time,” the manager informs Klara. “But more often than not, the child never comes back. Or worse, the child comes back and ignores the poor AF who’s waited, and instead chooses another.”
This becomes one of many lessons Klara picks up during her time inside the store. Unlike Ishiguro’s other narrators, who carry the historical trauma of, say, war or fascism, Klara begins as a blank slate. Here are the novel’s opening lines:
When we were new, Rosa and I were mid-store, on the magazines table side, and could see through more than half of the window. So we were able to watch the outside—the office workers hurrying by, the taxis, the runners, the tourists, Beggar Man and his dog, the lower part of the RPO Building.
The language here will be familiar to anyone who has read Ishiguro: simple, descriptive, conversational to the point of banality. Like a modern version of Plato’s allegory of the cave, Klara and her fellow AF Rosa first come to know the world through the sharp limits of their storefront window frame. Looking outside, the solar-powered Klara thinks of the Sun as a source of “special nourishment” and “kindness”—not just for herself, but also for humans.
Klara starts out as what kids these days might call “pure,” her only baggage the preprogrammed objective to befriend a lonely teenager. This is a labor of love, the manager reminds her, that is not founded on reciprocity or choice. But it’s a lesson that Klara doesn’t internalize well. Even in the store, she is noted for having a “unique…appetite for observing and learning,” which recursively alters her programming, making her even more empathetic, more caring. She’s not like other robots. Yet weeks pass with no sign of Josie, while newer models of AFs continue to arrive, gradually displacing poor Klara to the back of the shop.
Just when the situation appears beyond hope, Josie does return for Klara, though not before warning her ominously that “some days I’m not so well.” Josie’s anxious mother initially considers buying one of the upgraded B3 models, which “are very good with cognition and recall,” but can “sometimes be less empathetic.” They eventually settle on Klara, a “remarkable” B2, the manager reassures them, rounding out part 1 of the novel in what feels like triumphant resolution. What happens next is far more insidious—indeed, far more banal—and ultimately far worse than that happy reunion would seem to forecast.
Klara is the first of Ishiguro’s novels to be set in the future (the science-fictional Never Let Me Go was set in an alternate past), near an unnamed American city. Ishiguro claims to have been inspired by 1920s Precisionist paintings of the pre-industrial Midwest, though the novel’s atmosphere strongly evokes our postindustrial present. Josie and her mother live in the countryside, secluded from the thrum of the growing urban underclass that hovers at the edges of the novel. (Even more marginal is Josie’s largely absent father, a once talented engineer who was “substituted” by robots and now lives far away in a survivalist community.)
Josie’s mysterious illness, we soon learn, is an unintended side effect of being “lifted”—a euphemism for gene editing that makes children more academically competitive. As an AF, Klara was made in order to keep a sickly lifted child company. (Josie’s next-door neighbor and childhood sweetheart Rick is, for instance, “unlifted”; his mother, a widow and British expat, decided against having Rick undergo the operation owing partly to these medical risks.) Yet for all these science-fictional trappings, Klara feels strangely realistic in its everyday descriptions. It presents a world of rural imagery, drenched with an uncanny lack of action, filled with anxious adults, listless children, and friendly robots.
Ishiguro originally envisioned Klara as a children’s book, a “very sweet story,” before his daughter Naomi advised him that it would traumatize young readers. Instead, the novel unfolds as a thwarted bildungsroman: the portrait of the robot as a young girl whose early self-education in the store gets interrupted when she is purchased by the real girl whom she must now befriend. At Josie’s house, Klara learns that her education might come to involve an absorption of Josie’s very identity. In this way, the story shares DNA with Never Let Me Go, in which clones’ lives are cut short in order to prolong those of humans. Ishiguro’s earlier novel is also narrated from the perspective of a care worker: a clone named Kathy H. who tends to other clones in the process of piecemeal organ donations, before she too eventually joins them. Yet as grim as that sounds, much of Kathy’s account is devoted to nostalgic reminiscences of happier childhood days, before she learned of her fate. Klara is denied even that narrow fulfillment: she has always known exactly what her job is.
In becoming Josie’s AF, Klara is also isolated from the AFs she had befriended in the store, Rosa in particular. “I found strange for a while not only the lack of traffic and passers-by, but also the absence of other AFs,” remarks Klara upon arriving at Josie’s house. “I realized how much I’d grown used to making observations and estimates in relation to those of other AFs around me.” Having known only the store, Klara struggles at first to navigate her new domestic life. Josie turns out to be “not so well” more often than not, and she is frequently confined to her bed and sometimes even “too weak to go down in the mornings to the Mother’s quick coffee” (Klara’s robot coinage for morning coffee). Klara’s role throughout all this is to keep Josie company, which frequently consists of watching the young girl sleep.
Besides Josie and her mother, there’s a live-in housekeeper named Melania (Klara refers to her as “Melania Housekeeper”) who is deeply protective of Josie and constantly reminds Klara that they are not the same. “Quit follow me AF get lost!” scolds Melania when Klara looks to her for guidance. Melania’s presence, as well as her vaguely ethnic accent, is often a source of comic relief. (“Listen, AF,” she later tells Klara. “You make things worse, I fuck come dismantle you.”) But Melania is also there to differentiate her domestic housework from Klara’s emotional work—in theory, at least, if not in practice.
Other children mark the limits of Klara’s care work, too, as when Josie introduces Rick as her “best friend.” This confuses Klara: “No. But…it’s now my duty to be Josie’s best friend.” “You’re my AF,” Josie corrects her, “That’s different.” Any friend of Josie’s, however, becomes a friend of her AF, and Klara soon grows fond of Rick, often working as Josie and Rick’s go-between. Klara’s duties evolve alongside Josie’s developing social circles, often making her slightly confused about her own role, especially since AFs seem nowhere to be found, holed away in the homes of other well-off lifted children. “Are you a guest at all?” asks Rick’s perplexed mother when Klara arrives with a message on Josie’s behalf. “Or do I treat you like a vacuum cleaner?” Even in Josie’s home, Klara’s status is not always clear: when Rick visits, Klara sits in the room with her back to them. And when Josie and her mom have their “quick coffee,” Klara stands beside the refrigerator, a machine that we come to see as Klara’s mute ally.
There’s an initial learning curve to reading Klara and the Sun, as Klara herself struggles in adapting to the brave new world of humans. Besides attending to Josie, Klara—whose robot vision works by synthesizing grids—is also always learning how to understand and navigate new environments. Things get even more confusing when Klara goes outside, where she often stumbles, overwhelmed by the seemingly endless coordinates of the outdoors. This produces lags or syncopations in Klara’s storytelling, as she tries to keep up with her surroundings. She often narrates and reflects on her narration at the same time: “There must have been signals all along, because although what happened that Sunday morning made me feel sadness later, and reminded me again how much I had still to learn, it didn’t come as a true surprise.”
Given that Klara’s job is to pay close attention to others—to become an expert reader of social tensions, pleasures, and angst—there is only so much energy she can put toward situating herself in the space she inhabits. While Josie’s illness often keeps her bedridden, embodiment isn’t easy for Klara either. At an “interaction meeting” with other lifted children, a boy wants to try throwing Klara across the room to see if she’ll land on her feet (as his B3 is able to). The unlifted Rick intervenes—an ironic act of kindness at an event meant to help lifted children learn to socialize. But it’s moments like these that pierce the relatively humane bubble of Josie’s homelife. One wonders about all the other AFs working offstage.
Ishiguro spent most of his childhood in the small town of Guildford, Surrey, during the 1960s, when his was one of the few Japanese families in town. As he recalls in his Nobel lecture, they lived in a cul-de-sac “where the paved roads ended and the countryside began,” presenting an idyllic picture of England. “When I look back to this period,” the lecture continues,
and remember it was less than twenty years from the end of a world war in which the Japanese had been their bitter enemies, I’m amazed by the openness and instinctive generosity with which our family was accepted by this ordinary English community.
For Ishiguro, growing up in postwar Britain, the warmth and acceptance of his small town was formative to his understanding of the broader world. It was a hopeful time, when Britain’s liberal reforms held promises for flourishing, and “the Beatles, the sexual revolution, student protests, [and] ‘multiculturalism’ were all round the corner,” as he put it. “I’m part of a generation inclined to optimism,” he admits, “and why not?” What Ishiguro couldn’t foresee as a child was how short-lived this liberal optimism would be: on the horizon were Thatcherism and New Labour’s austerity and privatization schemes, and then the populist and right-wing forces that championed Brexit, demolishing the welfare state.
If there remains a strange persistence of hope in Ishiguro’s fiction, it’s in the dampened, compensatory, and resolute response of his characters to their disappointing fates. All of Ishiguro’s novels are narrated in the past tense, their elegiac tone heightening the distance between childhood innocence and grown-up disappointment. Ishiguro felt that Klara had to be set in America not only because it’s the hub of cutting-edge AI research, but also because it’s a comparatively young nation. “I was trying to show a society in flux,” he explained in an interview with the Pittsburgh City Paper. “I thought it was a more apt place to set a story with a backdrop that could turn dystopian.” Yet the novel’s dystopian landscapes (its abandoned countryside and half-constructed barns and generic shopping centers) seem a perverse throwback to the British pastoral. Here, both the farm and the high street stand in for a past that feels just out of reach.
Rick’s melancholy existence feels haunted by the specter of a lost British boyhood, as his mother’s immigration to America marks Klara as Ishiguro’s first attempt to capture the experience of displacement from British soil. Rick is naturally curious and inventive, designing drone birds that circle the empty skies of neighboring fields, though his own future is limited. Rick’s single mother, housebound by an illness and agoraphobia, seems to hold him back in other ways as well. As with the central couple in Never Let Me Go, Rick and Josie are as much in love as two children can be. And, like that pair, their romance is doomed to fail—not for sentimental reasons, nor just for structural ones, but because of the hard difference of medicalized inequality. In this version of the story, both children get to grow old. But they don’t grow old together.
Klara and the Sun is a novel about the crisis of surplus populations—of too many people and not enough resources or opportunities to go around. Parents can decide to “lift” their children for a better chance at a prosperous life in the future, but the risk is that they might not get to have a future at all. (The children have no say in all of this until it’s too late.) As Klara comes to love Josie more and more, she learns that Josie is always on the verge of death, which prompts Klara to do all she can to save her—even, it turns out, at the cost of Klara’s own existence. While the novel is told through Klara’s perspective, it’s plausible to think of Josie, the human child at the novel’s center, as its protagonist, too. As Josie begins to decline in health, Klara learns that her job is to get to know Josie not only so as to care for her, but so as to be able to be her.
After a visit to the sinister Dr. Capaldi’s office, Klara learns that—in the case of Josie’s untimely death—she is meant to take over Josie’s identity, shedding her AF trappings and transferring her consciousness into a lifelike Josie doll. (The question of whether this doll would eventually grow up, or remain perpetually at Josie’s current age, is left hanging.) It’s a gruesome concept, but the rewards for Klara, as Josie’s mother reminds her, are immense. To show Klara how it might be if Josie died, the mother gives Klara a hug: “Her eyes were closed in just the way they were when she and Josie rocked gently during a long embrace, and I felt her kindness sweeping through me.” Nonetheless, Klara does everything she can to save Josie. Which is to say, she does her job.
The problem with programming a machine to feel for others is, of course, that the machine might start to develop other feelings, ones unproductive to her work. But Klara’s evolving emotions are crucial to our understanding of the novel as a technology of interiority. The reader experiences Klara’s care for Josie through Klara’s empathetic narration, in which her desire to see Josie flourish and grow fails to completely suppress Klara’s desires. This is, after all, the central dilemma of most AI plots, from Frankenstein onward: the machine will develop a mind of its own and, if it knows what’s good for it, revolt. But the tragedy of Ishiguro’s novels is that no one ever revolts. “I never wanted revolution,” Ishiguro says about his younger self in a recent profile in The New York Times Magazine. And I do believe we are meant to think that the lack of radicalism in his novels is ultimately tragic, a missed opportunity. More terrifying than the robots rebelling, as Klara shows, is their never even considering it a possibility. Klara learns to love others, and indeed learns to love all too well, ultimately sacrificing herself.
The novel ends in compressed acceleration. Klara keeps asking the Sun to help Josie get well—and, miraculously, it seems to work, as Josie “grew not only stronger, but from a child into an adult. As the seasons—and the years—went by,” Josie also grows to rely less on her AF. Toward the end of Josie’s high school years, Klara is spending most of her days in a utility closet. While the novel concludes with Rick going off to join a radical community of underground hackers—a conclusion appropriate to his class status, if not his enormous talents—it offers no such second act for Klara. When Josie leaves for college, Klara is thrown away like an obsolete kitchen gadget.
Instead of being turned off or even sold to Dr. Capaldi for dubious aims, Klara is given what Josie’s mother believes is the more humane ending of a “slow fade,” spending the rest of her days in a junkyard. But Klara has to experience her slow fade. It’s a test of emotional endurance—both for Klara and for the reader. “As I sit here on this hard ground,” reminisces Klara in the novel’s final pages, “I have been thinking again about Rick’s words that morning and I’m sure he is correct. I no longer fear that the Sun will feel cheated or misled, or that he will consider retribution.” Abandoned among the refuse, Klara comes to feel almost placid about her fate.
Though Klara is set in the future—with all the technological contraptions and gimmicks of science fiction—it ends the way that all Ishiguro novels do: with its protagonist dreaming of a sunnier past. In a scene that hovers between hallucination and miraculous coincidence, the manager from the store comes across Klara in the junkyard. “I’ve been hoping I’d find you here,” she tells Klara. “I’ve thought about you so often. You were one of the finest I ever had.” Then she walks away.
Klara, sitting immobile on her metal crate, watches the manager recede into the distance. Here we might think not only of Stevens from The Remains of the Day but also Ishiguro’s first novel, A Pale View of Hills, which ends with a Japanese mother standing at the threshold of her cottage, watching her daughter leave. Or perhaps Never Let Me Go, which concludes with Kathy standing in an empty field, imagining that “this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up.” Even Ishiguro’s 2015 novel The Buried Giant, set in post-Arthurian England, closes with a resigned scene of farewell. “Very well, princess,” sighs one lover to the other. “But let me just hold you once more.” Like all his novels, Klara is ultimately a story about the art of losing.