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Book Review: Klara and the Sun

4 October 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1115

Klara and the Sun

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Published by ā€ˇFaber and Faber

ISBN-10: 057136487X, ISBN-13: 978-0571364879

Buy this book from Amazon UK

Klara and the Sun is the latest novel by Nobel prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro. I'll admit at the outset that I have read most of Ishiguro's books and enjoy his writing, so I jumped at the chance to review this book when I learned about the subject matter.

The narrator Klara is an artificial friend (AF) – a mechanical companion selected by a teen girl named Josie. She is highly observant but sometimes misinterprets things due to a lack of knowledge to put things in context.

Josie is 'lifted' – which we find means genetically enhanced for greater cognitive ability. She has access to the best education, and her future is bright except that she is gravely ill. Her dearest friend Rick, the boy next door, has not been lifted and although he is naturally intelligent it becomes clear that numerous societal barriers will stand in the way of his and Josie's childhood plan to spend their lives together.

The process of lifting is not expanded upon, but what we learn is that it takes place during a certain time window in childhood. Scientifically speaking this is likely to be inaccurate – if one were to change the genome of a child, it would be simplest to do it at the embryonic stage. First, because the fewer cells you have, the easier it would be to make the same change consistently in all of them, and second because a lot of the connections made in the brain happen when we are young, so these would already have been made before the lifting described in the novel.

I can forgive Ishiguro this inaccuracy, though, because he is a storyteller, not a scientist, and having the decision fall in childhood rather than before pregnancy gives the story more drama and resonance.

Being lifted entails risk: some children become dangerously ill as a result, and some like Josie's older sister Sal, die. In combination with the fact that lifting takes place after several years of life, this risk results in the stakes being a lot higher than in a Gattaca-type narrative where the genetic tinkering all happens in a lab and – presto - perfect baby!

Josie's mother's decision to proceed with having her lifted, despite the fact that she was grieving her older daughter is one that she fiercely defends even as Josie's life hangs in the balance as a result. This decision has cost her so much I was left with the impression that the person she was mostly trying to convince was herself. Rick's mother by contrast hesitated to have Rick lifted after seeing what happened to Sal and by the time the novel begins it is too late. Although Rick is clever and healthy his mother questions her choice.

The novel explores themes of artificial intelligence, inequality – particularly through the potential disparity and Rick and Josie's future prospects – parental love and ways of dealing with grief. There are hints of currents in the wider society, but as these do not generally interest Klara they are never fleshed out.

The decision to risk the life of a child with whom you have already developed a loving bond, to give them the chance of a better life is one that, as a childfree person, I cannot fully comprehend. The closest real-world example I can think of is migrant families, and the unforgettable image of three-year-old Alan Kurdiwashed up on the Turkish shore.

Is Rick's second-rate education and career prospects so disadvantageous that it could be compared to war, famine, and persecution? Without a good handle on the wider world in which Klara's story takes place it is difficult to judge, and in any case, not really the point.

It would be very easy to think a novel about the friendship between an android and a genetically-enhanced girl is only for die-hard sci-fi fans but that couldn't be further from the truth. Klara and the Sun is a warm, readable novel with a small cast of well-developed characters. I found Klara's narration charming and the story flowed along easily giving the weightier issues room to breathe.

Ultimately it is a story about family, love, friendship and being human.

Buy Klara and the Sun from Amazon UK.

Klara and the Sun
Faber |  2 March 2021
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