Fathom Mag

Robot’s Progress

A review of Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Published on:
June 29, 2021
Read time:
4 min.
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When I was lucky enough to see him like that, I’d lean my face forward to take in as much of his nourishment as I could . . .”

Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel (his first since winning the Nobel Prize) opens with sensual language from a surprising source. The narrator, Klara, is an Artificial Friend—a humanoid robot designed to be a companion for children. After beginning her life in a store, observing the world from her perch in the window display, Klara is chosen by Josie, a young girl suffering from an unnamed disease. Klara’s world quickly changes as she joins Josie and her mother at their home in the countryside and gets accustomed to her dual role of caretaker and friend.

Klara provides a perceptive mind and a unique perspective, distinct from both the robots of other stories and Ishiguro’s earlier protagonists.

The story, as with all of Ishiguro’s work, unfolds subtly. The shape of the world is sketched out in thin details scattered throughout conversations and events, imperceptibly revealing the deep ruptures of society. Despite its near-future setting and sci-fi inflection, Ishiguro isn’t so interested in the questions typically marked out for such stories. There’s no debate about whether a robot can have feelings or thoughts; it’s simply taken for granted a priori. Even in the opening lines, Klara refers to luck and speaks of desires—she has quite a lot of humanity for a robot. Likewise, while the ethics of technological advances are considered obliquely, the focus is centered on how humanity adapts: How does a parent weigh the choice between providing her child a chance to succeed and the costs of using a risky technology? Does the existence of readymade companions change the nature of suffering and mourning?

A Novel of Discovery and Delight

For faithful readers of Ishiguro, Klara will feel familiar as he slowly builds from small gestures to grand questions. The starkest difference is how light it feels, marked by a persistent sense of hope where other novels had devastating regret. Unfortunately, it doesn’t all work. While the optimism is refreshing—and genuinely unexpected—it also weakens the punch. The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go provided not only moving stories, but also sharp questions that lodged in the reader’s mind. In Klara, the questions are more theoretical than personal, more curious than probing. 

Despite that, Klara is still a rich read, and the novel’s greatest strength is its narrator. Klara provides a perceptive mind and a unique perspective, distinct from both the robots of other stories and Ishiguro’s earlier protagonists. Her voice puts the reader in a position of discovery and delight, particularly as her relationships deepen. Her friendship with Josie provides the narrative framework, but the novel orbits around a different relationship—one that sends Klara on what can only be described as a spiritual journey.

Drawn to the Source of Life

From the very first page, Klara personifies the Sun. It’s “his” nourishment that she seeks in the store window. But she goes even further, attributing a will to him: “The Sun, I knew, was trying his utmost.” And it almost makes sense, if we push past our association of robots with cold logic—Klara is, after all, solar-powered. Considering sunlight to be generous nourishment given intentionally is but a small leap.

Klara acts on her belief, making a pilgrimage across the rough fields to the barn.

And so Klara’s relationship to the Sun becomes a spiritual one: The Sun is her source of life and nourishment. Her thoughts, whether grand or momentary, are often directed toward him, and she desires to be in his light and warmth. She speaks joyfully to others of his generosity, even as they glance askew in response.

This becomes most striking in Klara’s journey to a barn near Josie’s house. Having watched the Sun set behind the barn, Klara infers that it is his resting place, “a place he made a point of calling at last thing each evening.” As Josie’s health deteriorates, Klara believes, simply but decisively, that only the Sun can provide the “special nourishment” needed to cure her. Klara acts on her belief, making a pilgrimage across the rough fields to the barn.

She arrives at the golden hour, and the sunset radiates through the scene: “The interior was filled with orange light. There were particles of hay drifting in the air like evening insects, and his patterns were falling all across the barn’s wooden floor.” The language becomes cultic—the barn a temple suffused with the presence of the Sun himself. Klara is thrilled and terrified at this holy encounter, and she prays for Josie’s healing: “I didn’t actually say the words out loud, for I knew the Sun had no need of words as such.” Having prayed, “the barn filled even more intensely with orange light.”

In a novel so understated, the scene bursts with vibrancy and purpose. Amid technological what-ifs and ethical dilemmas, Ishiguro gives the greatest space to depicting this journey of faith. He’s less concerned with whether Klara has a soul; he cares more about considering the actions of her soul.

Klara invites us into a liminal space of belief, putting us on the cusp of another’s faith.

The Challenge of Faith

This is where Klara and the Sun moves most powerfully. In centering Klara, it provides a slightly outside perspective on a journey of faith. The challenge of understanding faith is ubiquitous—belief is often illusory to those external to it and inexplicable to those within. To be given insight into Klara’s experience—placed within her thoughts but standing outside of her belief—is a rare opportunity, especially for Christians. 

Her faith is alien to the other characters. They’re confused by Klara’s trust in the Sun, but in their shared love for Josie, they hope that she’s right. Like so many believers before her, Klara must wrestle through the perceived silence of God: “I even thought the Sun wasn’t kind at all, and this was the true reason for Josie’s worsening condition.”

What does belief look like to someone who can’t quite grasp it? How does our Christian faith appear to our friends and family who watch us pray, speak of hope, and suffer through the silence of a being they don’t believe in? Klara invites us into a liminal space of belief, putting us on the cusp of another’s faith. It’s not didactic or even direct, but it provides an existential encounter that’s worth reflecting on, especially as we seek to communicate our own faith to those who don’t share it. 

Micah Rickard
Micah Rickard is an aerospace engineer and freelance writer focusing on how film and literature connect to theological and existential questions. You can find more of his work at Think Christian and Ekstasis.

Cover image by Possessed Photography.

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