Camp ToB 2021

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Week Six: Klara and the Sun

This week we discuss the back half of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun. If you thought the first half was fraught with ethical dilemmas, well, get ready to get thorny.

Meave Gallagher: Hello, friends, and welcome to the sixth week of Camp ToB Summer 2021! As a refresher, this is how it works: Each week from now through the end of August, we're going to discuss a novel (selected by you, the readers), at a pace of two books a month. At the end of each month, you will vote for one title as your favorite, and at the end of the summer, the community will pick one of the three favorites to advance to a berth in the 2022 Tournament of Books (ToB).

FYI, the five books we read this summer that don't win may still qualify for the 2022 ToB's long or short lists.

I'm facilitating the conversations this month, and Andrew will be your host for August. This week, we're talking about the second half of Kazuo Ishiguro's Klara and the Sun, and our Activity Leader is Colorado's Conner Horak. Hi, Conner! Please tell us about yourself.

Conner Horak: Hello, hello! So excited to talk with you about this book! I am from Fort Collins, Colo., and I am the assistant book manager at a bookstore/wine bar in Denver called BookBar. I've always been a very avid reader and decided that working at a bookstore would be the best outlet for all of my book ramblings to give my partner, Evan, a break. I started following ToB a few years ago after I heard about it on a book podcast I love called So Many Damn Books and now Evan and I have a deal: I'll fill out a bracket for March Madness if he fills out one for the ToB.

Meave: That seems very fair. Way to relationship.

Conner: I am also a professional contemporary ballet dancer, which I am so excited to get back to, now that people are getting vaccinated!

Meave: Artist, athlete, reader—you're a triple threat! What don't you do?

Conner: There are SO MANY THINGS I can't do, most of them handy… and lucrative.

Meave: Oh, same. At least we've got books to console us, the ones who tie rags around leaking faucets because how on earth would you fix it? There are so many different kinds of wrenches.

To catch us all up, Josie, her "artificial friend" (AF) Klara, her neighbor and best friend Rick, and Rick's mother are all being driven by Josie's mother from the isolated countryside where they live into the city. There, Josie is going to meet up with her father and sit for her portrait, while Rick and his mother are going to talk to some bigwig connection of hers about getting him into a good school despite his not having undergone a genetic editing procedure called "lifting"—a procedure which caused Josie's sister's death and Josie's chronic illness. Oh, and Klara is going to destroy the pollution-emitting "Cootings machine" as part of her bargain with the sun to heal Josie. No big deal.

The back half of Klara is full of twists, so maybe let's start with the first big one: Josie's mother's idea that she—with the help of Capaldi, the alleged portraitist—can turn Klara into Josie 2.0, as Josie's health keeps worsening and her mother expects her to die. And Klara agrees to it! Later on, Klara has that conversation with Josie's father about inhabiting the human heart, and says she believes she could reproduce the "Josie-ness" of Josie, given enough time. Do you think she really understands the magnitude of what she's being asked to do?

Conner: Yeah, that was quite the twist for me. I really should have seen it coming, but I 100 percent didn't. As far as Klara not understanding the magnitude of the task before her, I can't help but feel conflicted. Does she really need to? It seems to me that understanding how daunting a task is does not assist with the substance of the task.

Meave: That's a good point! At least for humans, anyway. Do you think Klara-as-Josie could pass the Voigt-Kampff Test? And how important do you think it would be to her success at fully impersonating a human?

Conner: Are we human because of what is inside or are we human because that's how other fellow humans perceive us? The ultimate goal of this endeavor is to fill a Josie-shaped hole in the lives of those Josie is leaving behind. So I don't think the question is if Klara can become a full human person; it's if those around her can suspend their own disbelief and accept her as such. This is addressed a bit in the conversation between Capaldi and Josie's mother where they argue about the nature of the human soul: Is there something extra, something unquantifiable that makes you you?

Meave: I want to say yes, but then I immediately think, well, what makes Klara Klara, anyway? Does she not have a soul because she's artificial? Ishiguro said, in an interview with WIRED, about this particular stomach-churner of a section: "What the hell is a human being, what's inside their mind and how irreplaceable is any one human? Those are the questions that, as a novelist, I'm interested in." Do you think he's successful in plumbing those depths here?

Conner: I don't think Klara could ever have a soul, but if we humans could tamp down or destroy that unique part of us to match her soullessness, then and only then could Josie seamlessly continue on via Klara. Is this success? I'm not sure, but it is certainly depressing.

Meave: Oh, we're disagreeing here! I definitely think Klara has a soul, just a different kind of soul than a human being, and I would worry about her having to kill her own unique Klara-ness in order to become Josie. Since we're one versus one here, I hope the Commentariat cares to weigh in. Klara: soul or no soul? Person or not-person? Please show your work.

Conner: I also can't help but point out how ironic it is that Klara is the only one with hope. She's the only one continually pointing out that maybe these questions won't need answering because Josie will recover. This hope radiating from Klara seemed the most human response of them all.

Meave: You're so right. Klara gives a lot of people hope, acquiescing to the ersatz-Josie plot while assuring everyone that it won't be necessary because she trusts in her secret sun-healing plan. She also seems very empathetic, more so than the other AFs from the first section and certainly more than some of the humans: She cares enough about Josie to sacrifice a great deal of a fluid she needs to function to stop the Cootings machine, this largish, vaguely described machine labeled "Cootings" whose true purpose is never explained, but which Klara in Part One determined exists to emit pollution and blot out the sun, thereby causing Klara, her fellow AFs, and the world outside her store window to suffer. When she later reflects on her deed, she seems sad in a sort of Last Supper-ish way, like, I hope what I've done, what it will cost me, will be worth it to those for whom I have sacrificed. But that could be another trick to encourage us to anthropomorphize a non-human person.

Conner: Klara's sacrifice seems like a biblical reference to me, but I would like to talk first about the Cootings machine and what it represents.

Meave: By all means! If I may just note that the name is extremely funny in a distinctly British way.

Conner: I pictured it as some kind of asphalt-ripping/tar machine, but I can't say my vision is rooted in reality. I'm searching for some significance in the machine emitting pollution and how that plays into the narrative. I understand the sun hating pollution, but I feel like there must be something more. It's hard to write a book about the future without getting into global warming.

Meave: This seems like a sentiment shared by more writers every day, with or without the "about the future" modifier.

Conner and his wine and Klara and the Sun at Denver's BookBar

Conner: So true! And we just had a taste of our own 2020 globe-altering disaster with Covid-19, so I don't see that theme going anywhere anytime soon.

Meave: Nor should it! I don't know that you can responsibly write a modern novel, or a dystopian future novel set in this world, without addressing climate change. But maybe that's too sweeping a statement for the smaller-scale points Ishiguro seems to be making with Klara here.

Conner: Is Klara being rewarded for destroying one machine, even though there is one immediately to replace it, a parable of small actions reaping large benefits? No good deed too small? It seems a bit sentimental to me.

Meave: Oh, me too, but the whole episode played out in that "here comes the inevitable cruelty" way, as Klara soon encounters another Cootings machine belching out pollution, leaving her with only her hope and faith in the sun. I guess I read it more as "Klara's sacrifice was for nothing, and now something terrible will happen to her because she has insufficient brain fluid, as the kindest and most naive character has to be put through the wringer." Or am I being too hard on the author?

Conner: I would say you're spot on, save for the fact that Josie actually does get better, almost miraculously so. So was Klara's faith enough? I'm actually leaning toward an optimism here that is still somehow heartbreaking: that Klara's one and only concern is Josie. Once Josie is healthy and off to college with her own group of friends, Klara's work is effectively done and she is content to sit in a junkyard and scroll through memories until the end of time.

Meave: Let me ask you, do you think these AFs have a planned obsolescence? Because at the end of the book, when we see Klara, apparently immobile in a junkyard, the Manager comes across her and 1) doesn't seem surprised; and 2) offers to move Klara to another part of the junkyard with some other AFs. I found it very unsettling.

Conner: When Klara is given a chance to move elsewhere by Manager, she declines because she is literally 100 percent happy. Is that not the perfect existence? To have a goal of helping, achieve the goal, and be at peace forevermore? To me it's heartbreaking, but Klara seems fine. How strange to be so emotionally torn up over a character who really couldn't care less.

Meave: Seems like a particularly Ishiguroan cross between The Velveteen Rabbit and a smartphone.

Conner: Lol capitalism. Just kidding.

Meave: Use, discard, use, discard; it makes me sick to think about. Oh no, is it Klara's programming that makes her content with her—as Josie's Mother puts it—slow fade?

Conner: I got the impression that AFs as a whole were no longer a thing in this world, as when Klara asks Manager if she "still looks after AFs," and Manager replies, "No. Oh no. That finished some time ago." Does Manager mean her personal career in AF retail or does she mean the experimental enterprise of AFs entirely?

Meave: You know, I took that remark to mean the former; the latter didn't occur to me. That's interesting.

Conner: And judging by the way Klara was targeted by that woman at the theater ("First [the AFs] take our jobs. Then they take our seats at the theater?") and how other AFs Klara observed seemed to have less-than-positive experiences with their human companions, I got the sense of a brewing societal conflict with AFs and the culture at large. AFs could be illegal and all of them confined to junkyards by the end of the book. Again, just speculating.

Meave: I think that's most of what we have to do here, speculate. Like, they might have all been reformatted for more, oh, specialized labor, such as sex work or as supersoldiers (but let's be real, in a dystopia, they would have made AI supersoldiers and sex workers before they made AI companions, right?). There are too many possibilities that make me feel really bad about being a human being, so maybe we should just get to it: What did you think of the endings for our main characters?

Conner: I find it funny that Ishiguro told WIRED that he thought he wrote an optimistic ending. It's not completely tragic, but optimistic isn't the word I would use.

Meave: No, nor would I. Optimistic! I guess Josie getting better is great, but then she and Rick drift apart, she goes off to school with the other bright young things, and Klara's left degrading in a junkyard.

Conner: I honestly can't decide how I feel. Josie's miraculous recovery is highly suspect to me. When that sunlight landed on her and she was like, OK, feeling a little bit better, was I the only one like HOLY SH*T SHE'S AN AF!?

Meave: Your imagination is mightier than mine, because not for a minute did I think that, and it seems like a perfectly reasonable guess.

Conner: Listen, I love a good conspiracy theory—as long as it remains harmless and fictional in the pages of a book.

Meave: I think we can all respect your wishes not to run around accusing very intelligent tweens of being secret robots.

Conner: More likely, it's the faith of a robot that saves Josie. I can't think of any other explanation. There does seem to be something distinctly Jesus-esque about Klara's journey: She worships and receives strength from the sun as Jesus did with God in the Bible, she makes a sacrifice to save those less fortunate, and she is ultimately left behind to love her creation from afar. It seems a little sentimental for my taste, but I can't think of any other alternative.

Meave: Well, I did frame my "Klara's sacrifice" question earlier with that theme in mind, so maybe I'm unduly influencing you.

Conner: The temperamental, quid-pro-quo attitude of the sun fits the Old Testament God to a T, and I am very much into this idea of humans using up their savior and then discarding him (she? them?) in the trash. Really, it sounds like something we'd do.

Meave: Our history is full of discarded saviors. But as for Josie's recovery, I attributed it to timing: Sometimes people do recover from vaguely described illnesses, and the sun's rays caught her when she first started to feel better. But Klara also comes across as a less-self-conscious Christlike figure, and there is so much room for speculation.

Conner: I do firmly believe that Klara had something, something to do with Josie's recovery. I just can't believe that the timing of Josie's recovery is coincidence, in relation to both the sun's rays and Klara's sacrifice. I could be naive as Klara on the issue, but ignorance sure is sweet and I'm actively choosing it. I can't say exactly what it is, but there is something unexplainable happening under the surface.

Meave: This is feeling very Dickensian all of a sudden; you're Fred, hanging holly on the door and exhorting Christmas cheer, and I'm Scrooge, waving it all away as nonsense. Well, maybe we're due for a Christmas in July—and isn't someone supposed to be composing a ToB carol? So don't let my skepticism about the resurrectional powers of the sun bring you down.

Conner: On the subject of Josie's illness, I would love to dive deeper into the idea of "lifting." From what I gather, it seems that parents can choose to genetically alter their children at an early age to give them advantages over those who choose not to do so or can't afford it. It also seems that this alteration is the source of Josie's illness. Did this change the way you saw the universe Ishiguro created?

Meave: Oh I see, I give an inch and suddenly you're asking the questions. Conner! Well, Ricardo and I talked a bit about this last week, but not from the same angle. Did it change how I saw the universe? No, because these people are all sick and suffering, and the wealthy are unable to not be monstrous, so of course they invent another way the rich can get all the good things—but it's still a "meritocracy" because the kids have to study all the time on those oblongs, which are somehow related to universities, I think?

 

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who, from her place in the store, watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her.

Book description excerpted from publisher's summary and edited for length.

 

Conner: Was there anything in the book that actually showed what these benefits actually were to these "lifted" children? And what did you think of Rick and his arc in the book as someone who wasn't "lifted?"

Meave: Well, in our world, DNA (or, RNA) editing created the vaccines that will let you return to dancing, though editing a person's genes to improve brain function/intelligence hasn't happened—yet. When the Mother asked Rick's Mother, when Josie's health was at its nadir, if she (Rick's Mother) thought she'd "won" for not having had Rick lifted, that seemed similar to any parent's heartache over whether they've made the best choices for their child; it was almost sympathetic. Almost. Rather like our actual dystopian present, Josie's Mother is a rich lady who'll do anything to gain advantages for her child. (Anyone else reminded of that episode of Deep Space 9? Or Operation Varsity Blues?) And those advantages are real, though we don't see them, so I think it's fair to infer what's to come: Our little lifted overachievers go off to university and make connections that will further help them become obedient little members of the professional managerial class, while the world burns for the rest of us. As far as Rick, well, his Mother can afford to live in Josie's neighborhood, and provide him with the materials to make those drones he's always working on; maybe his family is independently wealthy and he doesn't need to care about networking his way through Atlas Brookings (oh no, the university is named after brands, isn't it)? Cynically, is how I think about all of it. Maybe you're less, um, pitiless?

Conner: I'd say I'm the equal amount of pitiless as you are. I'll hand it to Ishiguro—he can throw you these small details at the fringes of his novel and you can create your own personal dystopia with them.

Meave: True. And no one's ever accused me of insufficient catastrophizing. I had a nightmare about the water table last night! Anything else you want to ask before I wrest back control?

Conner: One more! There are moments where Klara's vision is altered and pixelated in an almost Picasso-like cubism. What did you make of these "boxes" and segments, and when this distortion afflicted her?

Meave: I thought, if I recall correctly, that when Klara becomes overwhelmed or very confused by something, the AF equivalent of the optic nerve temporarily glitches out, and those shapes are the result. Not a very poetic interpretation, but you asked a very literal person.

Conner: I totally agree with you! I'd add that it seemed particularly pronounced when she was trying to interpret human emotions, especially conflicting ones—i.e., someone had an angry frown and sorrow in their eyes.

Meave: Right, she does have trouble comprehending complex emotions.

Conner: I'm wondering if you think this is an asset for Klara or a liability. Is this segmenting out each physical manifestation of emotion on someone's face a glitch to be later smoothed out in future upgrades, or an ability that has surpassed the human race?

Meave: That is two questions and you are cheating, but this is fun, so I'll let it slide. This temporary circuit overload seems like a total liability for the AFs (since it's mentioned this issue is common among them). It's aesthetically interesting that when an AF's circuits overload it sees the world as three-dimensional shapes like cones and cubes, but I can't imagine how that could help them or anyone else. Honestly, this whole conceit felt like Ishiguro trying to make a supersmart, sentient AI more vulnerable, and Klara was doing a fine job of that on her own. Or maybe draw some kind of comparison between AFs and humans who have trouble reading emotions, but that doesn't feel accurate. How did you find the overall experience of Klara? For me, that ending did provide the classic Ishiguro quiet emotional brutality I was expecting.

Conner: I think it was Maureen Corrigan on Fresh Air who described the book as "unbearable," and I tend to agree. I think the book is a meditation on loneliness, grief, and the lengths we humans go to to address them. More often than not, our selfish instincts take over and something ugly emerges. Just because everyone survives the novel doesn't make for a happy ending.

Meave: Oof. Tragedy comes in many, many forms.

Conner: If anything, Klara is the only one who is content at the end and she's literally in pieces in the middle of a dump.

Meave: Which made me angry for Klara and a little bit at Klara. I hate how she passively accepts her demise after fighting so hard against Josie's. The Manager called Klara the most observant and thoughtful of the AFs she sold; Klara literally gave of herself on faith to save Josie's life. And then to see this kind and generous person end up immobile, losing her sight, in a junkyard—it didn't reflect well on humanity in general and Josie's family in particular.

Conner: It's even more depressing if you think AFs don't have a planned obsolescence.

Meave: Truly. Do people just accept that once you're "done" with your AF, you send it to the tidy AF junkyard where it eventually stops working, i.e., dies? Does Ishiguro even like people?

Conner: The human characters are flawed. Yes, they're put in a terrible situation, but they make incredibly selfish decisions.

Meave: What I saw is that eventually Klara became just another piece of outdated tech to them, and planned obsolescence or no, she was always doomed to the junkyard. How did the novel make you think about people's relationships to these empathetic, caring, human-looking robots?

Conner: The mother in particular was way out of line. Ignoring the incredibly controversial idea of replacing your offspring with an AF, she had to steal time away from Josie to do it. Josie had to sit for hours for this "portrait." She was left behind when Klara and her mother went to the waterfall. We were under the impression that Josie has precious little time left, and for her mother to be putting her through all that was completely reprehensible.

Meave: You're making me even sadder now. Here I was all ready to condemn Josie for moving on with her "normal," lifted-kid life, and you're making a strong case to redirect that ire to her mother.

Conner: Perhaps I am being too harsh. Who am I to judge a grieving mother who already lost one child and is faced with the prospect of losing another? Like I said, ugliness can come out when we are faced with loneliness and grief.

Meave: Oh, it seems perfectly natural to judge her, especially through the lens of stealing time from her possibly dying daughter to train her replacement. I would not call those actions rational. But it's also generous to acknowledge that we can make choices in grief we might not under better circumstances. Now I'm thinking about AFs as companions for people who might otherwise be alone—at home, in a care home, in the hospital. Like, what if Paro could run errands, or feed someone? But that novel might not be so dystopian. (I really don't want to know what happens to a Paro when their person dies.)

Conner: OK, never heard of Paro before, but I think I need at least three. It's adorable.

Meave: I bet Paro wouldn't try to kick me off the bed at night, either, Jenny Linsky.

Conner: And that's such an interesting point! Never once did I think of placing any blame on Josie. She is a kid and acts like it. Young romances die, you outgrow your old toys (isn't that what Klara is, when you get down to it?), and you move on to make a life for yourself. I wasn't always happy with her character; she was exclusionary, selfish, and spoiled on occasion, but what kid isn't?

Meave: Well, hang on; to the best of my knowledge, none of my toys were sentient. If there's no planned obsolescence with the AFs, why not send them to the proverbial upstate farm, where they can take walks in the sunshine, maybe have a book club, start a soccer league. But sure, I'll concede that Josie was often better and certainly not worse than any other kid we met.

Conner: It's the mother's choices that seem to cause her the most pain, from lifting Josie in the first place to fashioning Klara into Josie 2.0. But if Josie is a victim of her mother and her mother is a victim of some warped class expectations, maybe the takeaway for us, the readers, is that extreme class divides make spoiled sick children with unhinged and selfish parents?

Meave: Yes, yes, one thousand times yes. Do I like this book more now that we've taken sharp knives to it? Maybe! How do you think it compares to Ishiguro's previous works? Would you recommend Klara to friends or customers? I've got to say, I still prefer The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. Although I might be coming around on this reading of Klara as a condemnation of class.

Conner: Klara is a hard one for me. As I was reading it, I couldn't help but notice how similar it seemed to other books or movies already out there. I feel like the ideas addressed in the book have been done to death. Can robots be people? How do we cope with a sick child? Can we create life? What is a soul? Should we be genetically altering our children to make them better or "lifted?"

Meave: Yeah no, I agree: It didn't feel fully formed, and it left me with too many irritating questions about little details. As a professional reader and book-recommender, what do you think? How does it hold up compared with other soft sci-fi/dystopian novels? With other novels that explore the concept of artificial intelligence? Are there any read-alikes you'd recommend for fans of Klara, or the genre(s)?

Conner: Klara and the Sun has a little Frankenstein, Pygmalion, Blade Runner, Toy Story 3, My Sister's Keeper, and any dog movie you've ever seen all rolled up into one. But is it greater than the sum of its parts? I'm not so sure. The book is beautiful and haunting, but I can't point to anything new it offers to the topics and issues that have been in the public sphere, hashed out and rehashed again and again. I would never discourage people from reading it, but I'm afraid I can't offer a full-throated endorsement either.

Meave: Ambiguity rules the day, then! Thanks so much for joining us, Conner; this has been illuminating (I'm so sorry). Also, closing that list with "and any dog movie you've ever seen" is harsh—I love it and am texting it right now to my friends who unreservedly loved the book. I guess we are going to give Klara and the Sun a resounding, "Not Ishiguro's best." And that is OK. This conversation has been a joy, even the sad parts, and you've been a terrific Activity Leader! So terrific, in fact, you can have the last word.

Conner: This was wonderful and everything I could have asked for! Thank you so much! The more I talk about the book, the more I appreciate it. It's amazing what a discussion and a glass of wine can do to your perception of a book. Cheers!

Meave: Very appropriate sentiments. Conner, you're a gem. Thank you again for deconstructing Klara with us. Comrades of the Commentariat, we will see you below! And please meet us here next week when we start the first half of Whereabouts—we'll be aimlessly wandering a piazza.

 

The Camp ToB 2021 Calendar

  • June 2: No One Is Talking About This through part one
  • June 9: No One Is Talking About This to the end
  • June 16: Detransition, Baby through chapter four
  • June 23: Detransition, Baby to the end
  • June 30: Klara and the Sun through part three
  • July 7: VACATION
  • July 14: Klara and the Sun to the end
  • July 21: Whereabouts through "At the Cash Register"
  • July 28: Whereabouts to the end
  • Aug. 4: Peaces through chapter eight
  • Aug. 11: Peaces to the end
  • Aug. 18: Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch through page 137
  • Aug. 25: Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch to the end
  • Sept. 1: Announce summer champion

You can find all our summer titles at our Camp ToB 2021 Bookshop list.

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