How should scholars of medical humanities and disability studies read Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, Klara and the Sun (2021)? In this review, sarah madoka currie considers how the novel frames the question of what it means to be human – and almost-human – in the 21st century.
“So what makes this one unique? This… Klara?”
“Klara has so many unique qualities, we could be here all morning. But if I had to emphasize just one, well, it would have to be her appetite for observing and learning.” (Ishiguro 2021:43)
Those familiar with Kazuo Ishiguro’s meandering prose in bestsellers Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day will find an easy confluence of circumstances in his latest volume, Klara and the Sun: thoughtful word choice and crystalline sparsity of language that draws attention to what it is his artisanal ‘brush’ paints, – but equally drawing attention to the landscapes not yet coloured in. In much the same tradition as Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro investigates the liminal space between cyborg and “fully” human and asks his reader if there is an authentic line to draw in the sand between these two being-states.
Klara, an “AF” or Artificial Friend, will echo many of the same mannerisms of Kathy H, the not-quite-human protagonist of Never Let Me Go: Klara and Kathy share an uncanny not-quite-human conversational dialectic that seems to shadow the lines of “human” in its eeriest sense: a careful understanding of diction and prose that produces intentionally unsophisticated dialogue, in stark contrast to the whip-smarts of neo-futurist teenagers Josie and Rick. In traditional hint-dropping, breadcrumb style, Ishiguro painstakingly lays bare the conditions through which Klara comes to be in service of terminally ill Josie and her separated family, and begins to unravel the secret as to why AFs are required in this prescient future of fully-online learning (through “oblongs”) and minimal social interaction between young adults.
For those working in the necessarily interdisciplinary space of medical/health humanities, the central puzzle of Klara and the Sun is Klara’s relationship to the already-almost human, to borrow Agambian terms. However, toward the end of the novel a dominatingly prescient theme for health ethicists emerges by surprise: (spoilers ahead)
“Klara, we’re not asking you to train the new Josie. We’re asking you to become her (…) we want you to inhabit that Josie up there with everything you’ve learned.” (Ishiguro 2021:207)
A haunting experimental bereavement technology emerges in the depths of Ishiguro’s fable-like retelling of Klara’s life as an AF: when her human Josie dies, Klara’s purpose is to inhabit an AF body sculpted in her image, using Klara’s keen observational abilities to mimic and uncannily reproduce the Josie that is to imminently pass away. Ishiguro continues to hide Josie’s illness causation until the penultimate “Part (VI)” of the novel, which serves to introduce yet more complex ethical questions for health scholars and experiencers, primarily around the oft-connected notions of “choice” and “personal growth”. What does it cost younger generations in this near-future society to get ahead? And is that choice worth the price of terminal illness, or fully-artificial social relations?
Klara’s ostensible “purpose” raises many of the same questions as Never Let Me Go, through a slightly different framing of obsolescence: Klara is not raised to be destroyed (as Kathy was), but rather to be fully assimilated into the soul of a human – if we choose to take as scientific fact that there is no part of a human that a cyborg cannot accurately reproduce (a haunting line of questioning). Ishiguro explores this through more skeptical characters in Klara, Josie’s father in particular serving as central foil to the tragically bereaved and grieving mother figure, who has already lost one child to “choice” and catastrophizes the imminent demise of Josie as her catalyst of impending self-destruction. Josie has a lot on her plate before the barely-buried suicidality of her mother, and this dynamic of compassion fatigue passes through family relations before coming to rest squarely on the shoulders of Klara, whose ‘non-human’ nature is translated as an implicit incapability for emotional exhaustion, a myth Klara goes to great lengths to hide from her chosen family. Naturally, humans wish to make the argument that something inside them is not technically reproducible – the soul, the mind, the chi, the heart – but Ishiguro very delicately deconstructs the affects and emotions that produce this mind/body problem and asks the reader if there is truly something there that cannot be mastered. And for Klara’s part, she manages dead-on impressions and affects of her teenage companion. Is this bereavement technology calling to an uncanny future in which the “spirit” of a child can live on in the body of a cyborg? Is this a technology we wish to produce in our spectre of reality?
Unpainted in the framing of this story is much of the fallout of “choice” culture and biomedical improvements made to youth (“biohacking” dialogues gaining ever-increasing popularity since Mulvey). Ishiguro leaves much of this devastating content to the reader’s imagination. However, some societally familiar themes lurk within the boundaries of careful, breadcrumb dialogue:
“After Sal, he said we shouldn’t risk it. So what if Josie doesn’t get lifted? Plenty of kids aren’t. But I could never have that for Josie. I wanted the best for her. I wanted her to have a good life. You understand, Klara? I called it, and now Josie’s sick. Because of what I decided.” (Ishiguro 2021:210)
Fans of Jodi Picoult’s smash hit My Sister’s Keeper will recall this familiar bind: what do we sacrifice to ensure the “success” of our child? Is there any “choice” we won’t make, including debilitating illness, to make sure our children get ahead? In this framing, disability emerges as the ostensible ‘price’ of upward mobility in futuristic America, a problematic dichotomy that asks the reader what conditions are “worth” the nebulous, frustratingly mobile idea of modern success. Disappointingly, physical disability seems to build the frame of Josie’s “price of success”, and rather than working through this debility, her parents decide to have a pseudo-perfected AF developed to take Josie’s place: a cyborg free from the choices and compromises parents are forced to make with human children. In this sense, Klara becomes emblematic of perfected youth, free from disablement and debility and hungry for indicators that render them “more” or “more-than” humanistic. Surely purposeful on Ishiguro’s part, it is not hard to imagine a near-future where Josies are mere shells to “fill” AF personas: human children become utility-based as a means to ‘fill’ the cognizance and personality of AFs, instead of the reverse. Though this is great news for Klara’s future, the skeptical humans of the narrative render themselves slightly ahead of their time.
The subtle reliance on the dual-themes of obsolescence and disability serve as an interesting framework to build a narrative that heartbreakingly explores the human condition and its reproducibility, and asks readers quite boldly to question how original we really are. Readers are not easily fooled by the developing Klara of the first third of the novel, but toward the end one can’t help but notice the pointedly accurate mannerisms, hopes and clairvoyance Klara absorbs through simple interactions with human beings. Though Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun begins as more of a sci-fi fable, it wraps up with a heady philosophical investigation of the borderlines of humanity/cyborg and dis/ability. It dares to query whether any of us could stand in the crushing liminal space as Klara could with such fatalistic optimism.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro was published in 2021 by Faber.
sarah madoka currie is a doctoral candidate & lecturer of dis/ability and madness (Mad Studies) at the University of Waterloo, Canada. As an activist, compassionate research and increased healthcare equity for psychiatric survivors and psychiatric service users are the soapboxes she re- and de-constructs at multilingual conferences in Canada, America, France, India, Japan and the southern United Kingdom. If our research and writing isn’t inspiring hope and increased collaboration in well-researched community-based care solutions, we are not doing enough with our myriad privileges.