"Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?" - Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go.
If I had to give an example of a book that has broken my heart many times, I’d hold up a copy of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I first read it fifteen years ago, caught off guard by how much it got under my skin. It’s one of those novels you have to tiptoe around when recommending to people (the twist is too good to spoil), but it’s safe to say that the story of Kathy, Tommy and Ruth is deeply unsettling; a school-time novel that slips through the looking glass into dystopia and won’t let you out again.
Ishiguro fans seem to be divided between those who love Never Let Me Go and those who prefer his Man Booker-winning Remains of the Day, a novel narrated by Stevens, a butler haunted by past loyalties, and portrayed on screen by Anthony Hopkins.
It’s fortuitous then that Ishiguro’s latest novel is a mixture of both of these books. Klara and the Sun is science fiction in the vein of Never Let Me Go but it’s narrated by Klara, an Artificial Friend who is destined to serve a household and keep her owners’ secrets. Like Stevens in Remains of the Day, Klara is narrating for us, and we learn about her surroundings in real-time alongside her. Spending time with a character who has a limited understanding of the world around them is a familiar Ishiguro device, and he uses it for good reason: it keeps the reader guessing.
Throughout the novel, I was reminded of E.T.A. Hoffmann, a German author from the 1700s who wrote gothic tales of objects and toys coming to life. Several of these later became ballets: Coppelia, the story of a life-size dancing doll, and The Nutcracker, the tale of Marie (later renamed Klara/Clara who steps into the world of the Mouse King and has to decide whether she’d like to stay there forever). Hoffman wanted to explore strange, dreamlike places as an answer to (what he considered to be) the pervasive Enlightenment, whose science he felt threatened imagination. His work was steeped in folklore, and it’s perhaps ironic that he used magic to bring dolls to life when science, and the world of Klara and the Sun, would later do the same. What is science, Ishiguro seems to ask in this novel, if not a form of magic? Klara, an AI birthed by science and made to imitate humans, can’t help but build magical superstitions and folklore of her own. She worships the sun and believes it has the ability to heal, and this is not a strange assumption to make given that many of her AI friends run through solar power.
Whilst Klara and the Sun shares many similarities with Never Let Me Go, it is also its opposite. Both are an exploration of what makes us human, but in Never Let Me Go characters are asked to prove themselves through art, building portfolios of drawings to display their souls, whilst characters in Klara and the Sun are asked to prove themselves through science, building portfolios of diagrams and experiments to show off their minds. There are elements of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in both of these stories, too: the dilemma of the split self. They ask: what happens to our bodies when the essence of us is changed? Who are we at our core, anyway? And have we lost the ability to answer both of these things?
Photographs by Suzie Howell.