Klara and the Sun
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Klara and the Sun is a dystopian science fiction novel published in March of 2021 by the British author Kazuo Ishiguro. Set somewhere in the United States in the near future, the novel is narrated by Klara, an android designed to provide companionship for children. The story follows her experience as an “Artificial Friend” to a young, sick girl who has had her genetics altered for better academic performance. Klara was published by Faber and Faber (UK) and Alfred A. Knopf (US), and it debuted on the New York Times fiction best-seller list.
In the world of Klara and the Sun, most wealthy families pay to have their children “lifted,” a genetic engineering procedure that enhances academic performance, without which there are minimal educational and professional opportunities. Because they take classes with online tutors, children have little opportunity to socialize. Wealthy families therefore also buy android AFs (Artificial Friends) to keep their children company. Klara, along with her friend Rosa and other androids, begin in an AF store. They are directed and cared for by “Manager,” and they take turns occupying the store window. Klara is uniquely observant and adept at noticing and analyzing emotional cues. AFs are solar powered, and Klara comes to view the sun as an omniscient being with special powers after mistaking a homeless man waking up for a healing miracle. For several days, an industrial instrument Klara names the Cootings Machine is parked in front of the store, and the smoke it generates obscures the sunlight.
The AFs are visited by various children and parents, but Klara particularly likes Josie, who promises from outside the window to buy her someday. Josie is lifted and is beginning to exhibit the symptoms of an unexplained illness that sometimes accompanies genetic engineering and can result in death. Josie and her mother, Chrissy, eventually return. Chrissy quizzes Klara on her daughter’s physical traits and asks her to imitate Josie’s walk. They buy Klara.
Klara learns the spatial configuration of Chrissy and Josie’s house. Melania, the housekeeper, is protective of Josie and suspicious of Klara. Josie is kind and open with Klara, taking her to her room every evening to watch the sunset. Chrissy and Josie’s relationship is loving but complicated and occasionally tense. From Josie’s room, they see the sun set over a barn, which Josie identifies as Mr. McBain’s barn and which Klara comes to believe is the sun’s nighttime resting place. Josie introduces Klara to her best friend Rick, her only nearby neighbor, who is unlifted. Chrissy hosts an “interaction meeting” at their house, wherein a group of lifted children come together to socialize. Rick attends as well, but he is out of place among the upper class, lifted children. Some children make fun of Klara and threaten to throw her across the room, but Rick defends her.
Chrissy and Josie plan a trip to a park called Morgan’s Falls, but Chrissy tells Josie she can’t go because her health is failing. Klara learns about Sal, Josie’s older sister, who died from the same illness Josie has. Chrissy takes Klara instead and expresses her frustration and guilt about parenting. At the falls, Chrissy has Klara imitate Josie again. They return, and Klara feels a new coldness in Josie’s attitude toward her.
Josie gets sicker, and Rick starts visiting more often. They play the “bubble game” together, in which Josie draws pictures of figures and Rick fills in their thought bubbles. After a while they have a fight, and Josie sends Klara to Rick’s house with a drawing as an apology. Rick’s house is small and shabby. Klara meets Rick’s mother, Helen, who asks Josie to help her convince Rick to make an effort to apply to Atlas Brookings, the only university that admits a small number of unlifted students.
After her visit to Rick’s, Klara returns to Mr. McBain’s barn. She believes that the sun has the power to heal Josie but has not noticed her yet. Klara offers to destroy the Cootings Machine, hoping it will please the sun if the machine can no longer produce “Pollution.” Rick helps Klara on her journey to and from the barn, but Klara doesn’t tell him the details of her plan. Klara learns that they will soon go into the city together, because Josie is sitting for a “portrait” crafted by a man named Mr. Capaldi. Melania warns Klara that Mr. Capaldi may have ulterior motives.
They go to the city and meet Paul, Josie’s father and Chrissy’s ex-husband. Then, they go to Mr. Capaldi’s studio. After seeing the unfinished portrait, Paul gets upset and leaves with Josie. Klara learns the truth about the portrait and about her purpose in the family: Josie’s “portrait” is a 3D AF model of her. Mr. Capaldi and Chrissy’s plan is to transfer Klara’s consciousness to the model of Josie in the event of her death, and Klara will then live as Josie. Chrissy expresses mixed feelings about the plan, and they leave.
Klara takes a car ride with Paul and convinces him to help her disable the Cootings Machine, which he does with a solution extracted from Klara’s neck. They meet up with Rick and Helen, and Klara goes with them to meet Vance, an ex-boyfriend of Helen’s who is on the scholarship board at Atlas Brookings. At a diner, Rick shows Vance diagrams of drones he has designed. Vance is impressed by Rick but upset with Helen, who has ignored him for years after abruptly ending their relationship. The next morning, driving back to the country, Klara is discouraged when she sees a new Cootings Machine has replaced the one she sabotaged.
Josie keeps getting sicker. Klara returns to Mr. McBain’s barn and prays to the sun again, appealing to the love between Rick and Josie. Finally, after days of rain, the sun comes out, and Josie starts feeling better. Years pass, and Josie gets ready to go to college. She and Rick have grown apart but remain friends. Mr. Capaldi visits Chrissy’s house after Josie has gone to college and proposes a plan to dissect her for scientific research, but Chrissy makes him leave. The novel ends with Klara’s “slow fade.” She is immobile but content sitting in a junkyard, watching the sun and going through her fading memories. She is visited by the old manager from her store. Klara tells her she doesn’t think she would have been able to replace Josie.