Photo of a girl and a robot encountering each other by Andy Kelly on Unsplash

Kazuo Ishiguro, British Nobel prize-winning author, is known for his fables of human resilience and resourcefulness in difficult situations. In previous novels such as Remains of the Day (1989) or Never Let Me Go (2005), his protagonists are either servants (as is the butler) or else clones who exist for the benefit of others who are more privileged. But rather than seeing them as doomed or rebellious underdogs, Ishiguro explores the personhood of these underclass members. What gives them a sense of self-worth, a sense of purpose? In this latest work, the novelist continues to pose these questions by writing about an empathic robot, an Artificial Friend. Klara, our narrator, is apparently a life-sized girl AF near the beginning of her existence who has been designed to possess human-like qualities of perception and awareness. She, like a child, has the ability to learn quickly from her environment. This aspect is important, for her role will be to help a human child with her journey to adulthood by being a loyal, helpful companion.

From the opening pages, which take place in the store where she resides, it’s clear that Klara, among her fellow AFs, is endowed with unusual powers of observation. There is much to learn. From her early days within the walls of the store, the first lesson is that placement is important. The best place to be, of course, is in the front alcove window. It’s where she can best capture the sunlight that powers all the AFs. Then, too, the front window is ideal for attracting customers. As the Manager tells them, Klara and her fellows must wait to be chosen by a child who is drawn to her and speaks to her first, not the other way around. As Klara and her friend Rosa take their places on the striped sofa in the alcove, she discovers the most exciting advantage of all: the social world of the street lies before them, and as long as they exchange observations discretely, they have the opportunity to learn more about the humans they are destined to serve. Klara is immediately surprised by the range of emotions and behaviors she observes. She asks questions of the Manager and so comes to know that not all the children who approach the window come from families that could afford to offer her a home. No wonder some of them seem sad or angry, just like the frustrated taxi drivers she sees in the street.

All of these early lessons and impressions establish Klara as a well-intentioned, trustworthy narrator. She observes that humans’ greatest fear is of loneliness, and that she must be able to help her future special child overcome this. Yet, we wonder, how will she take her place in the rough world outside the store windows that seems dominated by competition, scarcity, and inequality? Even her destiny in the store, despite a compassionate Manager, seems threatened by the arrival of the latest, upgraded AFs, the clever B3s. Klara’s only a B2. A 14-year-old girl named Josie came to the store only a couple of weeks ago, and she seemed so interested in Klara. She promised to come back to the store with her mother to buy her and take her home. But where is she? Even though Manager had warned her not to trust everything children would say to her, Klara couldn’t stop believing that Josie would return.

As a reader, my attachment to Klara is immediate. I want her to succeed and to thrive—and not to get hurt from what I know to be the world’s harms. I wonder intensely about Josie, the pre-teen who finally persuades her mother to buy her, and how she will treat Klara when they go to her home. I wonder as well about Josie’s high-ranking and thoroughly pre-occupied mother, who seems ambivalent about this new companion for her daughter. Will Mom be an obstacle? From another readerly perspective, I can imagine a young teen bonding not only with Josie but also with this amazingly sentient doll-robot, wishing she had such a loyal friend she could trust all her secrets to, one who would never betray her. In these ways, Ishiguro draws us further into the suspense of Klara’s journey. Her existence will be full of opportunities for companionship with Josie, yes, but also full of perils. And while Klara herself may be “simple” and free of emotional conflicts, her mission of staving off human loneliness will be anything but that.

Ishiguro is a master of suspense. One of his strategies as a storyteller is to slowly build hints of danger to a peak of intensity until we can imagine all kinds of possible threats emerging. Given the social inequities we’re presented in the first chapters, where society seems divided into high-ranking manager types and lowly service people who can easily be dismissed or replaced by machines, the narrative could easily have become that of a dystopian science fiction novel. We could imagine the human underlings of this high-tech world revolting, wanting to smash the privileged places of the over-class. Or the story could have become a fairy tale narrative where the naïve, childlike heroine learns to defend herself by taking on powerful weapons to vanquish her opponents. These are both common narratives within contemporary popular culture. Instead, Ishiguro uses suspense differently; he takes us to the brink of danger, then suddenly diverts it to lead us off in another direction, one we haven’t suspected. In Josie’s social interaction scene, for example, Klara is on the verge of being physically threatened by a bully, but as the scene unfolds, another more subtle menace—a psychological one—presents itself. Will Josie abandon her new companion in favor of being accepted by her peers?

Another example from the novel would be the scene at Morgan’s Falls, when—after Josie becomes ill and can’t make the trip—her mother suddenly decides to drive Klara there alone. Tension builds through Klara’s perceptions during the mountain drive, and we find there are as many psychological turns in their conversation as there are curves up the road. Through Klara’s eyes, we feel the combined physical danger of the waterfall itself as well as the more mysterious one located somewhere in the mother’s inner world of memories and fears. What, exactly, does she expect of this exceptional Klara, her daughter’s AF? It’s not just Klara who’s learning and changing here; the human characters are responding to her too—and perhaps altering their expectations of who she can be for them. We’re left to conjecture how Klara will sort through the sometimes-conflicting demands these human actors place on her.

Despite our emotional attraction to Klara, we’re often reminded that she’s not like us. Frankly, she’s a mechanical device, a fact author Ishiguro brings into our readerly awareness by conveying how, exactly, Klara perceives the world. In scenes that take place out of doors, for instance, Klara tells us the difficulty she has walking over rough, stony surfaces or through tall grass. We realize abruptly that her arms and legs are not at all like ours; likely she’s made of electronic circuits encased within a foam and plasticized “body.” She’s more fragile.

At times, we discover that her sensory perceptions often vary markedly from typical human ones. Occasionally, Klara’s visual field goes awry; instead of seeing a unified, three-dimensional image, what she sees seems more like a digital code that has suddenly pixelated. Is this a design flaw? She may see several screens at once—rectangular shapes, cones, patches of color—until things stabilize again. These instances occur when Klara first enters an unusual environment, or they can occur in the midst of a heated exchange among her human companions. In these ways, Klara’s fluctuating “sensors” distance us momentarily from her account, reminding us of her essential otherness.

This distancing technique cuts both ways, too, since by making Klara a first-person narrator, Ishiguro places us in the situation of seeing people like ourselves through the mechanical eyes and intuitive awareness of a digitally sentient device trying to understand them/us. Viewed this way, we humans seem so much more opaque, have so many more layers and possibilities, so many secrets. Still, I doubt I’m alone in finding Klara often more likeable!

Everyone, Klara discovers, has a plan. Just as Manager had a plan for how to place and sell the AFs in the store, other characters each have a plan as well. Josie and her friend Rick have a plan; Rick’s mother has a future plan for her son and Josie’s mother has another one for her daughter whom she wants to save from a mysterious illness. Even Mr. Capaldi, the photographer, has an elaborate plan. Some of these projects are in conjunction with each other, but some clearly are not. We learn that there’s a strong social boundary between Josie’s family and Rick’s family, even though they are neighbors and have been friends for years. What will this mean for the young pair’s future relationship? The wonder of it all is that Klara, caught in this swirl of intentions around her, becomes inspired to make a plan of her own. After all, as a next-to-human awareness, she has her own unique perspective, her own intentions, and her own way of wanting to take agency over events.

There are many fascinating societal conflicts here but ultimately it’s not a novel about those. Or at least not in the usual sense. At its core, I view the story as more about Klara’s original problem: how to stave off human loneliness. It’s about how we learn—or don’t learn—to accept our choices, live with painful memories, establish authentic interpersonal bonds despite inequities and injustices of all kinds. In this way, Ishiguro becomes a moral philosopher. In an imperfect world, what does it mean to be special? Who is worthy of care? Ultimately, do we tend to see the world as providing abundance and grace or as dealing mostly in scarcity and harm?

Suffice it to say that this is a story that can stay with you for days, long after the book’s covers are closed.

Janice Morgan is the author of Suspended Sentence, a memoir (She Writes Press, 2019) where she recounts her son’s ongoing struggle with bipolar II and substance use as he leaves jail and enters a drug court program.