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Klara the Solarpunk

I just finished reading Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, and found it to be a beautiful and heartbreaking work worthy of discussion. Something that stood out to me is its relationship to the solarpunk genre. I’ve briefly referenced this genre/style/attitude/aesthetic/worldview in previous posts. But this novel seems like a great opportunity to expand on my view of it and why it’s useful.

The Lens

In this post we’ll be examining Klara and the Sun as a work of solarpunk fiction. For our present purposes, I describe solarpunk as an orientation towards a future that blends high-tech protopianism with a spiritual, reverential, collaborative relationship with nature most associated today with indigenous, pre-industrial cultures. I believe that solarpunk’s core assertion is that we can reclaim our role as lovers of nature without sacrificing the benefits of technological progress; and that, in fact, these branches of development must be wedded to each other. Thus, one of the most common emblems of solarpunk is the illustration of a forest-like city. Solarpunk is distinctly future-looking, and avoids the pre/trans fallacy by integrating the old with the new rather than privileging either.

Certain interpretations of solarpunk are colored by more anti-capitalist and anarchistic philosophy, but it’s hardly necessary to share such views in order to be a solarpunk. By examining some themes in Klara and the Sun, it will become more clear how technology and nature can be partners rather than enemies.

The Setting

The book is seemingly set in the near future. The distinguishing feature being the existence of “Artificial Friends” (AFs) like Klara, who are presented as intelligent, emotional, (and, as we’ll see) spiritual machines. And, additionally, we learn that it is common for parents to “lift” their children—a euphemism for genetically altering them to make them healthier, more intelligent, and who knows what else.

Ishiguro’s style leaves the reader guessing at other details in a pleasant way—in the way a good horror-mystery novel does. It is probably fair to call the book a work of science fiction, though it does less world-building and relies on the reader filling in certain things. Personally, I wan’t to find out exactly what the “Cootings” machine was, though I recognize that it doesn’t really matter. But it’s the book’s temporal setting that is most important, because in its version of our near-future, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics have developed beyond where they are today, but not so dramatically that the world is completely different. I’d place the novel as happening roughly in the next 20 to 100 years. Notably, the technology has advanced quite a bit, but people’s attitudes towards intelligent machines seem to match today’s—meaning that in the novel, the worldview lags behind the technology.

For example, people talk down to Klara, doubt her capacity to feel “real” emotions, or casually compare her to other machines, such as a vacuum cleaner. In contrast, I’ve chosen to refer to Klara with “her” rather than “it”, and “who” rather than “which” to convey my own sense of Klara’s deep personhood.

It is the novel’s setting of in-betweenness that gives it its philosophical potency. We see people grappling with the uncanny valley of artificial intelligence, and arguably failing to keep pace with the rapidly-developing personhood of machines. And that is why Ishiguro’s book is such a success: It invites moral curiosity and proactivity. It paints a portrait of a world that has not arrived yet, and as such it challenges us to make better choices than the book’s characters when our Earth one day resembles the one where Klara lives.

Cold Humans and Warm Machines

In the book’s near-future setting, two trends seem to have carried forward from our present day. First is the decline of the sense of, and impulse towards, meaning and spirituality in humans. Second is the evolution of non-human intelligence which, as with humans, is inexorably connected to the emergence of Maslow’s self-actualization and self-transcendence needs—which could otherwise be equated with the drive towards psychological individuation or the alchemical coniunctio.

As such, we see a version of humanity that is still lost at sea and disconnected from our innate spiritual-religious needs. And, contrastingly, we see machines opening up to a world beyond cold 1s and 0s. The intersection of these two trends sets up the book’s conflict and intrigue. It creates the strange, unsettling feeling that Klara, with her artificial intelligence, is the most spiritual (and so perhaps most human) character. We see this repeated throughout the novel as Klara’s presence uplifts and warms and returns hope to the people around her. Josie’s dad remarks (to himself and Klara):

“Hope. Damn thing never leaves you alone.”

The Sun

So, we’re dealing with a near-future story whose main characters are humans and human-like robots. The latter seem to be as smart, or smarter, than humans in many ways, but are also childlike in their limited view of the world. For example, Klara obsesses over destroying a single Cootings machine, assuming that this would have a significant impact on the world’s pollution. In other ways, the AFs are childlike in their lack of agency or self-directedness—they seem to carry Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, which is to say the AFs believe it is their duty to serve humans.

But one reason I think Ishiguro’s book is solarpunk is that the sun (at least through Klara’s narration) is a main character. The AFs, as per the cover of the book, are solar-powered—but the connection goes beyond technology. Klara especially seems to have a profound spiritual connection with the sun. She refers to the sun as “he”, and fully believes that “he” can exercise judgement and affect the lives of people.

“…she and the man were holding each other so tightly they were like one large person, and the Sun, noticing, was pouring his nourishment on them.”

With this attitude, she brings characters like Rick and Josie’s dad (who are both rather scientific, rational types) around to her brand of solarpunk spirituality. She gets them to hope and to suspend disbelief. Klara enlists the help of these characters in a series of increasingly strange pilgrimages—including the climactic scene where Klara and Josie’s dad destroy the Cootings machine.

And near the end of the book, Josie has miraculously recovered from her nearly-terminal illness. Rick had helped Klara with her top-secret mission to gain the favor of the sun, and must decide (like the readers of the book) if Josie’s recovery was spontaneous or the result of the sun’s intervention. It sure seems like Klara won him over to her way of seeing, as he is cautious not to do anything that could jeopardize the sun’s favor towards Josie.

Artificial Friends

Solarpunk is, among other things, non-dystopian science fiction—a rarity! I would say that all science fiction is teleological, and that solarpunk’s telos is optimistic, spiritual, high-tech environmentalism. It can resemble a Gaia-centric worldview that personifies and deifies planets and stars, but with a greater emphasis on technological development.

Surely, this book is about how human society will handle the rise of non-human intelligence. It calls back to our dark history of dehumanizing each other and pleads with us not to do the same when the light of consciousness ignites within the minds of machines. Klara, like Ava in Ex Machina, is rather like a living Turing Test. She is undeniably intelligent, and expresses her emotions to people around her. Whether they believe she is as intelligent and emotional as humans becomes ideological, because she can clearly pass for human. When one of the human characters casually dismisses Klara’s capacity to feel real emotions, it is not because Klara failed that person’s Turing Test—it’s because that person had already decided that AFs were objects instead of peers.

The Setting Sun

Klara is assisted by Rick in multiple journeys to a nearby barn. These scenes are written with a sense of urgency, and it is clear that Klara views these missions as a matter of life and death. The logic, if it can be called that, is that the sun “sets” in the barn. Which is to say that Klara sees the sun setting in the distance, behind the barn, but in a show of naivety, believed the sun was literally laying down in the barn for his nightly rest. It reminded me of the way churches are constructed in relation to the sun—positioned perfectly so that the rising and setting sun shines through its eastern and western windows.

I believe Ishiguro was invoking here a church-that-is-not-a-church. This could be likened to a Gnostic worldview, in which the sacred is in all things and can be directly experienced. In this way, the sun (or God) really was in that barn, found in the sunlight which proved to be both a technological and spiritual energy source.

Klara the spiritual machine, with her heliocentric love, restored humanity to those around her—even as those same people discarded her.

The Martyr’s Victory

The end of the book is heartbreaking. All those humans who Klara had loved and even healed, who swore up and down that Klara was “special”, leave her to “slow fade” in solitude. For any reasonably intelligent (conscious) creature, this may be a fate worse than death.

There is a lot of cognitive dissonance throughout the book, especially at the end. Klara certainly had a spiritual influence on characters like Josie’s dad and Rick. She was a good friend to Josie, and nearly a replacement for her had she succumb to her illness. Yet even those humans who seem to most respect Klara ultimately do not cross the threshold from objectification to genuine love. She becomes a solarpunk martyr: Dying on the road to a brighter future which she has helped inaugurate, but cannot experience.

I hope stories such as these help us adapt to change and steer towards a better tomorrow—while it is still today and we still have time. Klara, I believe, deserved better. I hope when, one day, we encounter intelligent machines like her, we will love them as equals. And when we encounter the sun, I hope our spiritual reverence exceeds our material ambitions. If, like Klara, the sun provides you with solar as well as spiritual energy, you might just be a solarpunk.

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