« Current Currency | Main | Swimsuit Issue »

Quick Book Review and Thoughts on a Culture of Life

This summer started in much the same way as the last one, in that I left New York with a book given to me by a young lady, the idea being to pass the hours on an international flight. In this case, I was given Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. Sadly, the book is impossible to properly comment upon or review without giving away the entire novel. It's an enjoyable, if somewhat frustrating book, so if you normally like the kind of reading that I do, I'll spare you the spoilers by putting the review in the full entry.
cover

[Warning: a bit long and rambly. Ishiguro wrote a thought-provoking novel, and these are my initial thoughts.]

The Book Itself
Right: if you've gotten this far, you don't mind me spoiling the novel for you. It's about cloning. Specifically, it's about the old science fiction idea of cloning human beings and harvesting them for organs. The idea itself isn't particularly original: I last came across it in Michael Marshall Smith's Spares, but I remember first coming across it in a children's book in my elementary school. (Clones as second-class citizens made for a good analogy to racial prejudice.) So here we have Ishiguro, whose Remains of the Day holds a long-standing place in my heart, dipping his feet in the waters of science fiction.

The novel is a memoir written by Kathy, a clone and a "carer," the role assigned to clones before they are asked to become "donors." Carers travel around the United Kingdom visiting the bedsides of other clones and helping them to recover for their next operation. After a maximum of four "donations," the clones "complete," a sterile term for death combined with a harvesting of any other available organs.

Nothing in the last paragraph is made clear until the last third of the book. Kathy's memoir begins with her time at Hailsham, a curious boarding school cut off from the outside world. Only at the end of this part of the story does Ishiguro spell out the fate in store for the various children you've watched at play. In the meantime, Kathy and her friends create artwork, feud and play pranks, and occasionally learn about the world around them, with the occasional cut back to present day narration.

Ishiguro has few equals when it comes to memoir-style narratives. Memories are hazy in a way that feels honest, and Kathy's description of events at Hailsham are mixed with just the right amount of indeterminacy to feel like a thirty-year old looking back on her teens. (At least, it feels a lot like what happens when I think of high school.) That said, Kathy has a bad habit of peppering her text with heavy-handed foreshadowing: "As I'll tell you later,"; "As it turned out," etc. In order to maintain the suspense about the fact of cloning, and later regarding the special nature of Hailsham as a clone-school, Ishiguro can't let his heroine tell her story in anything approaching an organized chronology, but he also can't resist dropping a bushel of hints before the reader. Besides being annoying, it means that by the time he's revealed to the reader how his alternate present works, he doesn't have the space required to fill in the obvious plot holes. Why do these remarkably docile clones consent to their donations? Why don't any try to escape? And how can there be so little protest to what is obviously inhuman treatment?

Ishiguro uses his style to create a freakishly horrible mood: while his narrator writes with a complacent, almost clinical avoidance of what's happening to her and her friends, it's clear to the reader that everyone, every cute child Kathy has encountered, is doomed. Worse, even the privileged children of Hailsham are well-tended veal, lambs that willingly wander not only to the gates of the slaughterhouse, but right into the operating theatre. Indeed, to a degree it's not even science fiction: Ishiguro has produced a horror novel of such malevolence that several times during my flight I was forced to put it down.

Two Views of the Slaughterhouse
Whatever emotional impact is carried by the writing, I'm unconvinced by Never Let Me Go as a story. It's a good novel, but bad science fiction, as a comparison with Spares makes clear.

In Ishiguro's alternate present, cloning technology is a holdover from the 1950s. As the mistress of Hailsham describes it late in the novel:

After the war, in the early fifties, when the great breakthroughs in science followed one after the other so rapidly, there wasn't time to take stock, to ask the sensible questions. Suddenly there were all these new possibilities laid before us, all these ways to cure so many previously incurable conditions. This was what the world noticed the most, wanted the most. And for a long time, people preferred to believe these organs appeared from nowhere, or at most that they grew in a kind of vacuum. . . . So for a long time you were kept in the shadows, and people did their best not to think about you. And if they did, they tried to convince themselves you weren't really like us. That you were less than human, so it didn't matter."

The resistance movement takes the form of Hailsham, a school in which clones are referred to as "students," and where each student is encouraged to produce artwork, the best of which is displayed at shows in the outside world to prove to a skeptical public that their organ-cows have souls. It's hinted that clones at other facilities, even before Hailsham gets shut down, are treated much less humanely, but even the less fortunate donors that Kathy meets seem to have been taught to speak.

As I said, it's horrible but unconvincing. What kind of alternate 90's is it--particularly alternate 90's England--that doesn't include bevies of student protestors ready to flock noisily together at the drop of a Socialist Worker? Is it really believable to think that defenders of clones will be limited to a knitting-circle of kind-hearted old ladies prodding their charges producing oil paintings? In the real Britain of the 1990s, animal rights protestors are willing to take action so direct as to be criminal against laboratories that do animal testing, and I've never sensed that they started protesting over the existence, or otherwise, of animal souls.

Nor does the strange passivity of the protagonists make a great deal of sense. It's clear that some parts of the clones are engineered--for instance, they can have sex but can't reproduce--but unless they've somehow been jury-rigged for passivity there's no explaining the utter lack of clone rebellion over Ishiguro's last thirty years. The caring centers at which the clones recover from their donations are notable for the lack of security, and while interactions with outsiders are rare and marked with discomfort or contempt, the clones never encounter any source of real, hard authority such as a police officer.

I find the tending of the "spares" in Michael Marshall Smith's novel to be a much more convincing description of how a modern Britain would handle cloning. (I don't have my copy of the book here, so I'm going from memory as to the details.) First of all, the entire enterprise is illegal, but available to those wealthy enough. Secondly, there is no attempt ever made to treat the spares as human: they're not educated nor even clothed, but live out the majority of their lives in a filthy darkness. The main character of the novel accepts his position as their tender due to his own flaws and regrets, and hates what he does. While in both books clones are hidden from a public that denies their humanity, Spares is far crueller about it: once hidden, Smith's society is emphatic in treating the clones on the level of animals, or perhaps even less.

Rejection of Humanity as a Need to Cope With Guilt
Smith doesn't have half of Ishiguro's talent on a good day: his characters aren't as well-built, his imagery never as subtle. But science fiction writers are often like macro-economists, much better at capturing the behavior of multitudes and aggregates than explaining individual actions. Smith's more cruel and less horrific world feels more convincing.

When I was reading Never Let Me Go, what kept coming to mind was public attitudes towards the abortion debate. At the moment, Democratic strategy seems to be Howard Dean's take:

Here's the problem--and we were outmanipulated by the Republicans; there's no question about it. We have been forced into the idea of "We're going to defend abortion." I don't know anybody who thinks abortion is a good thing. I don't know anybody in either party who is pro-abortion. The issue is not whether we think abortion is a good thing. The issue is whether a woman has a right to make up her own mind about her health care, or a family has a right to make up their own mind about how their loved ones leave this world. I think the Republicans are intrusive and they invade people's personal privacy, and they don't have a right to do that....

But when you talk about framing this debate the way it ought to be framed, which is "Do you want Tom DeLay and the boys to make up your mind about this, or does a woman have a right to make up her own mind about what kind of health care she gets," then that pro-life woman says "Well, now, you know, I've had people try to make up my mind for me and I don't think that's right." This is an issue about who gets to make up their minds: the politicians or the individual. Democrats are for the individual. We believe in individual rights. We believe in personal freedom and personal responsibility. And that debate is one that we didn't win, because we kept being forced into the idea of defending the idea of abortion.


(Link from Prof. Althouse. I liked her editing of it, so I've kept it.)

Ishiguro seems to think humanity adopts easily to Dean's view, but Dean's argument is emotionally weak. Maybe no one thinks that abortion is a good thing, but why don't they think that? If it's because a life--a human life--is being snuffed out, then the issue certainly isn't who gets to make up their minds. If it isn't, then what is the fuss about? The difference between the parties is about the substantive nature of abortion, not about choice, not whether abortion is wrong but what kind of wrong it is.

Hence the need to hide abortion. I remember sitting studying outside the law school cafe one day when one of my tablemates mentioned an article about women requesting burial services for their aborted fetuses, sometimes years after the fact. The story itself wasn't surprising--hang around any pro-life conservatives and you'll hear such stories--but the reaction of one of the more liberal members of my table was. Immediately, abruptly, and all a bit too loudly, she denounced the idea as silly, ridiculous, and something that no woman ought to be doing. Remembering it now, the words aren't so strongly set in my mind as the scathing tone.

I myself am sympathetic to the idea of mourning an aborted child. Even if one doesn't believe that abortion amounts to murder, it is the loss of something, and even if one wants to call it "potential" life, that potential is valuable and emotionally compelling to me. But my compatriot would have none of it. There was a need to thrust it away, to say that abortion had no moral component, and if it did, then there was no reason to show it publicly.

Anyway, that conversation came to mind again and again when I read through Never Let Me Go. Somehow I can't imagine the same people who feel compelled to reject the humanity of an unborn child allowing a clone--human in every way but their "soul"--to walk among us. Shut them in cages with tortured jailors, and take out only the half-mad and ignorant body before surgery? Maybe. Know that one could be serving a roadside cup of tea to a creature that a doctor will be cutting open for spare parts? Man obviously has the capacity for cruelty that makes him capable of the former. I don't believe humanity's ability for self-delusion will support the latter.

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.threeyearsofhell.com/cgi-user/mt/mtPleaseLinktoMe.cgi/1271

Comments

You know, I have to disagree with your end digression there. Ironically enough, I think you would see liberals fighting for the rights of clones much more than conservatives mainly because some conservatives would be the ones feeling ashamed and trying to ignore the humanity of clones. Part of the abortion debate is a fundamental disagreement about science and religion. For pro-choicers, a collection of cells that is not viable is not a human yet...even if it has the potential to be one. For pro-lifers, obviously that is not the case. Life begins when life begins, and snuffing out the possiblity so callously amounts to murder. Personally, I struggle with that conflict and I see Dean's comments as persuasive. Whether someone believes abortion to be murder is a question of personal belief. What we have done as a society is set a legal limit on the latest this can happen. After that, it is a question of a person's own morality that rules. But, shrugging off the eternal abortion debate, I truly think you have the sides on the cloning debate mixed up. The first question would simply be who supported cloning and who didn't. I think we've already seen the lines drawn on that debate in modern times. Next, if it arose sneakily like in these two books, who would recognize the clones as full humans? On this one, I really think far right religious conservatives would treat clones with contempt and derision. However, the vast majority of conservatives and liberals would simply accept them and move on. Battles rage over fetuses because they are essentially unformed humans. However, I rarely meet a person who argues an eight-month fetus is worthy of abortion. Having a living, breathing human in the world would shape the debate in such a way that I truly don't think any political group would be willing to suggest clones are not worthy of human treatment. As long as we're on idle thoughts, it's ironic that fundies have such a hard time with cloning. After all, wasn't Jesus essentially a clone of Mary? No father...he just sprung from her loins... Technically, doesn't that make Christianity a religion that worships a clone?
The Farm, by Harlan Ellison, collected in either dangerous visions or again dangerous visions, has a similar theme.

Post a comment

NOTICE TO SPAMMERS, COMMENT ROBOTS, TRACKBACK SPAMMERS AND OTHER NON-HUMAN VISITORS: No comment or trackback left via a robot is ever welcome at Three Years of Hell. Your interference imposes significant costs upon me and my legitimate users. The owner, user or affiliate who advertises using non-human visitors and leaves a comment or trackback on this site therefore agrees to the following: (a) they will pay fifty cents (US$0.50) to Anthony Rickey (hereinafter, the "Host") for every spam trackback or comment processed through any blogs hosted on threeyearsofhell.com, morgrave.com or housevirgo.com, irrespective of whether that comment or trackback is actually posted on the publicly-accessible site, such fees to cover Host's costs of hosting and bandwidth, time in tending to your comment or trackback and costs of enforcement; (b) if such comment or trackback is published on the publicly-accessible site, an additional fee of one dollar (US$1.00) per day per URL included in the comment or trackback for every day the comment or trackback remains publicly available, such fee to represent the value of publicity and search-engine placement advantages.

Giving The Devil His Due

Choose Stylesheet

What I'm Reading

cover
D.C. Noir

My city. But darker.
cover
A Clockwork Orange

About time I read this...


Shopping

Projects I've Been Involved With

A Round-the-World Travel Blog: Devil May Care (A new round-the-world travel blog, co-written with my wife)
Parents for Inclusive Education (From my Clinic)

Syndicated from other sites

The Columbia Continuum
Other Blogs by CLS students

De Novo
Theory and Practice
Liberal Federalism?
Good News, No Foolin'


Althouse
Nancy Pelosi covers her head and visits the head of John the Baptist.
Vlogging in from Austin.
Omikase/"American Idol"


Jeremy Blachman's Weblog: 2007
Happy Passover
Looking for Advice re: LA
Google Books


Stay of Execution
What I've Learned From This Blog, or My Yellow Underpants
The End
Mid Thirties


Legal Theory Blog
Program Announcement: Summer Programs on the Constitution at George Washington
Book Announement: Political Foundations of Judicial Supremacy by Whittington
Entry Level Hiring Report


The Volokh Conspiracy
Making the Daily Show:
Civil unions pass New Hampshire House:
Profile of Yale Law Dean Harold Koh:


Crescat Sententia
Hillary II
Hillary
Politics and Principal/Agents


Law Dork
Election Approaches
Following Lewis
New Jersey High Court: 'Same Rights and Benefits'


IrishLaw
Homecoming
Surveying the revival
Birds of paradise


Half the Sins of Mankind
Cheney Has Spoken Religious conservatives who may ...
Does Ahmadinejad Know Christianity Better Than MSN...
Borders as Genocide In discussions of climate chan...


pf.org
Progress
For lovers of garden gnomes...and any China-freaks out there
We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Programming


Ideoblog
Does SOX explain the flight from NY?
More Litvak on SOX effect on cross-listed firms
What did the market learn from internal controls reporting?


The Yin Blog
Iowa City = Riyadh
Jeffrey Rosen's "The Supreme Court"
Geek alert -- who would win between Battlestar Galactica and the U.S.S. Enterprise?


Letters of Marque
Graduation
And there we are
Oil!


BuffaloWings&Vodka
Signing Off


Dark Bilious Vapors
Jim (The Waco Kid): Where you headed, cowboy?
Bart: Nowhere special.
Jim: Nowhere special. I always wanted to go there.
Bart: Come on.
--"Blazing Saddles"

Technical Difficulties... please stand by....
The Onion should have gotten a patent first....


Legal Ethics Forum
Interesting new Expert DQ case
Decency, Due Care, and The Yoo-Delahunty Memorandum
Thinking About the Fired U.S. Attorneys


Ex Post
Student Symposium- Chicago!
More Hmong - Now at Law School
Good Samaritan Laws: Good For America?


Appellate Law & Practice
Those turned over documents
CA1: courts can’t help people acquitted of crimes purge the taint of acquitted conduct
CA1: restrictions on chain liquor stores in Rhode Island are STILL okay


the imbroglio
High schoolers turn in plagiarism screeners for copyright infringement
talisman
Paris to offer 20,600 bikes at 1,450 stations to rent by the end of the year


The Republic of T.
The Secret of the Snack Attack
links for 2007-04-04
Where You Link is What You Get

Distractions for stressed law students

The Other Side: Twisted AnimationsSomething Positive, a truly good webcomic

Syndicate This Site

Sitemeter

Technologies


Stop Spam Harvesters, Join Project Honey Pot