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.
[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.