Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Never Let Me Go

I recently read Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go. Ishiguro is a literary darling best known for the wonderful novel Remains of the Day, made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Never Let Me Go is an SF novel by a non-SF writer, and as such is highly instructive.

The book is about cloning people to become organ-donation sources for other people. When SF authors write on either organ donation or cloning (Niven and Varley come to mind), there is much action: black markets, attempts to escape, violence, deceit, outrage. Ishiguro's novel is nothing like that. For the entire first two-thirds of the book, the cloned children are growing up at a secluded boarding school in rural England. They know they are clones and eventual sources of organ donation, and -- like children everywhere -- accept what they are told. Two hundred pages are thus taken up with what genuinely interests kids: who is friends with whom; who has the coolest music CD; how to torment Tommy, the class scapegoat; which girls betray each other's "secrets;" which teachers favor which students.

Even when the kids leave school and become either "donors" or "carers" (nurses for the donors for a few years, before becoming donors themselves), there is no attempt to flee the country, acquire false IDs and blend in with the general populace, kill their "captors." There are no "captors." Excluding one desperate and pathetic attempt to persuade authority that young couples "in love" should get to postpone donation for a few years, the clones accept their fate. As Ruth says:

"I think I was a pretty decent carer. But five years felt about enough for me. I was like you, Tommy. I was pretty much ready when I became a donor. It felt right. After all, it's what we're supposed to be doing, isn't it?"

This passivity in the face of their fate makes the novel chilling. By the end, however, it also made it seem a bit false to me. After all, this system has been going on for thirty years now. Hundreds of donors have "completed" (died). Yet NONE of the rest ever really protest, organize, escape the country, or even fight back in small ways. These donors know that they are human, that they are basically like other people. Their access to literature and libraries is in no way restricted, nor is their freedom to move around the country (the adults have cars). The time is the "late 1990's," yet there are no computers ever mentioned, which also felt false to me. In any inhumane system, there are always some rebels, and eventually they organize. Spartacus managed it in a much-longer-entrenched system of slavery, and he didn't even have the Internet. Where in this book are the equivalent of partisan guerrillas, Abolitionists, or even the SPCA? Would England really go that quietly into this high-tech barbarism? Ultimately, despite Ishiguro's wonderful characterizations, I just didn't believe it.

On the other hand, the high drama that accompanies cloning and organ donation in most SF also feels unrealistic to me. Even among the most brutally exploited, there would be some Ruths and Tommys, because history shows us that there always are. So I end up dissatisfied with both extremes, wondering where the realistic center lies and what it would look like. I don't know. But I wish I knew of a cloning-for-organ-donation novel that hit that realistic center.


cd said...

OK, knowing your notorious demands for character realism, I'm shocked you have a kind word for that book. I thought the novel had fine prose but was so astonishingly unrealistic in its portrayal of human beings that it was ridiculous; and the fact that it was so earnest made it that much more ridiculous -- almost goofy.

These are human beings, and they have no surveillance on them of any kind, and they just report willingly to hospitals to be disassembled? And here in our world we have people who believe blastocytes deserve full human rights, and some even kill abortion doctors, while in this novel we're to believe people like you and me are going to sit around and allow full-grown humans to be harvest without reacting? Come on!

This novel makes A. E. van Vogt read like a Russian realist in comparison.

TheOFloinn said...

This novel makes A. E. van Vogt read like a Russian realist in comparison.


One positive thing I can see in the description is that the long build-up enables the reader to connect to the "donors" as actual persons, no different from others. This ought to heighten the horror.

I am also reminded of a case in Choctaw Court in the old IT. An Indian named Billy (iirc) was sentenced to death for murder. Then, per Choctaw custom was given some period of time to get his affairs in order. It may have been a year. So Billy went off to his homestead.

At the end of the year, Billy reported back for sentencing; and they hanged him.(*)

The effect of lifelong indoctrination in a culture can mean that certain things are no longer culturally visible, and there are certain thoughts that cannot be thought.

Then, too, some of the difference may be the optimism of most SF (yes, we can) over mainstream literature's pessimism. Guerrillas and rebels are optimists, even when their cause is terrible.

(*) In the same article, there was a gunfight as the court was emptying out and the judge drew down on the miscreant. I have to admit that an armed judge may keep better order in the court, and maybe reduce the number of spurious objections....

James A. Ritchie said...

I tink this novel is an extreme, but not horribly unrealistic for all that. I'm reminded of how many people over the centuries have walked willingly into mass execution/extermination with nary a word of protest.

Others may protest, but those raised from birth to be donors seem likely to do as they believe they should do. To them, it's the right thing to do, and while I have no doubt a few would rebel, these would be the exceptions that prove the rule.

It would have been nice to have a mention of such a person or two, but, by and large, most people do as they are expected to do, as they think they should do. We all believe we would be the rebels, the fighters, but history shows that rebels and fighters are the exceptions.

Ruth's statement, the one you quoted, strikes me as perfect realism. These clones were raised to serve a purpose, perhaps even a noble purpose, from their point of view. How many of us have a real purpose in life?

I do think this novel took it to an extreme, but I also think it remains realistic, even if the realism doesn't show the whole picture.

Nick A said...

Here's the 'realistic center' in use now. China 'organ harvesting' buses. Very creepy.

Ann said...

People do live without much resistance to inhumanity all the time. I think we resist far less often than books and movies would lead us to believe.

A.R.Yngve said...

To misquote THE TRUMAN SHOW: We accept the reality that is given to us.

To some extent, our worldview IS shaped independently of reason, and sometimes against our self-preservative instincts.

The more educated we get, the more we can reflect on our reality, regard it as if from outside, and perhaps challenge its assumptions.

Wouldn't NEVER LET ME GO be more realistic if the clones had been brought up in poverty, isolation and ignorance, so that they had much fewer opportunities to imagine a "better life"?

More nitpicking:
It seems impractical and time-consuming to grown whole human beings just to get the organs. Organs grown separately in vats is the more realistic option... though of course much less melodramatic.

Sniping at Genre:
Then there is this tendency in "serious" literary fiction to embrace helplessness, protagonists who are either utterly powerless to change their fate, or too apathetic/dumb to do so.
(Subtext: People Are Sheep.)

Leading Question:
When (not if) cloned human organs become a commodity, will NEVER LET ME GO seem quaint, or even Luddite?

Jerry Miller said...

Thanks, Nick A, for the execution/organ harvest bus picture.

I found the novel very realistic. Rebellion is not that common as we may think. These clones were indoctrinated from conception to perform explicit service. If it wasn't realistic it would not be horror. I didn't find the novel sci-fi at all.

M.Bader said...

I find this novel very realistic from Kathy's point of view. These clones were born and bred for a purpose that they have been aware of their whole life and they have not really gotten any glimpse of the outside world. It is realistic to think that without any knowledge of an outside world the clones would except their fate. I do believe, however, that someone outside of these "boarding schools" would have protested against the practice of growing humans for body parts.