NESFA Members' Reviews

Never Let Me Go

by Kazuo Ishiguro

Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, ISBN 1-4000-4339-5

A book review by Elisabeth Carey

Spoilers ahead. There's no way to say much about this book without mentioning some stuff that is, after all, clear to even the slowest reader after the first hundred pages or so.

Kathy H. has been a "carer" for nearly twelve years, and with the end of that life approaching, she has decided to set down her thoughts and memories concerning her privileged upbringing in the exclusive and isolated private school of Hailsham, in some unspecific spot in the English countryside.. She describes a fairly typical, genteel boarding-school life, with some important oddities. There is no mention of families, school holidays, life before Hailsham, or contact with the outside world. There is Madame, who visits periodically to collect the best of the children's artwork, which the children assume to be for inclusion in her Gallery. The teachers at Hailsham are their guardians, and the children know, in a carefully vague way, that they are different in some important way from their guardians, Madame, and all the "normal" people in the outside world. As Kathy and her friends, most importantly Tommy and Ruth, grow older, they are, as one of the guardians says, "told and not told" that they are clones, being raised solely as spare parts for real people. Kathy H., with her career as a "carer"—a sort of combination patient advocate and designated emotional support for "donors," clones whose organs are currently being harvested—coming to an end, is about to begin her own few years of donating vital organs until she "completes." (The word "die" is never used in relation to the clones.)

In many ways this is a good book Life at Hailsham and afterwards is beautifully described, exquisitely detailed, touching but not cloying, with a creepy undertone that's fairly effective. Kathy, the passive good girl whose more stubborn or more persistent than she seems; bossy, manipulative Ruth; Tommy, with a temper he can't always control and baffled by some of the social demands on him; these are kids I knew, though I avoided some of them. The problems here are different, and all the more maddening because some of them would be so easy to fix.

I don't have a problem with the fact that Kathy and her friends don't rebel against their fate. They've been carefully raised to believe it's their natural place in life, they're not taught or encouraged to think critically, and they're given very comfortable lives. Once they leave Hailsham, they go to the Cottages—somewhat less comfortable physically, but almost as sheltered, for their gradual transition from students to carers. What does strain my credibility considerably is that, once they're at the Cottages, living with clones raised in other facilities, some of them far less privileged than Hailsham, and able to watch television, read newspapers, and get out into the "normal" world to some degree, the myriad floating rumors don't include any stories at all of any clones having resisted. There is speculation about who they were cloned from, there are daydreams about the lives they might live if they were "normal," there are rumors about "deferrals" that allow two clones who can prove they are really in love to put off the start of their donations for a few years. There are no rumors at all about clones actively resisting or attempting to escape—no romantic daydreams of successful escape, no cautionary tales of failed escape or resistance, no stories of some carer—provided with a car and necessarily traveling around the country without close supervision, in pursuit of their duites—mysteriously disappearing or attempting to disappear. Nothing. Given that the main burden of the book is that the clones are just as human as we are, and are being used in an inhuman way, this is utterly beyond the bounds of possibility. Human beings everywhere tell themselves and each other stories that both comfort and frighten them. It's what we do. It's what distinguishes us as a species; there is virtually no other human behavior that hasn't been found in some form in other species. Human beings who aren't telling each other stories in order to frame and manage the most important fact of their lives are just not credible.

There is also, apparently, no real outside resistance to the fate of the clones. There is a terribly genteel and polite movement of which Hailsham is a part, making speeches, raising money, and creating foundations to raise the clones in more humane and pleasant conditions, rather than the factory conditions that prevailed before Hailsham and other foundations of its type, and apparently still the norm for most clones. But, in the land of the anti-vivisectionist movement, animal rights activists, and people willing to demonstrate and even riot over genetic engineering on plants and the creation of "Frankenfoods," there apparently isn't and never has been any more vigorous movement against human cloning itself—either on behalf of the clones, or out of fear of damage to the human race generally. I harbor no excess confidence in the human race; I see no reason why such a movement would have to be successful. It's perfectly plausible that it would attract nutcases who would do something seriously counterproductive. What I don't believe in is an England where such a movement does not exist at all—especially not since the cloning began in the 1950s, in the aftermath of the end of World War II and revelation to the general public of Hitler's concentration camps. That no such movement ever existed in Mr. Ishiguro's fictional England is another item in the "completely unbelievable" category. And it could be so easily fixed—the Great Revelation that the book slowly builds toward would be much stronger if the "scandal" that did the damage were rooted in a real resistance that backfired badly rather than what it's linked to here.

The final difficulty is Mr. Ishiguro's failure to think seriously about the underpinnings of his fictional world. It's the 1990s, and we've got large-scale human cloning for spare parts going on. It's been going on for decades; in fact, it started in the 1950s. Now, in the real 1950s, we had barely begun to even ask the right questions. It was four decades later that the first successful animal clone was created. We're still finding that cloning is different for each species—Genetic Savings & Clone, a real company, is really offering commercial cloning of your deceased pet cat, but they can't do dogs well enough to offer dog cloning yet. (Next year—they hope.) And not only is the failure rate in cloning quite high; the failure mode is pretty horrific. And even in "successful" clones, significant and life-shortening health problems that didn't exist in the original are extremely common. We're not even close to being able to clone human beings who would live to be born, much less human beings who would live to adulthood and be healthy organ donors. So how does Mr. Ishiguro explain this major departure in the history of science? He credits it to the "great burst of scientific progress" after the war. Oh, right. Sure. Without major differences in the direction of science before that, it's not possible. The least-major change that would provide a fig leaf of cover for 1950s human cloning have to involve Dr. Mengele making several major breakthroughs in the course of his medical experiments. And that brings us right back to the implausible lack of any resistance to cloning humans for spare parts, and now we need to consider that lack in the light of the science of cloning stemming directly from Hitler's death camps and Mengele's experiments. And we don't even have a token, lunatic-fringe resistance to the idea of cloning humans for spare parts? Utter nonsense.

Interesting but seriously flawed.

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