Never Let Me Go / Kazuo Ishiguro

This review appeared on my previous blog, Rat's Reading.

Cover of Never Let Me Go

This is one of the best science fiction books I’ve read in years. It’s so good you won’t think of it as science fiction. I’m a little resentful of that phrase. It irritates me that science fiction as a genre is popularly thought to only include the schlock, and the good stuff by definition just can’t be science fiction. A co-worker said this to me the other day when I pointed out The Sparrow as it came across the receiving station and I recommended it to her. I knew she didn’t like science fiction generally, and thought she might read it and find some science fiction she liked. She told me she had already read it, but that she didn’t think it was science fiction.

Then again, I’m a believe in Sturgeon’s Revelation: ninety percent of everything is crud. Including science fiction. And unfortunately, what science fiction fans like generally isn’t the good science fiction. What usually gets the s.f. readers is the cool ideas of what possibly technology could look like in some made up world. So what sells is utter crap like Anne McCaffrey has taken to recently, or yet another Star Wars novel.

Good science fiction isn’t really about the science (most of the time, at least). Good science fiction takes some of the fundamental rules of reality as we know it and twists it. Then it uses that to explore what that does to the universe, and if it focuses on the effect on people, even better. In other words, a good science fiction tale tells us something about people.

Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go is one of those novels. Science fiction’s fans did themselves a disservice by not giving it any major awards. Why this didn’t win a Nebula or Hugo I do not know. It doesn’t look to me like it even made the ballots. It’s certainly better than anything else the last couple of years.

A word of warning. My detailed review includes some minor spoilers. Ishiguro was careful to dole out bits of information very slowly. So some key things you won’t find out in the first one or two chapters. Since I can’t discuss the book meaningfully without them, I’ve put the rest after a jump. Click through to see everything.

The premise behind Never Let Me Go is that cloning can be used to create humans. There are many people who think of clones as not having souls, in what is a familiar theme of cloning novels. But the book really isn’t exploring what is it that makes us human. Not at all. Ishiguro makes the clones human. That much of his intent is clear. The non-clones in the book disagree with Ishiguro. If read on the surface level, you won’t get much out of the novel. Clonging is all used as a plot device to set up the situation in which he places his characters.

What I got from the novel was less of the what makes us human conundrum (though I will touch a bit on that later) but more a tale where knowledge and hope are inversely proportional to each other. I started to write happiness in place of hope in the last sentence, but then remembered the characters aren’t particularly happy ever in the novel. Perhaps they are between the scenes Ishiguro describes, but the ones we see they generally aren’t.

Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are students at Hailsham, which at first appears to be an exclusive boarding school in the English country side. Of course, there are hints to the reader that all is not as it seems. Careful unexplained references to later occupations as carers and an utter lack of a home life to which the students escape during summer months, for instance. Gradually we readers learn that the students are organ farms. Gradually I think to mimic the pace the students learn their own fate.

The students dream of normal lives which will never be allowed them. As the novel progresses, the dreams fall by the wayside, though they do cling to one particularly strongly.

What happens to these kids is particularly ugly. Being raised so your internal organs can be harvested for use by real people violates pretty much every moral code in existence. Although we’re edging toward the slippery slope already (some of the things I’ve read in newspapers make me cringe, and I’m not against cloning!), I have to reiterate that I don’t think Ishiguro is trying to make us think about whether cloning is good or bad.

I did wonder how different our lives are from these cloned students who will die. I will die as well. Why do I bother, when I could reasonably put an upper limit on my life at say 100? Why don’t I see the same purposelessness in my life that I see in these characters? They have meaning. They will die knowing they are helping others.

They both dread this future life, trying to find respite from it. And they embrace it too. Again, Ishiguro is careful not to have these people angry at their lot. He’s careful not to have them question the righteousness of it. They simply want to participate in some of the possibilities they see in the real world. Are my hopes qualitatively different than theirs? I’d like to think so, but I can’t put my finger on why. By the end of the novel, there is little hope left to them. So why do I continue to feel hope?

There are a lot of other themes explored in the book. Some better reviewers will point out more of them than I did. Ishiguro writes a very multi-layered vision. Hell, I’ll probably see something completely different the next time I read the book.

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