Never Let Me Go

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Read 05/04/2016-07/04/2016

Rating: 4 stars

Read for the Reader’s Room March Madness challenge

The first book I read by Kazuo Ishiguro was An Artist of the Floating World. My mum bought it for me from the book club man who used to visit the library where she worked. It transported me and led me to other books by Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans. I haven’t read anything by him for years, so for the March Madness challenge I decided I’d nominate and read Never Let Me Go. I haven’t seen the film, but I knew vaguely what the story is about.

If Never Let Me Go can be classified as sci-fi, then it’s the kind of sci-fi that I like – something that could feasibly happen in a setting that I can imagine myself existing in. The setting of this novel seemed like a parallel universe to ours. I don’t know that it is sci-fi, though. The science fiction aspects aren’t to the fore in the plot. I think it’s more about the slowly creeping realisation that life isn’t quite what we would like it to be, or what we think it is, which is a universal experience. It’s also about trying to find meaning in life, and trying to delay the inevitable, to grasp a few more precious moments that might help you to understand what the point of it all was.

As with the other Ishiguro novels I’ve read, I liked the gentle pace and the way the story murmurs along. It’s similar to the first of his books I read, in that we only hear the voice of a single narrator, someone who occasionally acknowledges that her perspective might not be accurate or a correct reading of what happened. She’s not an unreliable narrator in the same way as Ono in An Artist of the Floating World, though. She isn’t deluded about what her life has been or become.

I enjoyed the way she told the story, as well, floating from present to past, allowing one memory to trigger another, being side tracked, and occasionally speaking to the reader directly, as though we have potentially shared her experiences.

The premise of the story is revealed slowly, at a pace with the way the characters gradually learn the truth in their youth and assimilate it into their adulthood. That slow build also meant that my empathy for the characters developed slowly. The book is in three sections, and at each transition point I felt more involved in the characters’ lives.

I thought that Ishiguro managed to inhabit the mind of a young girl, through her teenage years, and into adulthood, very well. The school scenes seemed very realistic to me, with the cliques and intrigues, and the obsession with collecting things. It seemed a lot like my school experience, except I didn’t go to a boarding school so had a daily escape from the others in my class.

There was something intriguingly blank about the way the characters reacted to everyday things. As though they had been so sheltered from the rest of the world that they weren’t properly socialised. They are quite naive in some ways, and very unfazed by life in others. Maybe it was the narrator who wasn’t fully socialised and the blankness of her narration made everyone else seem blank, too. Everything is reported in a very matter of fact way. There is reflection on past events, and past thinking about events, but there is never a dramatic change in opinion, merely a ponderous acceptance that perhaps she didn’t have the necessary experience to fully judge a situation back when it happened. Her reactions and processing of things made me think of the way people with autism react to and process things. As though her experience of life was being filtered through a prism with a different angle of deviation to everyone else’s.

The reactions of the people at the Cottages to the Hailsham students were interesting. They made me think of the reactions many people in Britain have to people who have attended boarding school or one of the Oxbridge colleges – as though there is something inherently magical about them, but also something to distrust. Hailsham seems to have a certain mystique for those who weren’t educated there. There are also suggestions that people from the outside world have a cushioning reaction to the students, again similar to the way some people react patronisingly to people who have some form of physical or mental disability.

I was curious about the origins of the students at Hailsham. There is no reference to a life before they joined the school, no suggestion that they were ever babies, or who looked after them before they joined the school. The same is true of the people they encounter after they leave the school, except that there’s no real hint about their lives before they are joined by the Hailsham group. The earliest discussion of their “Possibilities” hints that they were created as school age children, that they didn’t have a pre-school existence.

I felt sad as their lives progressed and changed. Hailsham was an almost womb-like environment, where they had each other’s understanding if not real love and affection. The Cottages were a staging post, a point of transfer where they prepared to live without that close network. Then they were out in the world, isolated somewhat, living alone, doing what they were destined to do. There was a subtle horror about it. It made me think of things I’ve read in the media about children who go through the care system, whose family network breaks down, so that they lose out on childhood and become self reliant, and often untrusting. Love and affection are the things that get us through life. To be deprived of them, to be denied a family, seems a cruel thing.

It made me think about the incredible advances we’ve seen in science and medicine since the mid 20th century, and the responsibility that goes with things like in vitro fertilisation, stem cell research, mapping the human genome. We all have to die of something, and while it is amazing that we have cures and treatments for so many things, and can prevent early and unnecessary deaths (members of my family have been treated for cancer and are still alive as a result), sometimes I think that we shouldn’t intervene too much, or to extremes. My views have been influenced by watching my mum’s decline, and the way the anti-dementia medication prescribed at diagnosis was at best a guess, because the type of dementia a person has is never known until they’re dead and their brain has been dissected, and at worst a cruelty. The medication barely slowed the advance of the disease and gave false hope to mum, keeping her aware of her decline for longer than was necessary. I also don’t like the idea of trying to weed out genetic mutations that result in physical or mental disabilities, or ‘designing’ babies to have a preferred eye or hair colour or gender. The joy of humanity is the richness of its diversity and the fact that, when we create life, we don’t know what we’re getting, and the person we meet has unexpected and unpredictable impacts on those around them.

I hope we never get to the stage of cloning human beings, or creating embryos for the sole purpose of harvesting their organs or stem cells so that the rest of us can go on for longer than is natural. It doesn’t sit right with me.

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8 thoughts on “Never Let Me Go

  1. Like you, I have read the book, but not seen the film. Unlike you, I do not find the science fiction scenario to be very plausible. I just don’t believe that a twentieth century England so similar to the one in this world could have created cloned humans, and then treated them so inhumanely as it is indicated they have done in this story. It’s just not consistent with the values of the England I know. This is the country that created, and cherished, the RSPCA, RSPCC, Barnardo’s, Oxfam, etc. People – not just a few – would have had far too much sympathy (or “empathy” if you insist, though the neologism serves no purpose) for the clones to allow them to live imprisoned lives for the sake of an organ harvest. A coldly utilitarian argument for doing so would not have won the day. Anyway, any society with such advanced gene technology would create the organs in the lab, and not create whole humans just for their organs. Having such advanced genetics, I think, would also entail having advanced computers, which are evidently absent from the retro England of the book.

    When literary writers enter the science fiction fray, it is very seldom that their science fiction elements are very well thought through or original, and Never Let Me Go is no exception to the rule.

    Despite the implausibility of the scenario, and its unoriginality (it is an old, much-used trope – Never Let Me Go even has a dedicated page on the TV tropes site: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Literature/NeverLetMeGo ), I enjoyed the book for its portrayal of cloistered, stymied lives.

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    1. I think Ishiguro himself has said that cloning isn’t the focus of the book, but the relationships between the characters. That’s why I’m not convinced it is science fiction, but rather is a reflection on the nature of existence against a sketched out pseudo sci-fi background. I think, with a book like this, clearly set in a re-imagined recent past, readers need to suspend disbelief in order to appreciate what the story is actually about, the people who are trying to find meaning in their strange existence.

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      1. It’s not a “pseudo sci-fi background”, it’s a sci-fi background. The fact that the science is hazy does not change that fact, or nearly all popular science fiction would also not be science fiction. (If you’ve read science fiction art all, you’ll have noticed that many popular tropes – e.g. galactic empires and time travel – are not are all plausible). Nor does the sci-go background need to be the focus of the story. Within science fiction, stories where the science or engineering are the focus constitute a subgenre known as “hard SF”. As for Never Let Me Go, the science fiction idea (artificial humans) underpins and suffuses the narrative, with the gradual, partial revelation of it to the characters and readers, constituting most of the plot (to the extent that there is a plot). If that’s not science fiction, then the term “science fiction” is meaningless.

        The demand that the reader should suspend disbelief is unseasonable. In all fiction, the onus is on writers to make their stories believable, or otherwise absorbing, so that readers are willing to go along. In all genres of fiction, unbelievable characters, plot twists, coincidences, backgrounds and technical details are all justifiably rejected by some readers, yet accepted by others. Fortunately for Ishiguro in this case, he is known as a literary writer, so this literary/science fiction hybrid works for his audience, as readers of literary fiction do not expect, and most do not want, to encounter any serious thought about science and technology in the novels they choose to read.

        By the way, An Artist Of The Floating World was my first Ishiguro novel, too. Loved it.

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      2. To me, it’s pseudo because I don’t think the novel is a science fiction novel. To me, Ishiguro was probably reacting to developments in biological science in the news at the time and used it as a background to a literary fiction novel about existence and purpose. To that end, he didn’t need to be specific or realistic about the science. He was examining how the characters reacted to the discovery that their lives weren’t what they thought or what they hoped they could be. That’s my understanding of the book. Yours is a different one, and you seem to be deliberately misreading what I have said in my review in order to give yourself a platform to expound your views. I notice that your blog seems to be a place where you are writing science fiction.

        As for whether I’ve “read science fiction at all”, I’ve read Asimov, Clarke, Le Guin, Lem, Adams, Bradbury, Huxley, Zamyatin, so yes I am aware of the tropes within the genre and that not everything is plausible. To me, that’s what suspension of disbelief means – acknowledging that something isn’t plausible, but going with it in order to enjoy the story. Imagination is a powerful thing.

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      3. It’s circular to say that the science is “pseudo” because the book is not science fiction, when you’ve just been trying to argue that the book is not science fiction because the science is pseudo. If a book is reacting to developments in science, and imagining how characters respond to some aspect of those developments, it is science fiction. That’s how science fiction is conventionally defined, so there’s really no getting around it. As I said before, most science fiction does not discuss or explain its science in detail, or focus on the science per se, but is about the characters, who have the usual human dilemmas, with the science (or pseudoscience) merely providing background and/or incidental detail. Nothing you have said about this novel makes it different from 90% of science fiction, and many of the most famous and genre-defining science fiction novels would conform to your characterisation of this book, and there are many science fiction novels that read like straight literary fiction set in the real present or past, with the science part providing a motive to the plot. Meanwhile, literary writers often produce hybrid works that fall simultaneously into two genres, e.g., literary and political thriller, literary and detective fiction, literary and historical, literary and military adventure, or literary and fantasy. In this particular case, the author has crossed literary (characterised by a meditative, even navel-gazing, focus on the inner lives and evolving relationships of the main characters), with science fiction (focus on how the characters are affected by some or other scientific phenomenon or technological development). When writers do this, they inevitably open themselves to the kind of criticism that affects the other genre (e.g., a literary detective novel where the killer’s motives are implausible, or the solution of the mystery depends on a Deus ex Machina, may be criticised on that basis, and just saying “it’s not really detective fiction, you should suspend disbelief” does not cut it as a response. It’s a cop-out, and if the author needs to invite such an excuse, that’s a flaw in the work. It may be a minor flaw or a serious one, depending on how many readers are annoyed by it, and how much, but it’s still a flaw.

        As for suspension of disbelief, readers should never be told to suspend disbelief. There is no such duty in the part of readers. It is entirely up to them whether and to what extent they suspend disbelief, and it is entirely the duty of the writer to tempt (or trick) the reader into suspending disbelief, if the fiction depends upon that in order to work. If the writer fails in that respect, that’s the writer’s, not the reader’s, fault.

        Interesting that you define what I’ve written as science fiction. I suppose the fact that it is implicitly set some decades in the future is what causes you so categorise it that way. However, there is so far no narrative and no science, so if it is science fiction, when Ishiguro’s novel is not, that’s interesting in itself. I suppose you’ve guessed that I’m trying to construct a plausible and ambiguous utopia (or perhaps dystopia). Is utopian fiction a subgenre of science fiction? If so, is Plato’s Republic science fiction?

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      4. I congratulate you on the passion you feel for the subject of science fiction and thank you for the extended essay you’ve contributed to my blog post in your comments. It’s interesting to discover other people’s viewpoints on different matters. Have you thought about enrolling on a literature course where you can exchange views with people who feel equally passionately? Or perhaps you already have qualifications in the subject.

        On the matter of readers being told to think one way or another about literature, nobody should be told to do anything. We are all free to react to books individually, to hold our own opinions, to suspend disbelief, to interpret a book however we choose.

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      5. Haha, well done! I guess I can agree with the final sentence of the above: “We are all free to react to books individually, to hold our own opinions, to suspend disbelief, to interpret a book however we choose.” I’m still not sure if an experiment in utopian/dystopian not-quite-narrative writing counts as science fiction, but that, I must admit, is beside the point.

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