Alfred A. Knopf hardcover - Copyright 2005
Cover photograph by Lieutenant-Colonel Mervyn O'Gorman
Book reviewed May 2005
Rating: 8/10 (Highly Recommended)
Review by Aaron Hughes
Never Let Me Go is entirely premised upon the existence of a technology that does not yet exist in reality. That makes it science fiction, in the same way The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells is science fiction. What's more, Never Let Me Go is set in an alternate universe in which history has taken a different course, which also makes it science fiction, just as The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (in which the Allies lost World War II) is science fiction.
Successful mainstream writers often find themselves drifting into science fiction, to take advantage of the broad range of concepts and metaphors it allows. In the past couple years, such acclaimed authors as Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth, David Mitchell, and Michael Cunningham have all written science fiction. All of these works were published as mainstream fiction, however, since publishers categorize books not by content, but by what they think will maximize sales. This is irritating, because it creates the false impression that well-written fiction cannot be science fiction.
Similarly, whenever a successful mainstream writer dabbles in science fiction, mainstream critics circle the wagons and join in the preposterous assertion that what the author has written isn't really science fiction at all. This is even more infuriating, for whereas publishers are trying to make a buck, we can attribute critics' assumption that serious literature cannot be science fiction to nothing but ignorant prejudice.
Ishiguro reveals the science fiction element of Never Let Me Go only 70 pages in, and he drops enough hints that many readers will guess the secret even before that. However, if you don't want to know the secret, stop reading this review now, and please come back after you've read Never Let Me Go.
Never Let Me Go is set in the late 1990's, but in an alternate universe in which biological technology has advanced more rapidly than in our world. In this alternate version of the 1990's, society raises human clones to maturity in order to kill them and harvest their organs. The novel's main characters are all young clones awaiting their destiny.
This is science fiction by any conceivable definition, but mainstream critics absurdly pretend that it is not. Most of them offer no logical justification, they simply assume implicitly that a book like Never Let Me Go cannot be science fiction because it isn't crap and science fiction is always crap. Of course, they haven't read enough modern science fiction to know that it's crap, but they've heard each other say so often enough that it must be true. Sarah Kerr in the New York Times Book Review goes so far as to suggest that this crappiness is in part what Never Let Me Go is about, that Ishiguro is using science fiction elements in order to quietly upend the genre's "banal conventions." Don't hold your breath waiting for her to give any examples of these "banal conventions" from the past thirty years, because she can't. Rest assured that if Never Let Me Go had been written, with the same lack of banality, by a genre SF writer like Connie Willis or James Morrow or Lisa Goldstein, Kerr and the other mainstream reviewers would have been very pleased to label it science fiction and then never read it.
Little better are the critics who actually attempt to distinguish a book like Never Let Me Go from the science fiction field. Their argument goes something like this: Ishiguro isn't writing about the science of cloning, he is writing about real human issues. Caryn James of the New York Times (yes, that's a different Times review of Never Let Me Go – the Times printed three of them, totaling more column-inches than they have allowed their token science fiction reviewer Gerald Jonas, God bless him, in the past six months combined) smugly assures us that Never Let Me Go is not "genre fiction," i.e., science fiction, because it "use[s] cloning as a way to get at profound emotions of love and loss, and to address a mechanized culture in which individuality itself sometimes seems threatened." Sorry, Caryn, but that's precisely why it is science fiction. Good science fiction takes us into a different reality to give us new insights into the human condition. Indeed, all of the classics of science fiction involving cloning – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm and "Nine Lives" by Ursula K. LeGuin, for example – are about real human issues. Who on earth would want to write or read a novel about the science of cloning? If you think that's what authors in the science fiction genre are writing, then you don't know what you're talking about, and you should shut up.
Sometimes when mainstream writers dabble in science fiction, they combine the worst excesses and failings of mainstream fiction with clumsy handling of the SF elements – see for example my review of Margaret Atwood's atrocious Oryx and Crake. Thankfully, Ishiguro does the reverse with Never Let Me Go, effectively combining a mainstream tone with a skillfully handled SF scenario.
Ishiguro presents the SF elements of Never Let Me Go in a very understated manner. The story is told through the quiet reminiscences of first-person narrator Kathy H., a thirty-one year-old "carer," awaiting her turn to be a "donor." The novel dwells at length on Kathy's formative years at Hailsham, a British boarding school, and then at a communal home called the Cottages. It all seems a rather ordinary lifestory, until the reader gradually realizes that the unfamiliar terms Kathy throws around are euphemisms cloaking her world's murderous system in which cloned humans care for slightly older clones, each in turn donating their vital organs until their inevitable deaths, usually before they even reach thirty years of age.
By giving us this horrific background in such a matter-of-fact way, Ishiguro preserves a realistic feel to the story. By the same token, he tells us the setting is the 1990's not because he wants to create a detailed alternate history, but so we will think of Hailsham as existing in a world much like ours. Similarly, I suspect he waits to tell us directly that his characters are clones not to spring a great surprise, but simply so that by the time we realize what is going on, we will already have come to view the characters' lives as not so different from our own.
Thus, the anecdotes about early childhood friendships and squabbles at Hailsham are comparable to what might occur at any boarding school, except that no one ever mentions their families. Ishiguro so deftly puts us into the mind of Kathy H. that these passages never become tedious. They would make for interesting reading even if the book were stripped of the SF elements.
At times it seems peculiar for Kathy's life to be so ordinary. Even as they mature, Kathy and her friends express no outrage against the cruel system imposed on them, nor does it ever occur to them to rebel or escape before their vital organs are claimed. They have access to a car, but they use it to go shopping, to see the countryside, once to look for one girl's "original," but never to try to get away. Perhaps this shows a lack of initiative, but Ishiguro treats it as something admirable. Despite their hopeless situation, these young clones are brave and spirited enough to pursue the same sort of friendships, loves, and impossible dreams for the future that drive the rest of us, often just as hopelessly.
Much of the novel focuses on the mutual jealousy between Kathy and her best friend Ruth over an awkward but well-meaning boy named Tommy. Any young woman in the real world could find herself in such a love triangle, but matters are more desperate for Kathy and Ruth, who know they have precious little time to work with. In addition, many of the clones share a foolish hope, based on rumor and speculation, that the nameless powers running their brutal system will grant a temporary reprieve to clones who are deeply in love. It is thus especially poignant when Kathy and Ruth realize how they have disrupted one another's best chance for love. Yet is it any less sad when an opportunity for love is lost in our world?
This kind of insight into our real lives makes Never Let Me Go powerful to read despite its simple plot. Kathy and her friends suffer the sort of conflicts that could happen to any of us, but knowing that they are doomed to an early death heightens the impact of their troubles. But on further reflection, we realize that our lot is not so very different from theirs, even if it may take eighty years to play out instead of thirty.The title of Never Let Me Go is taken from Kathy's favorite song, by make-believe folk singer Judy Bridgewater. Kathy listens to the song while dancing and holding a pillow that she imagines to be a baby. This is a sad image, for she can never have a real baby. More to the point, she has never been held as a child, never had a mother she could ask not to let her go. Though she soldiers on, tending to her dying fellows without complaint, Kathy's silent dance betrays how greatly she is in need of tenderness. Aren't we all?
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Copyright © 2005 Aaron Hughes
Vintage trade paperback edition
304 pages (left)
UK Faber and Faber hardcover
272 pages (right)