This is not a review. This will not be fair, or balanced, or even particularly well informed. It will be full of spoilers. I’m not here to measure the virtues against the flaws.
I’m here to talk about the idea behind Never Let Me Go, why it patently, clearly doesn’t work and how dressing up a core SF trope in literary clothes is a dirty trick.
The story, as brought to us by the chronicler of the English mind Kazuo Ishiguro, is set in an England where cloning for body parts is legal and accepted. Of course, we’re not told that all at once. Instead, we’re introduced to the student body of Hailsham, a secluded boarding school. They are your usual bunch of artsy upper-middle class wet sponges, who flop about making doe eyes at each other, without the faintest idea in their heads that something is remiss here even when teachers keep bursting into tears and rushing out of the classrooms. They are educated, sent out into sheltered accommodation, and when the time is right, harvested. All of which they accept with a stoic, bovine acquiescence. There’s no sense that they can escape their fate, that they can find a life outside their defined role.
The idea of a society that would openly sanction or even allow organ harvesting is intriguing, and leads me to wonder what that world would look like. It would be a very different place.. The very idea that we would tolerate bags of spare parts that looked like Keira Knightley wandering the streets is one that takes a bit of a stretch. We’re squeamish at the best of times. We allow factory farming because it is convenient, cheap, and above all out of sight. The butcher’s counters at Tesco tend not to have attached abattoirs. Let’s face it, if scientists came up with a talking cow, the numbers of vegetarians would spike overnight
At the end of the story, Hailsham is revealed to be a failed experiment – an attempt to show that clones have souls. It’s never made clear why the school was closed. Was it that, like Philip K. Dick’s replicants, the Hailsham kids don’t show emotions, but rough approximations, fakes, large-scale autonomic reflexes that just happen to look like fear or love? Or, more likely, that the clones are indeed human, and that we don’t care? That if the program were to be shut down then the crisis that forced us into the position of creating the clones in the first place could reoccur, putting society back to square one? All of these questions are never addressed, which is a shame, because the society in which Hailsham exists deserves a second look. Never Let Me Go seems to depict us reverted to a slaver’s past, a time when we could quite easily look on certain creeds and colours as resources, as tools. But we never see this world beyond the narrow focus of the Hailsham kids, and they’re all too drippy to give a toss about.
None of this is new, of course. The nature of humanity is a core concept in SF. One of the formative books of the genre, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, deals with that very issue. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep brings us Roy Batty, rebelling against his nature and destiny to find his humanity despite the cruellest of barriers – a shortened life span. The Clonus Horror, a 1979 SF movie takes the whole idea of clones and organ harvesting and gives it a pulpy spin. Michael Bay’s 2005 clunker The Island takes the same tack, mirroring the Clonus story so closely that it led to a lawsuit and an out-of-court settlement. Both films pitch the clone factory as a conspiracy that, once revealed, brings the whole edifice down. Never Let Me Go doesn’t bother with that kind of closure. The characters simply shrug and carry on, plodding onto the killing floor with uncomplaining docility.
The primary disconnect for me comes from the idea that the clones need to have feelings and emotions in the first place. Surely if we have the technology to create something like that, it would be far more cost effective to make them obviously non-human. It’s just the organs we want, after all. Build something with a rudimentary brainstem, or the capacity for self-awareness of your average squirrel, make it mobile enough that it can feed and water itself without the ability to run away, and there you go, job done. If you can sort out a resealable zipper so you can pop out the organs you need, so be it. A farm animal, effectively.
Or, if we absolutely positively have to have intelligent, self-aware bipeds, we could quite easily condition them to embrace their position in life, so that they see their eventual sacrifice as a good thing. I’m thinking the way the lower classes in Huxley’s Brave New World are so happy with their lot that the idea of rising above their station fills them with nausea. I’m thinking the Ameglian Major Cow from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, so happy with it’s fate that it cheerfully points out the best cuts to potential diners. The one problem I always had with Duncan Jones’ masterful Moon was that Sam had to have memories of his “past life”. Why would he not simply be conditioned to be happy where he was, even to the point of tidying himself away at the end of his “shift?”
I can deal with Never Let Me Go, just, barely, if I look on it as a kind of satire both on factory farming and a very British kind of stoic resignation to one’s fate. Otherwise, it’s simply too ridiculous a concept to take seriously. The idea hangs together if you treat it as a life-extending plot committed by the rich and powerful that will be busted and brought down by our clone heroes. But Ishiguru ties a Swiftian-style Modest Proposal to a very English love triangle, and it’s simply too unwieldy a prospect to float. The fact that it’s been sold to the public as a love story from the writer of The Remains Of The Day is dangerously close to misrepresentation. It’s a bleak account of a particularly nasty kind of dystopia that doesn’t even have the guts to give the audience a dose of closure.
Needless to say, I won’t be seeing this one. I think a rewatch of The Island might be in order. There’s a film that knows it’s stupid.