Only rarely does an ordinarily mainstream author make a foray into Speculative territory that is well received by both "literary" and genre critics. Oftentimes this is a simple matter of ‘and never the twain shall meet’. At other times they do meet but in head-on collision, forceful enough to send whole communities of reviewers into apoplexy (think: Atwood’s Oryx and Crake). Still, it does happen, every so often, that a novel breaches genre boundaries successfully and proves mutually acceptable. Such a one is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Man Booker nominated, Arthur C. Clarke Award nominated Never Let Me Go.
Set in an alternate England in the late 1990s, it is the sixth novel from an author who has won universal critical acclaim for his real-world fiction but who, wonder of wonders, has still proven amenable to having his latest work associated with SF. It seems possible that he is even flattered: he recently confirmed that he will attend the presentation of the Arthur C. Clarke award at Sci-Fi-London at the end of this month. Amen to that, say I.
Kathy H., aged 31 and first person narrator of Never Let Me Go, has been a "carer" for nearly 12 years and, she admits in her opening words, a rather good one:
"My donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as ‘agitated’, even before fourth donation. Okay, maybe I’m boasting now."
This chatty, easy voice is typical of her and breeds an immediate familiarity. She speaks matter-of-factly and gives herself no context; she asks us to collude with her, addressing the reader with a "you-know-how-it-is" intimacy. She even posits, slyly, that whatever and wherever she is, we are in a similar position: "I know carers, working now, who’re just as good and don’t get half the credit. If you’re one of them, I can understand how you might get resentful…" Of course, we have no idea what Kathy is alluding to but that has its own comfort for genre readers. We thrive on just this kind of obliquity.
Her subject, however, is not to be her (or, by implication, our) present but her past; her mode is retrospective and it is memory, often digressive and uncertain, that she plunders for significance. She begins to narrate her privileged childhood spent at Hailsham, an apparently idyllic boarding school. Like all boarding schools it has its own set of bizarre customs: an enormous emphasis placed on creativity, "Exchanges" in which students buy and sell each other’s artwork, "Sales" of bits and pieces of twentieth century paraphernalia, visits from the mysterious "Madame" and "guardians" who look after the children’s every need. In describing her friendships with fellow students and the minutiae of their daily lives Kathy H. paints a picture of a childhood and adolescence spent without parents, without holidays (religious or otherwise) and without contact from the outside world.
Her childhood self seems to know and not know that there is something strange about this upbringing. As she says herself:
"…it feels like I always knew…in some vague way, even as early as six or seven. And it’s curious, when we were older and the guardians were giving us those talks, nothing came as a complete surprise. It was like we’d heard everything somewhere before."
We, the reader, are kin to Kathy H.’s younger self in this respect. From the beginning we have known and yet not known the truth. Kathy’s language has been preparing us, peppered as it is with common words - like "carer", "donor", "recovery centre" and "donation" — used in disquieting ways. When one of the guardians, Miss Lucy, reveals what we’ve suspected all along — that Kathy H. and all the others are cloned humans, bred for the sole purpose of organ donation — it hardly come as a surprise. Still, it’s a striking reality: Kathy H. and her closest friends, Tommy and Ruth, have been born in order that they might die, in order that some anonymous others might live. This is their biological destiny.
When they leave Hailsham at sixteen they move to The Cottages, a sort of half-way house where they stay until their "carer" training begins. They might be carers looking after older donors for up to a dozen years before they’re called to donate themselves, however once the donation process is initiated it continues until they "complete". Death is never mentioned, but there is a terrible, desperate inevitability to it. In this sense at least, Never Let Me Go is a typical Ishiguran novel of human tragedy.
Perhaps we should begin, however, with what it is not. Certainly it is not a novel predicated on vigorously credible cloning technologies. In truth cloning is the narrative’s ur-beast, a fabulous construct upon which Ishiguro builds character and comment rather than story. The word "clone" isn’t part of Kathy’s vocabulary and is used only once, in anger, by another character. It is, if you like, the proverbial elephant in the room. Ishiguro chooses not to reveal the development of the technology, the sequence in which donations are given or the mechanisms by which "donors" survive the removal of up to three vital organs. So if you’re after the actual "science" in the science fiction you may well be disappointed. I’d recommend something like Michael Marshall Smith’s Spares (1997) instead. His take on organ donor clones is vicious in its scientific veracity.
Nor does Never Let Me Go have much in the way of traditional "plot". Even Ishiguro’s denouement is characteristically quiet. Of course, there are questions to be answered — Who is Madame? What is her "gallery"? What sets Hailsham students apart from their fellow clones? — but it is a novel to make your heart ache rather than pound.
Character, however, is key. Ishiguro has always had a penchant for the restrained and the civilized, for deference and repression even, which is well reflected in Kathy H.’s ragged innocence and acceptance of her fate. Although her narration is informal, her brand of disclosure is thoroughly limited: her sheltered life, defined by Hailsham, then by the Cottages and finally by her role as a carer has engendered a circumscribed expression. These basic stages, or rather her memories of them, are all she has to offer us by way of revelation. She isn’t one for diatribes or hot displays of emotion. She doesn’t rail against the scientists who made her or the agencies that have controlled her life. She never admits her ultimate physical destiny. She cannot. She hardly comprehends an alternative existence.
Her contact with the world outside and with non-clones has been wholly fragmentary. The Sales at Hailsham exposed her to a heritage of twentieth century popular culture — videos, music tapes and personal walkmans — but in a piecemeal fashion that loaded each object with peculiar significance. Thus a pencil case or a cassette tape might come to symbolize parental care and specialness in a world with neither. Kathy experiences a mini culture in which material ownership is a signal of received and given love. She turns to her Judy Bridgewater tape for comfort, playing the song "Never Let Me Go" to herself, and, in a strange way, feels that the tape loves her back. The giving of Sale gifts, the buying of each other’s art at Exchanges is the highest act of affection and honoring between the friends. It is an emotional economy laden with pathos.
Sign and action are similarly weirded. Once the Hailsham students move to the Cottages they begin to "collect" gestures from the wider world, enacting them on each other. At one point Kathy describes a way of saying goodbye in exacting detail, even though it is no more than a brief tender touch to the arm. All the things we take for granted — the finer points of human interaction —have never been socialized into Ishiguro’s clones. They are appallingly innocent and he does an excellent job of illuminating the truth of it. Kathy H. never considers a life beyond what she is because she is incapable of doing so. She is not physically constrained — she is free to drive about the country, she lives in a bed-sit alone, she chooses her own "donors" — but there is no escape for her.
Yet always beneath the rather flat calm with which Kathy relates events is a typically Ishiguran fury, a pure volcanic turmoil of grief and horror and helplessness that is without real direction. Here is a woman whose interpersonal relationships are hopelessly curtailed, whose selfhood is entirely disregarded, whose humanity is conveniently denied but who absorbs injustice all the same. How does she manage it? Why does she choose to stay? What invisible force keeps her and her fellow donors in orbit of a system that refines them down to just kidneys and livers and lungs and hearts? Whatever it is, Ishiguro implies, these same forces are the ones that keep us all locked in a state of properness. They stop us flailing out at unfairness, stop us killing each other, stop us killing ourselves. The irony of this properness is that it is at once essential — without it we would go insane — but also impossibly restrictive. In the end though it allows us to live and persist, it allows us to function. Perhaps Never Let Me Go is the most potent novel I’ve ever read about the power of this social contract and the function of the human within it.
The novel also imagines a dreadfully possible reality, facilitated by science but born and nurtured by all too familiar forms of ideological reticence. The kinds that lead us to prioritize some lives over others or allow us to dehumanize individuals over distance. It is the kind that supposes ideas can be controlled, that controversial science can be purely academic. It says categorically that this is not so:
"Suddenly there were all these possibilities before us…And for a long time people preferred to believe that these organs appeared out of nowhere…By the time people became concerned there was no way to reverse the process. How can you ask a world that has come to regard cancer as curable to put away that cure, go back to the dark days? There was no going back…"
Because Ishiguro’s favored approach to atrocity is indirect what we get is a slow revelation, a gradual build up of tension to this terrible understanding. And there is a certain cathartic joy in being crushed by the weight of a possibility so well evoked. As always with Ishiguro the consolation is in the humanizing reality of our reader’s response. We are horrified and that is only how it should be.
Thoughtful, provocative and emotionally rich Never Let Me Go should have won last year’s Booker Prize. The fact that it didn’t may or may not be a reflection of the entrenched anti-SF prejudices of the judges. What is true, however, is that the novel is now up against tough competition for this year’s Clarke Award with stronger-than-strong showings from Geoff Ryman, Charles Stross and Liz Williams. Nevertheless, it could well prove a worthy winner.