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Sunday, April 17, 2005

Ishiguro 

Finished reading today Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, a literary novel with a skiffy premise at its core, to the shock and dismay of some mainstream critics. It's a fine, subtle novel about the experience of growing up without fully understanding one's destiny, and it might well be a case study in how a fairly ordinary (and not entirely plausible) SF premise is mined for the close attention to character and detail that typifies your average literary novel. I haven't yet seen a review from an informed SFnal perspective that explores the plausibility of its premise.. has anyone seen one? I'm tempted to commission one.. nor have I seen a review that understands the broader implications of its thesis -- that everyone's life is lived without fully understanding its role in the larger scheme of things. A necessary aspect of human existence; a lesson that science fiction, as a literary form, is all about.
Comments:
I agree with most of what you say, but ...

Is sf really all about *not* fully understanding your place in the larger scheme of things? There are certainly books for which that's true, but as a general rule, if anything, I think I'd lean in the opposite direction--where do conceptual breakthroughs come from if not from realisation/understanding? That said, *this* novel is certainly about a lack of understanding, and very perceptive on that score.

I also think that it doesn't matter so much whether or not NLMG is plausible. The answer is probably that it is not, but there are so few details to go on--we have no idea exactly what is donated and how they survive each time, for instance--that it's really impossible to tell.

FWIW, my review is here: http://coalescent.livejournal.com/200506.html

-- Niall
 
On the matter of plausibility, my thought is that that's why Ishiguro placed the book in an 'alternate' 1990s, presuming the whole cloning scheme had got its start back in the cold war '50s--when governments might have gotten away with such things. In today's climate of suspicion and fear about every new technological option, especially about reproductive issues, no one would believe such a program could be started *now*.
 
The problem with this book, and indeed the absolute killer for me, is that for all of Ishiguro's skill in the deft manipulation of these characters, in the end they affirm, rather than refute, their alien nature. The entire book is centered around how these clones, raised in isolation and treated as 'normal' by a radical group of activist/guardians, confront their fates with very human temper, despite their supposed inhumanity. Isn't that right? Then how is it that, in the end, they surrender to this monstrosity to which they have been consigned? Where, anywhere in this book, is the rebellion against this program? I'm not talking full-blown armed insurrection, that wouldn't fit the book, but at least a hint that these kids aren't going hand-in-hand to the harvest would have kept me from so, so badly wanting to throw this book across the room upon finishing it.
No, where Ishiguro obviously speaks to the contemporary debate about the rapid progress of bio-technology, is in just what we're to do with the fruits of our labor. He sees and elucidates, and even extends, the debate to one of many natural conclusions, that we might treat these manufactured people as no more than a repository of spare parts. In doing so, there are a number of problems with the SF-nal elements of the book, namely in the administration of such a program (would they really be allowed to run free like that?) and whether or not we would ever need to create entire humans to reap the benefits of cloning technology (we wouldn't), but these questions aren't germane to the story, any more than "but how did he turn into a beetle?" really matters in Kafka. The story is a platform for debate, and not appreciably burdened by these logical inconsistencies. In this, he treats his subject with a kind of weighty reverence and compassion that speaks well of the care and attention to which he addressed the book. But the conclusion, and indeed, a failing within the entire narrative, is the willingness with which the clones themselves go quietly to their end. Why? What could possibly induce them to traipse into the Operating Room, knowing full well they're coming out lighter and less functional and that they'll have three more of these 'donations' ahead of them, after which they will surely die? Would they do this? Would they sacrifice themselves this way?
Ishiguro gets us, the collective 'us,' dead-on. He nails our greed and willingness to forego a painful revelation for blissful, profitable ignorance. I have no quarrel with the absurdity of his premise, I think the book rises above such technicalities. But in his portrayal of these clones, human, all too human, as he tells us they are, he simply can't sustain the plot that he adhered to. These kids would not have gone to their deaths so easily and quietly. Not if they were human, they wouldn't. Not by a far stretch. And that's why this book simply just did no succeed, no matter how many copies it sells.
 
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