Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dystopias in fiction

A couple of weekends ago I saw Mark Romanek's film adaptation of Never Let Me Go, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005). I hadn't read the book before, but I have since.

Both the novel and film are a haunting take on a recurring trope in fiction: portrayal of an imagined, dystopian present or future. Examples abound. I'd say the most prominent among 20th century novels in English are Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), and George Orwell's Animal Farm (1946) & 1984 (1949). On The Beach (1957) by Nevil Shute is another that most of my contemporaries read in high school. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003), in a category the author calls "social science fiction," fit the dystopian bill; I still have Atwood's dystopian follow-up to Oryx and Crake, The Year of The Flood (2009) on my own to-read list. Harlan Ellison's A Boy and His Dog (1969), Jose Saramago's Blindness (1999), Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006) ... the list goes on and on.

The premise of Ishiguro's novel, and of the film that hews closely to its dramatic arc and dry-eyed affect, is that human cloning became possible soon after World War II, and that human clones -- including the narrator, Kathy H., and her closest friends, Tommy and Ruth -- are raised for the exclusive purpose of providing "donations" of vital organs upon reaching maturity. After some number of "donations," two or three or four for most, the clones "complete." Of course the "donations" are not donations at all, as there is no free will whatsoever involved in the "donating" ... the cloned characters receive notices from some vaguely off-stage "they" and proceed to "centers" where their bodies are harvested. "Complete" is whitewash for "slaughter."

I found Never Let Me Go haunting for a couple of reasons. First, there's the present-timeness of the story. The science is fictional of course -- it will be the 21st century that sees human cloning, it was not the 20th -- but by constraining point of view to the world as it appears from the narrator's isolated circle the details are conveniently and convincingly allowed to remain fuzzy. The setting is England in the late 1990s, and readers and viewers are inexorably drawn into the conceit that this is the world we currently inhabit. Second, and for me most chilling, there's the utter lack of resistance to the fate that has been ordained for these people. (They are people. The novel is significantly concerned with the non-cloned world's exploration of whether these "creatures" are human, whether they have souls; but the reader is not left to wonder at all, as the view through Kathy H.'s eyes is as particular and humane as the view through our own.)

Tommy falls into inchoate rages. That's as close to railing against their inevitable slaughter as these poor "creatures" get ... Ishiguro gives us not even a whiff of organized resistance. It doesn't occur to the clones that resistance is possible. The characters in this novel are raised as farm animals, destined for an antiseptic abattoir. They accept their fate as if they were sheep or cows. I can't be the only person who "completed" this story filled with a queasy uncertainty about my future as a carnivore.

Ishiguro's fellow Booker Prize winner Margaret Atwood reviewed Never Let Me Go for Slate soon after the novel was published; her review was titled Brave New World: Kazuo Ishiguro's novel really is chilling. She wrote: "It's a thoughtful, crafty, and finally very disquieting look at the effects of dehumanization on any group that's subject to it. In Ishiguro's subtle hands, these effects are far from obvious. There's no Them-Bad, Us-Good preaching; rather there's the feeling that as the expectations of such a group are diminished, so is its ability to think outside the box it has been shut up in. The reader reaches the end of the book wondering exactly where the walls of his or her own invisible box begin and end."


At the time I saw and read Never Let Me Go I was in the middle of a polishing edit of my own current fiction project, Consequence, prior to sending out queries to literary agents. It was therefore natural to think about Ishiguro's work in relation to mine, as well as to the dystopian novels that I listed at the start of this post.

Consequence is also concerned about collateral damage that has been and will be caused by genetic engineering. Two differences between Consequence and the world Ishiguro portrays have a lot to do with why I found his work so haunting and unsettling. First, Consequence is set in the early 21st century and the deep moral and ecological compromise with which cloning (humans, other animals, bacteria, and plants) will taint our world has yet to be realized, or realized fully. There's still some hope that we won't catastrophically fumble this one. Second, the characters in Consequence are all about preventing that dystopian taint. My novel portrays activists resisting a fate that vast, impersonal forces are trying to impose on all of us. Ambling peacefully into the slaughterhouse -- as cows, sheep, and Ishiguro's characters do -- is a dystopia to which my characters are certain they will never submit.

At the end of the film Never Let Me Go -- but not of Ishiguro's novel -- the narrator Kathy H. is thinking in voice-over: "What I'm not sure about is whether our lives have been so different from the lives of the people we save. We all end up dying. And none of us really understand what we've lived through. Or feel we've had enough time."

It's a Hollywood ending, telling the viewer so directly what to think, how to package the preceding 103 minutes, how to shrug off any implicit call to active engagement in political culture (which wouldn't leave nearly enough time to consume film and television industry product, now, would it?). Ishiguro was an Executive Producer of the film, so it would be pretty risky to guess that he had nothing to do with the wrap-up.

The novel ends more ambiguously, and thoughtfully. It is evocative of what the "creatures" who inhabit this story have been denied. It left this reader straining against the limits and fate that Kathy H., and Tommy, and Ruth placidly accept. Ishiguro's novel absolutely does not make it all okay. That fits my sensibility much better than the film's ending -- to which, I admit, I responded with tears -- but only because I'm constitutionally a sentimental fool -- not because I prefer or permit myself to create sentimental art.

I recommend Never Let Me Go very highly. I also recommend that you do not make the mistake I did: you should read the book first.

I hope it will stir you to make the world you want to live in, rather than accept a predetermined fate. I hope too that it will predispose you to pick up Consequence in your local bookstore ... someday.

Thanks to hugefluffy for the photo of Kazuo Ishiguro signing his novel, Never Let Me Go in March 2005. Yeah, I know, it's out of focus & a bit shaky besides.


  1. This is a very thorough analysis of a very important work in deed. I have seen the movie and definitely will read the book.

    Can't wait to read your take on social issues in our present day.


  2. oh wow, too bad I didn't read this before we had lunch. I had a mini-dystopian book read this summer; After the Flood and Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story. Both very interesting books which I would love to discuss with you at some point soon.