Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is the softest of “soft” science fiction: it focuses not at all on science as a process or its industrial applications, but on how science affects a small group of people who know little about the genesis of their situation. The clever premise didn’t become fully evident to me until most of the way through the book, though it defines the characters’ lives because, unlike most of us, they know the approximate date of their premature death as well as the means of its delivery. They learn steadily more about the purpose of their lives always just before they are old enough to fully comprehend it, like someone being told they are adopted before grasping what society thinks adoption means. Ishiguro’s technique is a variation on the older stories that grant some unlucky soul the ability to see his own death, like the story Appointment in Samarra, except that the characters in Never Let Me Go take no futilely evasive action.
That they perceive their purpose and yet seem curiously resigned to it seems odd and foreign to me. I actually asked the professor I had in college who recommended Never Let Me Go about this, and she said they were acculturated to accept their fate, and thus had no mental framework they could use to question the outcome. Ishiguro is pointing out the importance of culture in our lives.
It’s a sound explanation if one I find unsatisfying, as the self-preservation instinct seems too high to ignore. But that was my former professor’s point: that the self-preservation instinct, or the drive toward individualism, liberalism, and liberty, are culturally constructed, and that people raised away from those concepts would react in ways that do seem alien to me. In addition, Never Let Me Go takes places in England, and the characters have some contact with the outside world; how likely is it that they would encounter none of the innumerable works, including books, songs, and movies, that privilege the individual over the group?
Despite my expectation of an escape attempt, or at least some thrashing about against the tide, neither came because the characters are raised in environments without such thoughts. Maybe Ishiguro is playing with his Western audiences here, who know that science fiction is filled with improbable escapes and moves toward freedom (like in The Stars My Destination). The weakness of the explanation remains, even if it does make artistic sense.
The book does get at the issue obliquely. Around Chapter 10 the question of fleeing arose in my mind, and I kept expecting to find some evidence of an attempt by the Hailsham students to go, despite the foreboding that remained from Chapter 1 where we discovered their destiny immutable. That it took ten chapters for me to think about leaving demonstrates how we learn about them in the same understated way they learn about themselves. The link between the way the story is told and the subject of the story is tight, the form making the content make sense.
As I said, ‘Never Let Me Go differs from the science fiction of, say, Heinlein or Dan Simmons, where the characters fight to escape the inescapable instead of being resigned to his—and the hero is usually a “him”—place. Even calling Never Let Me Go science fiction is a stretch—something closer to an alternate reality or possible future fits better. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America falls in the same category or sub-genre. Yet the genre tells us something beyond what most science fiction does; for all the strangeness of the preordained characters, there are points of universal description of those moments of life and culture that have nothing to do with the underlying story. The recognition of life’s feelings make Never Let Me Go so familiar and thus dreadful, allowing its exotic elements to be more jarring than the aliens in Speaker for the Dead or futuristic weapons in Dune. All fantastical literature inevitably comments on its own time, but Never Let Me Go does so by mostly being in its own time with twists that are paradoxically both subtle and tremendous. The recognition aspect happens when Tommy looks for a remembered song, or brief sightings students have of teachers and the speculations as to why something half-seen and misunderstood happened the way it did. The sense of mystery remains far into the book.
So does the almost elegiac tone, which bothered me at times in an emotional rather than stylistic way. In the first few chapters I didn’t understand why it was being used or how to differentiate the characters. Never Let Me Go explains why Chapters 2 – 6 seem elided: “The earlier years… they tend to blur into each other as a kind of golden time, and when I think about them at all… I can’t help feeling a sort of glow. But those last years feel different.” Again, the structure and the form come together. Later on, starting in Chapter 7, come more adult years, and the axe above Hailsham students is more palpable than the ones hanging over everyone, because they have definite knowledge more foreboding of its arrival. The clarity of the novel follows the clarity of childhood turning to adulthood.
The transition is without the fireworks often accompanying the transition. Never Let Me Go is a quiet book that still expresses loud emotions, and that is a valuable thing when it’s comparably easy to use explosions and exotic journeys as metaphors for feelings that most of us experience inside or only in conversation. Kazuo shows those emotions, quietly and significantly, as they are, rather than employing external manifestations to represent them.
I see why the book earned its reputation. Not long after writing the above, I saw an article which has since gone offline from the Guardian about A-Level exams in Britain that included this quote: “You sense [Ishiguro’s] nearly-Booker of last year, Never Let Me Go, is destined to be a set text. It has the winning combination of apparent simplicity (the narrator has a limited vocabulary and intellectual horizon) and real complexity (the better the reader, the more is to be inferred).” Though the purpose of the article is to dissect what puts modern novels on reading lists, the slighted compliment about Never Let Me Go is accurate and even if its description signals the sophistication of Never Let Me Go because it’s easier to make something overly complex than simple. The writer is correct in that there is more unsaid than said, and much to be read between the lines Never Let Me Go (Maybe the title refers to the book itself). I’ve only begun the process of reading what’s not written.