[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is about clones, but don’t get your hopes up. This is an unconventional clone story.
That’s right. There aren’t any mad scientists, nor are there any daring escapes. There isn’t even a sterile cloning facility run by a ruthless villain. So forget about a daring infiltration scene in which the sterile cloning facility is shut down from within.
There is, however, a private boarding school – Hailsham – and thankfully, it’s a mysterious place. All of our favorite boarding school tropes are present, including the distant headmaster, Madame; the rebel teacher, Ms. Lucy; and even a bully, Ruth. We are also invited to speculate about the purpose of the students’ curriculum. At Hailsham, students study nothing but art and they have “guardians” rather than teachers. They are constantly asked to be creative, but not curious. Creative works that are especially impressive will be showcased in a distant gallery. No one knows anything more about the Gallery other than that it exists.
Like many an SFF, Never Let Me Go has its share of “vocabulary.” For example, Kathy, is a “carer,” and she cares for special patients who make “donations” until they finally “complete.” Practiced readers of speculative fiction are used to seeing “vocabulary,” so most readers will have raced way ahead of Kathy and the other two points of her love triangle, Ruth and Tommy, by the time they graduate high school.
Consequently, Never Let Me Go is a bit of a tedious read for anyone that was expecting the pacing of a science fiction adventure, or an emotional climax analogous to Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Going To Take It.” Instead, Ishiguro focuses on the minutiae of the interpersonal and introspective.
Unfortunately, Ishiguro’s characters are not very engaging. In The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro’s ability to write between the lines heightened the tension of the novel, and Stevens’ refusal to deal with his emotions directly was part of what made him such a fascinating narrator. Here, Kathy and her love triangle are concerned with whether clones can love one another. However, her emotional struggles are decidedly muted, which was perhaps intended to create thematic ambiguity but I found it irritating. Ultimately, Ishiguro’s trademark subtlety makes Never Let Me Go an emotionally flat read.
However, Kathy’s passive description of the consequences of “donations” is painful to read. Ishiguro is content to write in these details as background noise, and it is one of the few instances in the novel where this decision pays off.
If readers are interested in reading a story about clones rebelling, striving for justice, or suffering tragically, they should probably look elsewhere. Ishiguro will offer no romantic solutions. This is a bleak novel about artificial life forms whose purpose is to cure cancer. Never Let Me Go is a frustrating, uncomfortable novel that offers readers the chance to watch these passive characters endure a difficult, unhappy life. Enter at your own risk.