Kazuo Ishiguro's story about clones is more Henry James than Aldous Huxley. The unspoken dilemmas of our technological age have Victorian echoesby Jonathon Keats / April 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (Oxford University Press, £25)
Public debate about genetic engineering is as subtle as a cat fight. For intelligent discussion, newspapers and television might altogether be skipped. The most astute consideration of cloning to date is to be found in a new novel.
The author is Kazuo Ishiguro, famous for capturing the end of England’s old social order in The Remains of the Day. Given his appreciation for dying traditions, Ishiguro might not seem a likely candidate to write about speculative genetics. He has said that he scarcely ever reads science fiction, and has no interest in time machines and nanobots. Expect none of that in his new book. Never Let Me Go is set in England in the late 1990s, and captures every hill and crag. In such a familiar setting, bathed in its ordinary fog, you would scarcely think about clones—were the novel not narrated by one.
Kathy H is a “carer.” She’s been a carer for 11 years, ever since she turned 20, tending to other human clones in the final months of their lives. Looking at Kathy, you would not picture test tubes or enucleated egg cells. If you met her, you might talk about the thrift shops in Norfolk or the songs of Judy Bridgewater. Alternatively, she could discuss literature, from Hardy to Drabble. You would find Kathy bright, though not ostentatiously so. You might never guess how unusual it is to survive as a carer for so many years.
Take her friends. They were carers for half a decade at most—and now they are dead. They have “completed.” Most clones complete after their second or third “donation”; the strongest survive to give their fourth. The donations they give are their vital organs, and it is for those organs that they have been bred.
Every effort is put into making the process agreeable. Clones are raised on estates which resemble boarding schools, by guardians who act as instructors, offering a well-rounded education. After graduation and some training, they become carers, like Kathy, until called upon for their donations. While those procedures are not painless, they are performed under anaesthesia by doctors using the latest surgical procedures, with time given for recovery between operations.
All of this is merely background, taken for granted by Kathy and her friends, as we take for granted our own heritage. The purpose of…