All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors…science, all the sciences, and technology….The future, in fiction, is a metaphor. –Ursula K. LeGuin
Despite being a subtle, ‘literary’ work from the Booker Prize-Winning author, Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go is a book for young people. Even, dare I say, Young Adults (though I define Young Adults as literally just that—young adults, teenagers, those about to be adults, not 8-12 year olds, as some dumbass agent once claimed). Young adults should read this book, even if they don’t quite understand it, for three important reasons:
- It shows the relevance of science fiction as a metaphor for modern life (instead of mindless escapism)
- It shows that prose can be as supple and transformative as poetry
- It discusses the most powerful theme in all literature: what makes us human, and what the purpose of a human life truly is
This last one, particularly, is something I needed to read/encounter when I was coming of age. I had no idea what I was doing or why. I barely graduated high school and had no real interest in college—though ironically, I loved learning and reading. I felt I had no options since what I wanted to do (read, write, think) had no real place in society. For a time, I basically gave up. I have trouble now understanding why I thought this, or why my life seemed so pointless and without hope. But it’s an important revelation for a teenager to make: that there are choices to be made, and success or failure isn’t the ultimate benchmark for achievement. I felt I had failed in life already, so what did I need more failure for? Never Let Me Go takes the existential dilemma of a teenager to a science fiction extreme: what are we doing here? Are we being prepared for something important? Something useful? Or are we simply marking time until the inevitable, disappointing end? If our education is really moving us inexorably to a single, prescribed existence, what makes this existence meaningful?
The book, as anyone who has read it or seen the movie, is about a group of children who grow up at the Halisham school, where they undergo a rigorous curriculum of art, history, and literature. The best of their work is entered in the “gallery,” a mysterious exhibition that no one talks about, but is supposed to be a great honor. The three main characters, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, form a love triangle of sorts, as Kathy forms a strong bond with Tommy, while Ruth, the more domineering of the three, quickly decides to step between them and claim Tommy for herself. So they grow up, leave Halisham, and continue their ‘education’ at the Cottages, a kind of farm where they basically do odd jobs, have sex, and discuss finding their “possible.” For it turns out that the children are all clones, and sooner or later, will have to start donating their vital organs to ‘normal’ people who need them. Nevertheless, they all harbor the secret hope that their lives can amount to more than a simple donation; there is talk that the Halisham kids are special, that they can get a coveted “deferral” if they can prove they are more human than the rest of them…if they can prove that they have fallen in love.
The rumors of deferrals seem to be exactly that, and gradually, most of the clones stop believing in them. But Tommy, who never took art seriously in school, suddenly blossoms as an experimental artist, hoping to prove his ‘soul’ to the Guardians of the gallery. Ruth quickly figures out who has inspired this—namely, Kathy—since his art will be further evidence of their mutual humanity and compatibility. She steps between them and ruins their budding relationship, betraying the deepest secrets of both Kathy and Tommy in the process. The triangle breaks and all three go their separate ways: Ruth and Tommy to donations, and Kathy to become a carer, someone who helps the donors into their inevitable “completion.” Yet a chance encounter, years later, leads Kathy back to Ruth, who wants to make amends for her former conduct. She gets the gang back together and suggests it’s not too late for Kathy and Tommy to get a deferral based on true love; indeed, she even has the address for Madame, the director of Halisham (now defunct) who must be in charge of such things.
What happens at Madame’s apartment may be expected, but it’s easily the most profound ‘science fiction’ part of the book. Madame basically informs them that all the rumors are simply that, rumors and false hopes concocted by young people who saw the future slipping through their fingers. Clones are clones, and their role is to donate and complete. Yet Halisham was created to offer a more humane approach to the business of ‘spare parts,’ and Madame and the other Guardians wanted to prove—if only to themselves—that the clones were capable of great beauty and humanity. As she tells them,
You see, we were able to give you something, something which even now no one will ever take from you, and we were able to do that particularly by sheltering you…Very well, sometimes that meant we kept things from you, lied to you. Yes, in many ways we fooled you…But we sheltered you during those years, and gave you your childhoods…You wouldn’t be who you are today if we’d not protected you. You wouldn’t have become absorbed in your lessons, you wouldn’t have lost yourself in your art and your writing. Why should you have done, knowing what lay in store for each of you? You would have told us it was all pointless, and how could we have argued with you? (268).
This is a powerful passage, since just a few pages earlier, Tommy asks, “Why did we do all that work in the first place? Why train us, encourage us, make us produce all of that? If we’re just going to give donations anyway, then die, why all of those lessons? Why all those books and discussions?” (259). On the one hand, it was a waste of time; why teach clones doomed for the scrap heap to write poetry or draw pictures? Why teach them about literature and history when they can’t meaningfully appreciate/contribute to either one? Both Madame and the other guardians pat themselves on the back at this point, since they claim “Look at you both now! You’ve had good lives, you’re educated and cultured” (261). This smacks of the worst excesses of liberalism, since they have an education which is worthless (much as conservatives accuse liberalism of endorsing at universities around the country), and which blinded them from the “real world.” What should we think of their education, which again, neither of them can ‘do’ anything with since they’re not seen as human beings?
This moment hit home for me, since all of us are, in a sense, destined to “complete” (indeed, I’m even an organ donor!). We’re all going to die, sooner or later, and no matter what we accomplish in this life, death will rub it all out. Maybe people will remember us, maybe not. Maybe we leave a legacy, maybe not. In a certain sense, though, it’s all much ado about nothing. Why do we spend 12 years plus college studying, writing papers, getting degrees when most of us don’t get a chance to use them? In our society, not everyone can pursue their dreams, get their ideal job, or even feel fulfilled in any meaningful way. Someone has to be at the bottom, keeping society together, serving those at the top. College itself is a kind of lie, since it promises everyone a chance to better their lives and achieve happiness. It can happen for many, but not for all (for a variety of reasons). So would it be better to drop all our illusions and simply prepare people for the worst? To make children aware of the bitter realities—“you can’t be anything you want to be, honey”—and let the chips fall where they may? Is that more merciful or honest? Needless to say, Kathy and Tommy are crushed and end up separating, mostly since Tommy doesn’t want Kathy to see him slowly die away as his carer. All their hopes are smashed—as are Ruth’s, who sacrificed herself (in a sense) to gain their deferral. In short, it didn’t work, they weren’t successful, and their quest is at an end.
And yet, at the end of the book, Kathy gives up her role as a carer and looks forward to becoming a donor herself. She reflects that “Once I’m able to have a quieter life, in whichever centre they send me to, I’ll have Halisham with me, safely in my head, and that’ll be something no one can take away” (286-87). This is a complex moment, since I don’t entirely agree—nor are we meant to—with the philosophy of Halisham. They wanted to prove the humanity of the clones without really changing their lives. By giving them culture, they wanted to prove that the Clones were capable of appreciating it. Even so, the Guardians are terrified of the clones, and look at them as spiders, or other slithery unmentionables that roam in the darkness. Yet this passage hits at the chief metaphor of the work: what do we accomplish in our lives? What do we take away, especially if we all ‘complete’ at the end? Kathy and the others have not only proved their humanity, they have carved out their own kingdoms in the raw material of the imagination. Their hopes and dreams forged friendships, created art, and gave them an unblemished look at the world. Like the prisoner in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, they emerged from the subterranean picture show into the light, which they didn’t dare look at with naked eyes; only by glancing at its reflection were they slowly, by degrees, able to look up at the sky. The expanse of the world showed the pitiful contrast of the underworld/Halisham. And yet, was the illusion a sham? If not truth, did it not still reflect truth and lead to a form of enlightenment?
Madame claimed that “You see, we were able to give you something, something which even now no one will ever take from you, and we were able to do that particularly by sheltering you.” The cave shelters and blinds, but it also teaches us how to see. These memories and friendships forged from love and hope, however illusory, led them to the light in the first place. Madame’s point was that other clones weren’t even given the chance to dream. Perhaps Halisham was a dead end, and their motives, however altruistic, remained biased by what the clones truly were (to them, not entirely human). The title of the novel, “Never Let Me Go,” suggests that much of our deepest loves and hopes are born in our early years, in the primitive, “cave” of our subconscious mind. We naturally grow out of this and see with unsheltered eyes. Yet those dreams are what sustain us even when we become ashamed of such naïve hopes. Behind every serious writer is a comic book. Behind every artist is a Crayola set. Behind every musician is a toy piano. We need to be sheltered before we try to ‘defer’ death and seize fate by the throat. And if we fail? Well, don’t we all? But failure doesn’t have to be the death of hope. In the book, Ruth learns to believe in something larger than herself that she can’t possibly live to enjoy. Tommy withdraws from Kathy to embrace his life as a donor (selflessly, too, since he doesn’t want her to witness it). And Kathy, at the end, realizes that her memories of Halisham are more important than any life, however romanticized, in some conceivable future. A depressing end, and one that doesn’t make us rejoice in their fate. Of course, their fate is our fate; how do you make a life meaningful when it has to fail, when it has to end?
In short (or perhaps, in long!), a powerful book that everyone should read, especially those young adults just emerging out of the cave into the half-light of true existence. Your childhood is nothing to be ashamed of, however sheltered it was from the harsh rays of existence. Indeed, childhood is the most precious gift we bestow, and corrupting the young is the most barbaric form of evil. Never let go of your dreams or your foolish, idealistic hope. You may fail—indeed, you probably will fail, to some degree—but that doesn’t make your life any less sweet or fulfilling. Life is lived in the attempt, not in the resolution. For a few glorious moments, Icarus flew higher than any man on earth—and then fell to his doom. But what do you think sustained him in Hades?