Human Cloning – Never Let Me Go

(Warning – contains plot spoilers!) Never Let Me Go is Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel set in Britain in a 1990s where human cloning has become a routine way to provide spare parts necessary for transplants. The story is told from the perspective of Kathy, who is herself a clone, but is still serving as a carer – a role all clones fulfil on their way to actually donating an organ. By the end of the book she is able to look back and reflect on her friendship with Ruth and Tommy, two other clones who have recently ‘completed’ – the euphemism used for the death of a donor during or after an operation.

The book raises interesting questions about what it means to be human, but coming to it from the perspective of a scientist involved in bioethics education I ultimately found it a frustrating read. I think my main gripe is the fact that for the narrator Kathy to be in her early 30s during the 1990s, the technology used to produce the clones must have been available by the early 1960s – something I know is not the case. Yes, of course, it is a work of fiction, but nevertheless this fundamental alteration of fact grated alongside the representation of England in the 1970s to 1990s, which was essentially faithful to the history of the period. The science of cloning was never considered. From a teaching perspective, I was disappointed that there were not really any suitable vignettes to use with a class as discussion starters. The most likely sections for quoting come towards the end of the book, particularly in Chapter 22, when Tommy and Kathy discuss their schooling with one of their former ‘guardians’. On the whole, however, I think The Island is a better vehicle for introducing issues of human cloning.

4 Responses to Human Cloning – Never Let Me Go

  1. I’ve been reflecting more on this book in recent days, partly as a consequence of listening to a radio version of Caryl Churchill’s play “A Number” (which will shortly become a post in it’s own right) but also after reading an interesting discussion of Never let me go on Matt Cheney’s blog site (http://mumpsimus.blogspot.com/2005/10/never-let-me-go-by-kazuo-ishiguro.html). I have becoming increasingly convinced that Ishiguro’s book doesn’t work for the simple reason that knowing their fate, the clones would not have allowed themselves to be systematically harvested for spare parts – they would have run! this is why The Island comes across as a more plausible response to the discovery that you are only wanted as a donor for somebody else.

    • James says:

      I think you are missing the point of the novel by taking the cloning story too literally. It is a metaphor for the loss of innocence and the fact we don’t generally try to ‘escape’ the design for life that has been prescribed for us. Films and books are chock-full of “more plausible responses” to such scenarios, what we could call the narrative of escape. What Ishiguro does is subvert this so that the novel reflects a truer picture of the human condition: the acquiesence to fate, and the far more horrific realisation that we were being sheltered in childhood for a world that is by and large brutal and utilitarian.
      In short, it is more complicated that a bog standard sci-fi fantasy about cloning. It is supposed to make us consider our real-life ontological and existential fears about what the purpose of life is. Just saying!

      • Thanks James, an interesting perspective. You could well be right about Ishiguro’s cloning-as-metaphor. But even if we accept your pessimistic view of adult life, surely once you become aware of that outcome, don’t you do something to avoid it? This may be a simplistic reading, but as a vehicle for considering how I’d respond if I knew I’d be cultivated as a spare part factory, I’m closer to Lincoln 6 Echo and Jordan 2 Delta in The Island (i.e. run!) than Tommy and Kathy’s capitulation to fate in NLMG

  2. Stephanie says:

    Well this raises an interesting issue, if scientists do indeed find a way to clone humans, would we just clone them for organ transplants? How ethical is that? I think cloning is fascinating and will be an amazing scientific breakthrough someday but I always wonder what is the bigger purpose behind cloning. Are we cloning people for sheer enjoyment, just to say that we can, or are we cloning people so doctors can harvest organs to give to other humans who are high on the transplant list? Honestly, what is cloning good for? What is the scientific community trying to prove?

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