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On 'Never Let Me Go' - plot spoilers ahead!
on 17 March 2010
Showered with praise, this book carries over three pages worth of endorsements from such authoritative sources such as The Times, and with a Booker nomination, `Never Let me Go' is presented as literature of the highest merit. It is however, profoundly unconvincing and tedious to boot.
It should be noted that this is in every way Science Fiction. In recent years, SF books written by non-SF authors have emerged, and been enjoyed by readers who never go near the SF shelf in their local bookshops. Cormac McCarthy's `The Road' and Audrey Niffenegger's `The Time Traveller's Wife' are good examples of books which engender fans to say `Yes, but it's not really science fiction, its actually about humanity and emotions.' People who don't usually read SF should not be extolling on whether a particular book is or is not of the genre, labouring under the misapprehension that if it doesn't have bug-eyed aliens and laser guns, it doesn't count. All good SF is about humanity and then most of that is about emotions. Marketing needs engendered by the stigma still attached to SF means these books get labelled `literary' and snuck out on the shelves next to the historical fiction and modern satires. But in every case, one can ask; if the science or speculative element is removed, can the same story be told? If the answer is `no' then you undoubtedly have SF. If the answer is `yes' then you have a poorly conceived story with a dreadful gimmick.
This very question is somewhat moot, because `Never Let Me Go' has such a paucity of plot that its relationship to the speculative element is at best tenuous. That this speculative element is also so poorly realised, means it doesn't even count as a gimmick. Would the author have been better off excising it altogether? If his authorial intentions were any clearer, a definitive answer could be offered, but as any moralistic or philosophical message is so inexplicit, the novel takes on something of Rorschach-blot quality- it is so indistinct that one is obliged to project their own interpretations on to it. This means the book could be interpreted as a Frankenstein-like warning against science run amuck, or a terse meditation on the nature of friendship - the obscured nature of intention means ultimately it fails as either.
If we are to assume that this book is indeed about cloning then it is very much from the mind of not only an amateur, but a luddite. Although the science is avoided altogether, the story makes gross assumptions about society's use of it that it renders the argument a straw man. Even given the technology to create parentless clones, the idea that they would be raised to adulthood and then harvested for organs suggests a culture so ethically far from our own that the story ceases to be about our culture. Where after all are Amnesty international to champion the cause of the clones? Indeed, why are the guardians so complicit in what ultimately is mass murder? Admittedly, such atrocious attitudes to minorities have existed historically, and persist in other parts of the world - but not in modern secular democratic England where this book is set. The alternate reality conjured and specifically the behaviour of the guardians is so alien to the reality that currently exists, that the novel simply cannot be taken as a serious comment on society.
Late in the book a character bemoans the modern age as being more scientific, but yet more harsh and uncaring. Debate the truth of such a comment as applied to our world all you like, but the world presented here is not ours and the differences are huge. And if science is to be the target, then target it. Cloning in and of itself is not immoral but amoral. Morality comes when society applies a science. Cloning does not lead inevitably to mass murder - that takes a society. And when atrocities occur, blaming the science and the technology is indeed easy, but also larcenous. Such an attitude is not only profoundly luddite, but also rather poorly thought-out and wilfully ignorant of the facts. The author would have done well to read a few books about cloning - both factual and fiction - before writing this one, as he approaches the subject with such a lack of understanding as to make any observations redundant. The very existence of stem-cell science makes the novel's central premise painfully antiquated. At one point, the question of whether the clones have souls is raised - this is a philosophically juvenile proposition that is rendered impotent by the very existence of cloning in nature - nobody would ask a similar question of identical twins.
But if the society presented is indeed meant to be our own, then perhaps I am projecting too much humanity on the `students'. Are they perhaps regarded merely as cattle awaiting slaughter and reprocessing. If this is the case (and the lifeless quality of the characters involved does lend some credence to it) then with whom am I to sympathise? If they are not people, if they have no souls, then why should I care? If they are people and have souls, then why don't the guardians care more about their survival?
If the guardians are complicit in the murder, then so are the students and herein lies a plot hole so large that suspension of disbelief becomes simply too much work. Why don't they escape? That every single character is given ample opportunity and means to fly from their dreadful fate and not one of them attempts it suggests either a system of restraint that exists nowhere on the page, or a dimension of character that is also unrevealed. A character is described as clinging to life while on the final operating table - one wonders why none of the others cling to life when they have a chance. Although the opportunity to escape death exists, why the characters can't, or won't do so is left frustratingly unspoken to the point where the implausibility of the whole situation is rendered total. This complete lack of coherence beggars other questions about the nature of the clones - if they are human, then why don't they have rights? If they don't have rights, then do they have responsibility and culpability? If they do not have culpability for their actions, then who does? And why would they be allowed to roam freely without supervision, to drive cars? What would have happened if on their trip to Norfolk, they had been involved in a car crash and killed someone else? And already, I feel I have dragged the concept into far more interesting territory than the author even approached.
These kind of questions only reinforce a level of interaction with the external world that not only the characters, but the story as a whole completely avoids. The characters and the writing is so insular that they appear to exist in a vacuum. While at school, there is no sense of a world outside their environment which feels utterly false. Boarding schools can indeed be isolated places, but the students therein are still alive to the community that surrounds them, the culture that penetrates them. This is more apparent as they grow up, and even when surrounded by other people in the real world, not only the characters but the books refusal to interact with the wider world is at the core of its failing.
In lieu of serious sociological reflection, one may be tempted to search for allegory. Is this novel in fact a screed against farming, or stem-cell research? If so, it comes without structure of argument, acknowledgement of counter argument and indeed any original thought beyond `it's wrong to kill animals' or `embryos are human beings too'. The fact that one can play `pick an allegory' means that if this is the intention, then it fails completely.
A final reading could be to ignore the science altogether and regard the novel as merely an evocation of childhood and friendship. If this were the case, then the very presence of the cloning is pointless. Could not the novel be set in a regular boarding school - could the later scenes be set in a hospice? In a way, yes, but that only goes to illustrate the ineffectiveness of the SF element of the story. And even then, the awkward love-triangle, the petty squabbles, lack of character development and anything truly regarded as incident means this is a vapid exercise in unwarranted nostalgia. Has a childhood of such banality ever been regarded with such fondness?
Given the unavoidable plot holes, incompetent moralising, and undeveloped science, one might hope for at least some incidental pleasures.
None exist in the plot which lacks anything close to events that have impact on the characters or engender any amount of excitement. Not only does nothing much happen, but it all happens in such a lethargic fashion that one can perhaps empathise with the character's willingness to submit to their murders, just to be done with it all. And the characters are all so dreary - we see them from childhood, through adolescence and to young adulthood, and very little distinguishes them from each other, bar a few mood-swings. Adolescence should be amongst the most dramatic periods of a person's life - not so this lot, who pass from one petty obsession to the next (a missing cassette tape stands as one of the key incidents) without any real emotion.
The writing itself, frequently described as beautiful, is nothing of the sort. Mostly flat and frequently full of tautologies - there is not one exciting sentence in the whole book. There is almost no physical description of the characters which renders them blanks (and incidentally at odds with real teenagers who obsess and agonise over their looks). Idioms are used as crutches to pad out the grey prose. That this is a first-person narrative means that a certain conversational style should be expected, but I certainly wouldn't enjoy a conversation with someone who has the vocabulary and diction of a `my true story' piece for a cheap woman's weekly. If again this is meant to reflect the emotional vacuity of the character - then why should I care about them?
Never Let Me Go asks disbelief to be suspended on too many levels, that ultimately empathy and excitement get suspended too, leaving us with not very much indeed.