It’s been a long time since I read a book so compelling that I finished it in one sitting. This week I did that when I read “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro. When I first picked it up and read the back cover, I thought it would be a normal coming-of-age novel about students at a ritzy prep school. It’s actually about a modern alternate world in which everything is much like our world, except that there is a large population of clones who are bred to be organ donors. The central characters are students at a secluded boarding school for clones; the novel follows them as they grow up, and first care for clones undergoing organ donation, then become donors themselves.
It would be a great disservice to think of this book as just a cautionary sci-fi novel about cloning. I don’t consider it such at all, and in fact it’s not classified as science fiction. The other things that the book is about– innocence, loss, heartbreak, love– are so much harder to pin down. And it is also a coming-of-age novel about students at a ritzy prep school. In most of the world of this novel, clones are raised as animals in institutions with horrible conditions. At Hailsham, they are given an extensive education; they play sports, live in dorms, and are taught to value artistic creativity. They know that they are clones and “donors”, but they have no idea of the sub-human status of clones in society, or what conditions others outside of Hailsham experience.
The novel’s main thematic message about bioethics is thought-provoking, but nothing that hasn’t been addressed before. There are two other elements that I found extremely compelling. One is the attitude of the school’s patrons. The founders and teachers at Hailsham are all non-clones who have fought for humane treatment of clones. Some of them are kind and affectionate towards students, but most remain physically distant, and some maintain a clear dislike towards students in general. The school’s founder, Madame, is cold towards students and physically frightened of them, afraid to touch them or be surrounded by them– but clearly moved by their plight and by their struggle against society, to the point of creating a school where they can thrive and develop as persons before they are condemned to die.
It makes me wonder: how often does that happen? How often do people support and fight for something that fundamentally repulses them? I can see this being quite common: slavery, racial equality, poverty, sexual equality– in all these areas it is quite possible to support people intellectually but in reality, in interaction, fear them or regard them with disgust.
How do we deal with that? Should Madame be hated for her reaction towards clones, or praised for her work on their behalf? Is there anything she could do about her reaction? Is there a way to change such ingrained attitudes? And if the people who fight for the oppressed are so affected, is there any hope of changing the attitudes of the public?