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Old 08-14-2018, 10:13 AM   #1
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September 2018 Discussion • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is the September selection of the New Leaf Book Club.



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Never Let Me Go is a 2005 dystopian science fiction novel by Nobel Prize-winning British author Kazuo Ishiguro. It was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize (an award Ishiguro had previously won in 1989 for The Remains of the Day), for the 2006 Arthur C. Clarke Award and for the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award. Time magazine named it the best novel of 2005 and included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
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Old 09-15-2018, 08:17 AM   #2
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It's time to discuss Never Let Me Go. What did we think of it?

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Old 09-15-2018, 10:57 AM   #3
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Here are just a few thoughts I had about Never Let Me Go.

For me this novel creates one of the most pitiless and cruel dystopias I have ever encountered. The characters are slaves deprived of all choice including even the most basic human rights.

The setting is primarily pastoral and this intensifies the horror. Hailsham outwardly is a school apparently allowing lots of civilising activities. Its name is surely significant. It is a “sham” where the victims first meet. Perhaps it is even an ironic welcome to the reader.

“The Cottages” continues the pastoral environment. Again, the characters are encouraged to do various activities that are really only time wasters until they are moved directly into the horrible Carer-Donor-Completion cycle. Any accomplishments they may have gained on a human level are completely irrelevant and subservient to their use as livestock.

One if the things about the novel that I found very depressing was the way the characters actually accepted their fate. They seemed to have no conception of their own intrinsic worth. One would think that someone, somewhere would realise that they had a unique merit in their own right. But perhaps this is one of the messages of the book. It is possible to enslave to such a degree that any other mind-set becomes impossible.

Personally, I don’t agree with this though the idea has occurred in other dystopian novels. The Time Machine by Wells creates a society of Pastoral Eloi and the mechanistic Morlocks who feed on them. Here, though, the Eloi are unaware of their fate.

The androids of Blade Runner are aware of the genetic engineering that destroys them. They rebel but it gets them nothing except a revenge against the evil genius who created them. One version of the film does imply that some possible fulfilment does await the Androids.(The novel by Philip K Dick upon which the film is based is considerably less sympathetic to the Androids.)

Animal Farm
creates a dystopia against which the animals rebel. They succeed in creating a new society but in the end are betrayed and the rebellion is seen to be futile. And, of course, 1984 is just as pessimistic.

So the pessimism of Never Let Me Go is to be expected and the very normality of the setting and the deeply sympathetic relationships only increase the sense of betrayal left at the end.

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Old 09-15-2018, 12:08 PM   #4
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A serious book but one I found more annoying than interesting. I suppose I could claim I liked it. After all, it's an important work by a well respected author, but honestly, it just doesn't work for me. It asks questions that I long ago answered for myself, and it asks them in a way that is not likely to change any minds. It seems to me that the time for reading Ishiguro is in your teens, or perhaps your 20's if you're a bit slow. That's when you need to be thinking "deep thoughts". Overall, I confess to being quite disappointed. I gave it 3 stars on Goodreads, but that was a stretch.
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Old 09-15-2018, 12:28 PM   #5
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Reading this book, the central question for me was, "Is it believable?"

Do I believe a recognisably British society (not too dissimilar to today's) would farm fully sentient, human clones so that it can harvest their organs for donation to the medically needy, risking the lives of the clones in the process? We have to assume that organ rejection is not an issue, as Ishiguro gives very little detail about the harvesting and donation process, or how the farming came about in the first place.

Do I believe that the clones would passively accept the role that society has dictated for them, to the extent they see it as their duty?

We have to suspend belief, or supply our own rationales: perhaps the clones are genetically pre-disposed to be passive and conformist - we can guess that they were cloned from individuals who were pre-screened to have these traits. Ishiguro instead concentrates on the nurture side of the nature versus nurture debate - how the upbringing of the clones in an isolated, disciplined environment would lead them as adults to accept the fate society had decreed.

A case in point - the selection and collection of the best of the artwork made by the student clones. I assumed this was to instil pride in them for giving away something that they highly valued, which would later transfer to giving away something more physical and intimate. At the end of the book Ishiguro gives an entirely different reason for the collection: to prove that the students had souls in an attempt to get them better treatment. By not readily supplying all the answers, Ishiguro has forced me to think up my own, to use my imagination to fill in the gaps.

Even here I was not totally convinced, and was anticipating at least one of the protagonists would attempt to escape. I suppose they did attempt as far as they were able, but it was very feeble.

This is where the genius of this book lies - it does not pander to our expectations of escape and redemption, fuelled by legions of stories where the protagonist overcomes all odds against the evil overlord to win their final triumph. In that respect, "Never Let Me Go" is truer to most of our lives, where we do go along from day to day with our lot, and never try to break out.
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Old 09-15-2018, 12:53 PM   #6
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fantasyfan, I really like the comparisons you raise. I find them very apt.

I think these stories provide pessimistic outcomes deliberately. A hopeful conclusion would detract from the impact that the authors are trying to have on their audience and would reduce the strength of the message.

One of the things I found interesting about Never Let Me Go was how little attempt was made to give a larger context. We rarely see anyone who is not one of the clones/slaves. What fantasyfan described as pastoral I felt as isolated and isolating. The effect is emphasised when we get what little explanation is made in the meeting* with Madame and Miss Emily. The wider world doesn't want to know about these clones, so of course they are isolated (indeed, self-isolating).

(* I was going to say confrontation rather than meeting, but these clones never really do anything that might qualify as confrontation - and I think is an important part of the explanation for their unnerving passivity: they were raised to never be confronting. Tommy with his early, undirected, temper-tantrums was an exception eventually brought under control by peer pressure. Notice that it wasn't, overtly, by the guardians. I think this is an important part of the story: the clones do a lot of what is needed by themselves, to each other. We humans can be good at that.)

The clones are "told and not told" of their role in the world, as we can imagine the wider population is also "told and not told" of their own role. It is difficult for us to imagine being raised as a collection of spare-parts and not ever questioning that ... but I think that is part of what it leaves sitting in your mind after you finish: what are we accepting of now, without trying to imagine that it could be different?

It's not like the book lacks historical precedent: slavery and suffrage to name two obvious examples. Generations after the first voices were raised to try and change the situation we are still fighting racism and sexism and other prejudices. What may seem like the most appalling things to us now once seemed only natural and just (hanged, drawn and quartered, anyone?); and some of what seems natural and just now may well seem appalling to future generations - or vice versa? Could we ever revert? As this story suggests, all it takes is raising children in isolation, telling them only what you choose for them to know.


There is a lot to not like about this book from the perspective of a science fiction story. So much is not explained, or seems not really credible in a strict science fiction sense (perhaps only because it is not explained). Indeed, even the setting the story is not entirely clear. (Is it alternative history or set in the future? It didn't seem to me that this was absolutely stated.) But it turns out that this, that I might normally find annoying, is one of the things that I think makes the story work for me. The vagueness of the setting, the uneducated simplicity of the telling, makes it all seem real and convincing and important in a way that more explicit explanation may have distracted from. (I found this recently in another book, where the long and detailed "world building" came across as exactly that, "world building" - and only artificial worlds need building and explaining so of course the story felt artificial.)

The lack of explicit explanation also means that what may seem like holes may merely be lack of knowledge, or lack of imagination on our own part, and that in itself leaves you thinking about the book. For, if nothing else, this is a book that left me thinking about it long after completion. ... And I'll never think of the word "completion" in quite the same way again.

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Old 09-15-2018, 03:39 PM   #7
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Here are my first thoughts prior to reviewing anyone else's comments.

I was torn between a 2 and 3 start review at Goodreads when I first finished it. But upon further reflection, I might even drop it to a 1 star. I really don't like this book. I don't find it believable in any way that society could so swiftly change to one that accepts mass-cloning and harvesting organs from even seemingly willing people to the point that they die from it. The ramifications of this were not explored anywhere near enough. There aren't even hints (beyond Ms. Emily near the end) that some of the more obvious consequences had occurred.

If their society did accept cloning and the donations, they didn't go nearly far enough. This started in the 50s or 60s (Hailsham's movement peaked in the late 70s) so shortly after WW2, possibly during Korea, and certainly during Vietnam yet there were no hints of the clones being used for limb donations to those people who lost them during combat. Where are the clones who are missing arms/legs that have been "donated" to people who have been maimed in car accidents even? All of the discussed donations are of organs, why not everything else that can be donated today? And beyond that, why not just make 2 of every kid as they get born so you always have a "same stage" donor available for accidents? And then make another every 20 years so there is always a "young and healthy" donor ready? (I guess if they did figure out a way to not worry about rejections that wouldn't matter as much but the talk of "possibles" almost hinted that rejection was a possibility and therefore the students were 1:1 with donors.)

Ms. Emily in her data dump at the end inferred that Hailsham students had it very good. Which was probably true. But even when Kathy and the others met other students there was never any hint of the horrors that would be occurring at the other schools. Without touching any of that it's like this story is trying to make things "bad" but not "horrific". And I dont' see how they could have the cloning/harvesting without the "horrific" part too. Someone from another school would have said/hinted something. Whether it was at the cottages or during Kathy's 10 years as a carer.

I suppose in this world there are a lot of altar boys and gymnests who didn't have to fear going to church or practice since the perverts who like that thing would certainly have become "guardians" at one of the less "high-class" residences than Hailsham.

Nothing was said about funding beyond special funding for Hailsham and the two other "good" schools. Where does the money come to raise hundreds of students, for decades, before they have any "positive" donations to society come from? We don't even use land that way (we won't wait 10 years for a crop of sustainable forest products to grow before wanting a return on it.) That makes me think that thios would have been somethign for only the super wealthy who were growing their own replacement parts so to speak. But there were too many of them for that so again, it doesn't work.

Basically, the society as presented, even in the limited view, is not believable. In any way.
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Old 09-15-2018, 10:40 PM   #8
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I've been having a dig around in the text trying to get a clearer idea of when the story is set. It's easy to assume references to the "fifties" and "sixties" mean 1950s and 1960s, but it need not be so. The "Judy Bridgewater" tape was said to be recorded in 1956, but that need not be the most recent "fifties".

The explanation for the clone/donor situation is described as: "After the war, in the early fifties, when the great breakthroughs in science followed one after the other so rapidly, there wasn’t time to take stock, to ask the sensible questions." The reader is likely to assume WW2, but - again - that assumption need not be correct.

Perhaps the clearest indicator might be this fragment: "Rodney. He went around with his hair tied back in a ponytail, like a rock musician from the seventies" as this would appear to tie the story "seventies" to our own "seventies". But then, since that would make this an alternative history setting, there would have been no need for the story's 1970s to also have had long-haired musicians.

Not that it really matters. Yes, such vagueness of detail means this story does not work well as a traditional science-fiction story, but it's not intended to be a traditional science-fiction story - that much seems clear enough.
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Old 09-16-2018, 01:39 AM   #9
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1.) It doesn't have to be believable, nor was it particularly trying to be.
2.) Nor does it need to correspond to any particular time or place, though there's an obvious inclination to make it do so.
3.) Where it fails, to my way of thinking, is that as a morality piece, it's not particularly compelling or convincing. If the goal is to make us think about medical ethics, it's way too late. Had this been written at the beginning of the transplant era, it would have more excuse. But we've already settled this. And certainly, anyone beyond their formative years has already decided how they feel about organ farming if they've bothered to think about it (or much of anything.)
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Old 09-16-2018, 02:09 AM   #10
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Here are my thoughts documented shortly after I completed the book. I am posting this before reading the thoughts of others and perhaps commenting.

The book had its moments, but ultimately I didn't really like it that much. Which was somewhat of a surprise. I enjoyed the first part of the book. The school setting, the special children, the suspense and the underlying mystery were very reminiscent of "The Girl With All The Gifts", an exceptional book. But in the Girl With All The Gifts the major secret is revealed in a very effective manner quite early in the book. The rest of the book explores the consequences of that secret in depth, following a real plot which reaches an ultimately satisfying conclusion. In sharp contrast, Never Let Me Go jealously guards the underlying secret almost until the end, dropping hints throughout the book. We were left to guess at the secret from these hints. I certainly reached the conclusion that the children were clones of some sort quite early. Before the big reveal I was expecting that they were clones kept for particular individuals or compatible groups with replacement organs harvested from them as needed to replace the defective or ageing organs of the original. The actual explanation was far more banal and unsatisfying, lying in some alternate history where by some undisclosed means products harnessed from clones can cure virtually all diseases including cancer. Something beyond our medical science even now.

The resulting society was grotesque. The children, of course, were not treated as people even by law and had few if any rights. I must wonder if the sham in Hailsham is intentional. Because that is what the school was. To raise and educate these children as normal people with the expectation that they were normal people with the rights of normal people, telling them but not telling them of the realities, is arguably neither a moral act nor a charitable one. Did the author intend to question the motives and results of many do-gooders and activists? Because this is what he seems to have done. Miss Emily was trying to do good, but was half committed. It seems she was almost playing a game. Marie-Claude, her companion and perhaps her lover, seems to have been dragged along with her, though felt the futility of it all, wanting little to do with these children and their fate other than in the abstract. At the end, defeated, both Emily and Marie-Claude returned to their own lives, wanting little to do with their former charges, grudgingly giving them a spare hour or two to explain everything. Supervising the moving of a bedside cabinet was more important. A game on one part, real lives on the other. Their treatment of Lucy Wainright who wanted to see the children were fully informed showed clearly that they were not prepared to rock the boat even a little more. Their experiment was intended only to argue for better treatment, not to end the system of cloning. We all live our lives effectively ignoring many injustices which we cannot materially influence, certainly not as individuals. Many of those who do seek to help do not take any real risk themselves. Most volunteers helping in poor African villages return home to continue with their own comfortable lives, having experienced an adventure.

The writing itself was very good, and the character development superb and realistic. I think we probably all know people like Ruth, who was most effectively drawn. The belief of Tommy and Kathy in the possibility of a deferral in the case of true love is very touching and human. I'm not sure to what extent Ruth really believed this. Her major sin was one which she could not truly atone for, but the unlikely chance of a deferral left room for some rationalisation to ease her conscience.

My problem with the book is that essentially nothing happened. There was no real plot, just a series of glimpses into a bleak mostly unexplained world. The characters were just passive participants in that world. The incidents were not about developing any sort of plot but simply about developing their characters. At no point do these characters influence events in any meaningful way. Yes, their interactions such as they are with their dystopian society do raise some interesting issues about human nature. I have little issue with realism. I think that societies have branded people non-human and treated them terribly for far less noble reasons than curing diseases. Such a society can arise far too easily in the right conditions.

I'm not going to quibble that these characters could have run away or joined the resistance. Because that doesn't mean that no one ran away or there was no resistance. Just that these particular people did neither, as I suspect the majority would also do in such a society, which is very sketchily drawn indeed. I regard this book as little more than a character study with some good ideas thrown in.

I should add that I personally don't like literary fiction which consists of endless descriptions of scenery and exquisitely drawn characters but little in the way of plot. There are of course always exceptions but to me this was not one of them. Very disappointing. The Girl With All The Gifts is a far superior novel IMO.

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Old 09-16-2018, 02:16 AM   #11
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TL,DR.

Seriously, folks. If you post tomes here, you run the very real risk of people missing your points. And it really is a buzz kill. Try keeping it short and succinct. Then we can all discuss/argue/debate a particular good/bad feature.

Or, you can all just dump on me. That's fine too.
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Old 09-16-2018, 02:42 AM   #12
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1.) It doesn't have to be believable, nor was it particularly trying to be.
I don't agree with this. Something set in the "real world" needs to have some believability to it. Or he needed to include something to help us suspend our disbelief. Without that, it just fails.

Maybe pushing it forward a hundred years or more, something where the time frame would be long enough that the societal changes could have happened. As-is it is an alternative history where cloning was discovered and (I assume) perfected 40 years earlier than we were able to do it. (Yes, it could have been a different century but I don't buy that given the descriptions of the 70s and the technology other than cloning.)
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Old 09-16-2018, 03:01 AM   #13
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Originally Posted by CRussel View Post
A serious book but one I found more annoying than interesting. I suppose I could claim I liked it. After all, it's an important work by a well respected author, but honestly, it just doesn't work for me. It asks questions that I long ago answered for myself, and it asks them in a way that is not likely to change any minds. It seems to me that the time for reading Ishiguro is in your teens, or perhaps your 20's if you're a bit slow. That's when you need to be thinking "deep thoughts". Overall, I confess to being quite disappointed. I gave it 3 stars on Goodreads, but that was a stretch.
I agree with you about the more annoying than interesting. But who decides that the book or the author is very important? A few self-appointed arbiters of such things, which are themselves highly subjective. Personally I only take account of such things in the decision whether to read, and then only rarely.

But I must respectfully disagree with the rest of your post with the exception of your rating. Personally I think we should be trying to think deep thoughts for the whole of our lives, or at least as long as we are able to. And our personal answers to deep questions should be, if not constantly at least periodically, challenged and reviewed throughout our lifetime. Certainly some of my "answers" now have evolved or sometimes even changed dramatically since I was in my 20's.

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Originally Posted by CRussel View Post
TL,DR.

Seriously, folks. If you post tomes here, you run the very real risk of people missing your points. And it really is a buzz kill. Try keeping it short and succinct. Then we can all discuss/argue/debate a particular good/bad feature.

Or, you can all just dump on me. That's fine too.
Thank you for the suggestion, and I notice that you certainly do practice what you preach.

However, i am respectfully going to take your alternative option. I won't be offended if you choose not to read or comment on my posts.

The approach I am taking is effectively to post my semi-review of the book setting out my thoughts on many aspects. Others here also take that approach, and personally I think it is the better one. Others are then free to pick particular points they consider worthy of discussion.
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Old 09-16-2018, 03:32 AM   #14
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Sorry, another long post! I quote below a short passage from the book which for me categorises it as an alternate history tale likely diverging from real history in the early 1950's, after the 2nd World War. I think it also establishes the basis of the divergence which lead to the cloning. This basis is the great breakthroughs in Science in the early 50's. These breakthroughs are not explained, only their result, that is, "all these ways to cure so many previously incurable conditions". Through organs. The demand for organs in this dystopia is not necessarily just for transplant. They are needed to be used in some unexplained fashion to produce the cures. This is the rationale underlying the dystopia. Previously incurable diseases can be cured, but only by use of organs, whether by transplant or otherwise. And the demand for such organs is significant, which tends to imply that the mechanism for the cures is not simply transplants or other one to one applications. For instance organs could be essential ingredients of curative medications. Organs are also required for research, which is hardly surprising if they are capable of producing cures. This is the clones only purpose. Using a very unpleasant analogy, Hailsham is like a free range chicken farm. The conditions at other schools and outside the schools is only hinted at, but the worst case scenario is children being raised like battery hens with no education until they are old enough to donate.

How indeed could you ask a world that has come to regard cancer as curable to put away that cure?

Personally I doubt anyone who at all understands history and human nature can dismiss the possibility of such a society arising.

Excerpt from Book
Quote:
‘From your perspective today, Kathy, your bemusement is perfectly reasonable. But you must try and see it historically. After the war, in the early fifties, when the great breakthroughs in science followed one after the other so rapidly, there wasn’t time to take stock, to ask the sensible questions. Suddenly there were all these new possibilities laid before us, all these ways to cure so many previously incurable conditions. This was what the world noticed the most, wanted the most. And for a long time, people preferred to believe these organs appeared from nowhere, or at most that they grew in a kind of vacuum. Yes, there were arguments. But by the time people became concerned about … about students, by the time they came to consider just how you were reared, whether you should have been brought into existence at all, well by then it was too late. There was no way to reverse the process. How can you ask a world that has come to regard cancer as curable, how can you ask such a world to put away that cure, to go back to the dark days? There was no going back. However uncomfortable people were about your existence, their overwhelming concern was that their own children, their spouses, their parents, their friends, did not die from cancer, motor neurone disease, heart disease. So for a long time you were kept in the shadows, and people did their best not to think about you. And if they did, they tried to convince themselves you weren’t really like us. That you were less than human, so it didn’t matter. And that was how things stood until our little movement came along. But do you see what we were up against? We were virtually attempting to square the circle. Here was the world, requiring students to donate. While that remained the case, there would always be a barrier against seeing you as properly human. Well, we fought that battle for many years, and what we won for you, at least, were many improvements, though of course, you were only a select few.
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Old 09-16-2018, 03:44 AM   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by CRussel View Post
[...]
3.) Where it fails, to my way of thinking, is that as a morality piece, it's not particularly compelling or convincing. If the goal is to make us think about medical ethics, it's way too late. Had this been written at the beginning of the transplant era, it would have more excuse. But we've already settled this. And certainly, anyone beyond their formative years has already decided how they feel about organ farming if they've bothered to think about it (or much of anything.)
I think the medical situation is merely a prop in the story, I don't think the story itself is intended to be about cloning. The story is sci-fi only to the extent that it is an alternative history piece, and perhaps to the extent that it supposes we might segregate people like this (which should come as no surprise at all). The cloning is a prop, the donor system is a way of presenting people going to their completion willingly - as a result of the way society has segregated them and educated them.

I think fantasyfan hit it pretty close when describing the students leaving to begin their cycle of Carer-Donor-Completion. In the story, the cloning is merely a prop to implement this cycle.
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