Never Let Me Go: Dystopian Solutions to Real Scientific Issues
What if the timeline of science itself was altered? What if DNA had been understood earlier in the twentieth century? What if cloning was as common in modern society as using the DNA kits commonly advertised on television?
Science fiction, as a genre, allows storytellers to explore these hypotheticals and how they would affect pre-existing issues in the modern world—without the adverse consequences of testing it out themselves. Where the dystopian genre meets science fiction, predicaments are often created that begin to hit even closer to home: this is especially true when a dystopian solution is implemented to solve a real, scientific issue prevalent in modern society. Kazuo Ishiguro explores such a solution in his 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go. This mysterious romance explores the human victims of a society that advanced medical science at their expense and was developed into a 2010 film starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley after receiving high critical acclaim.
The story opens in 1990s England with a protagonist that simply goes by the name Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan). In the film, Kathy informs the audience that she has worked as a “carer” for the past seven years and that her “donors” always do much better than the doctors expect. She does not wish to clarify exactly what a donor or a carer is, nor does she opt to explain why she is sadly watching a young man (Andrew Garfield) being sedated for a medical operation behind a wall of glass. Instead, she wishes to reflect back on her childhood, which was largely spent at the mysterious Hailsham boarding school.
Hailsham in the 1970s is buzzing with activity: children run around in their school uniforms, watched over by their teachers as they attend classes and socialize with their friends. Young Kathy (Izzy Meikle-Small) largely spends her free time with a small group of girls, though she appears closest to a girl named Ruth (Ella Purnell). The girls gossip about the boys, as well as the current romances unfolding at Hailsham. Their favorite activity appears to be watching as the boys antagonize Tommy (Charlie Rowe), a particularly easy-to-anger boy whose short temper is used as a source of entertainment for the whole class. Despite the girls’ pleas not to, Kathy befriends Tommy and soon develops a budding love for him.
Despite the largely innocent activities of the children at Hailsham, the film quickly hints that something much more sinister lurks under the surface. Kathy’s perspective is extremely unreliable, as she fails to notice anything wrong with the school. The children are not allowed to leave the grounds and never mention their parents. When cigarettes are found by a staff member at Hailsham, she warns that these children, in particular, should avoid anything that harms their bodies. Finally, a teacher that is new to Hailsham reveals the truth at the expense of her job: the children will grow until they briefly reach adulthood, and then they will begin the process of donating all of their vital organs.
As life at Hailsham continues, Ruth eventually befriends Tommy, and a romance begins between the two. The film soon progresses into the trio’s life after Hailsham, where they live in a secluded cottage with several others destined for their same fate. Kathy (Carey Mulligan) looks on as the romance between Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) blossoms and sours. When the opportunity to become a carer arrives, Kathy takes it, and she soon travels across the country to help people through their donation process. When Kathy hears that Ruth has started her donations, the two reunite with Tommy, who has also begun the donation process. Through this reunion, Kathy and Tommy finally get a chance at the romance that they both had longed for, as they fight for more time against a system structured around their eventual death.
Never Let Me Go takes an extremely unique approach to the very real issue of organ donation. In the world created by Ishiguro, human cloning had been perfected sometime in the mid-twentieth century. Clones are made of those already looked down upon in society--such as the prostitute that Kathy was a clone of and serve the singular purpose of growing up so that their organs could mature. Interestingly enough, the movie itself never uses the word “clones,” and the audience must deduce this for themselves. Where our society mainly utilizes the organs of those who wish to donate them after they die and is currently exploring donation from animals and 3D-printed sources, Ishiguro poses a much more dystopian solution to the need for life-saving organs. He tells the story of this scientific experiment through the voices of the victims, and he structures the true tragedy of this human experimentation through the doomed romance between Kathy and Tommy. The audience feels their heartbreak and roots for them in their fight for more time.
The film explores many scientific what-ifs and poses a warning to the audience. If human clones were an actual facet of human society, in what ways would they be treated differently? The film establishes that Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth are real people with real feelings, not thoughtless clones of “real” people. Would they be treated as real members of society, or would society treat them as disposable, like in the film? Never Let Me Go also provides a warning: when scientific advancement crosses paths with human life, the consequences can be catastrophic. As someone who did not know what to expect when I was assigned to read the novel for class, I was absolutely enamored by both the mystery as it unraveled, as well as the scientific concepts that were explored. The movie also tells this story beautifully, leaving the audience pondering the deeper consequences of mixing human life with scientific advancement in a careless manner.