Never Let Me Go is one of the most thoughtful pieces of science fiction ever. The film, directed by Mark Romanek, is, of course, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s hard to see how the film, although it doesn’t capture everything about the book, could have been a better adaptation. A labor of love full of wisdom it is, and it certainly deserves a much wider audience and better critical reception.
What I’m going to say is based on both the film and the novel, but I’m moved to write it by having just seen the film. It recently left the theatres, but it’s everywhere now “on demand” and in many other readily accessible places. (Let me thank Berry student Kristian Canler for convincing me that the film is well worth seeing, and I’ll be using some of Kristian’s fine reflections in a later post.)
The story is about human clones raised at an English boarding school (not that different from the one you can see in Harry Potter) as sources of organs for others. They’ve been created as donors, and, in this alternative version of 20th century history, they’re indispensable for perpetuating medical science’s achievement in pushing the average human lifespan beyond 100. They aren’t taught any of the skills required to make a living. They won’t need them. They’ll die as young adults, and their productivity depends only on their health. So the school is particularly strict when it comes to prohibiting smoking, but otherwise quite easygoing. (Just like residential schools these days!)
Certainly there’s little point in encouraging chastity as a virtue. The donor clones won’t become (and don’t have!) parents, and the one physical difference we can see between them and “normals” is that they’re incapable of reproducing. But neither are they encouraged to lose themselves in mindless orgies or random one-night stands, as people are in The Brave New World. They soon enough connect something like sexual exclusivity and personal love on their own, and that’s neither encouraged nor discouraged.
Their sexual lives are unregulated, because there’s no need to regulate them for them to perform their social function. There’s something to be learned here about what human life might be like if we continue down to the end of the road of detaching sex from reproduction. It won’t be a world full of unobsessive enjoyment; jealousy and intimacy will remain, but it will also be a melancholic world of displaced or undirected and misunderstood longing.
The clones in school are close to regular kids, having almost all the longings and shortcomings—all the virtues and vices–of highly self-conscious and relational (and so polymorphously erotic) persons. It seems, at first, that they’re very short on the various human longings for personal greatness or even political freedom, but the undirected anger—sometimes literally howling—of one of the boys shows that he knows he’s been deprived of a purpose to channel his spiritedness. (He manages to take a kind of perverse pride–when half-dead–in being a particularly hardy and so productive donor.)
The girls know they’ve been deprived of being and having children. They especially long for parents, and they sometimes obsessively search for the person on whom they were modeled. (One clone pages through porn magazines looking for a woman with her body.) They are haunted by the truth that they’ve been modeled on “trash” to be less than trash, to be, in fact, less than slaves (who even in our South couldn’t be used the way they are being used.) They know well enough they live in a world in which no one can care for them but themselves, but that doesn’t mean they live without personal love. The donors care about their “status” or personal significance in each other’s eyes, but they’re imperfectly but genuinely resigned to the fact that they have no status—and so no recognition of who they really are—with anyone else.
It’s not clear for most of the film why they’re educated not only to read but to create art and poetry in an environment where they can cultivate personal attachments as social beings. We eventually learn that this is the first and last school devoted to the ethical raising of spare-part children. The top “guardians” wanted to prove that clones have souls too. As unique and irreplaceable persons displaying their individuality, those guardians hoped to show, human clones can’t be regarded as resources to be exploited—mutilated and eventually killed—for the benefit of others.
One of the clones asks with indignant entitlement why they can’t have souls. There’s no reason at all, it turns out. From the point of view of our science, we have two controversial claims here: The first is that all persons have souls (or personal identities that distinguish them from each other and all the other animals), and that clones—manufactured persons—would have souls too.
Stay tuned. There’s more to come.