Spare Parts

The scientific horror of Never Let Me Go

The first thing to be said in any consideration of Never Let Me Go—the 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro or the spellbinding new movie that’s been made of it—is this: spoiler alert. Director Mark Romanek’s film is so true to the book in both its chilling plot particulars and its obliquely eerie tone that there’s no way to discuss it without revealing key elements that should really be absorbed firsthand. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, please bookmark this review and go see the movie. The review will patiently await your return.

The time is an alternate version of the 1980s and ’90s. Medical breakthroughs have extended average human life expectancy to 100 years—unfortunately without extending the durability of the human body. The implications of this situation slowly become clear at Hailsham, a peculiar boarding school in the misty English countryside. Here the students—who have no last names, and have been resident at this bleak institution for as long as they can remember—are instructed in a strangely vague way about the very special lives they’ve been chosen to lead. Upon graduation they will devote themselves to the making of “donations,” although some will spend a brief period as “carers,” ministering to fellow graduates as they proceed through their selfless careers.

The school’s odd curriculum is heavily oriented toward physical health and, most oddly, creative pursuits—poetry, pottery, painting—the artifacts of which are regularly collected for transport to a faraway “Gallery,” for purposes never (until the movie’s end) explained. The ambiguity of this system is strictly maintained by the school’s teachers—or “guardians,” as they’re called. Questioning it is not a part of the academic regimen.

The story focuses on three of the students, Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth (played as young adults, with penetrating brilliance, by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley). Kathy, who narrates the tale, becomes a carer at first, while Tommy and Ruth proceed directly into making “donations.” By this point the nature of their fate has become horrifically clear: Hailsham’s students are human clones who’ve been created solely to supply vital organs—eyes, kidneys, whatever the market demands—to the long-aging populace in the world beyond the school’s confines. At regular intervals, the donors are brought into hospitals to be surgically relieved of one or another body part, then relocated to a recovery facility to recuperate until their next operation, after a few of which they inevitably “complete,” or die. In the beginning, it’s suggested, there was some moral unease about this program; but it quickly became so popular among the public that any ethical reservations soon withered.

Mark Romanek, who has directed only two previous features in a 30-year-career devoted largely to music videos, here emerges as an unexpected master of mood and pace, rigorously committed to the unique autumnal tone of Ishiguro’s novel. Never Let Me Go is a horror movie of a sort, but the horrors are not the kind that come leaping wetly off the screen; instead, they build up in your mind like a toxic silt. Thus, the movie’s two most astonishing scenes, both set in operating rooms, are unforgettable not for their gore or violence, but for the inhuman indifference of the hospitals’ doctors to the disposable patients they so coldly maim. As our own society slouches toward the brink of human cloning, this picture quietly raises the most profound questions about the meaning and worth of human life, and the collision of ethics and commercial imperatives with which we may very soon contend.   

Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.

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  • T||

    Shouldn't Kurt Loder always be introduced by the bass line from Peace Sells?

  • ||

    Whaddya mean I don't support your system? I go to court when I have to.

  • ||

    Heh. But no. He should be introduced as the guy that looks like he stepped out of the grave to take a piss.

  • ||

    Wait, this is precisely the same premise as Parts: The Clonus Horror (love you MST3K!) and The Island with Ewan McGregor.

    Think I'll pass on the movie and the book...

  • Jorj X. McKie||

    I'm Peter Graves and I believe that's my spleen you have there.

  • ||

    Remember all the Peter Graves jokes they were making during the credits of that episode?

    God, I miss that show!

  • ||

    Or any of Larry Niven's classic 1970s sf pieces, starting with The Jigsaw Man.

  • Jorj X. McKie||

    A Gift From Earth

    was a good one.

  • Virginia||

    MST3K's Clonus Horror montage!!

    Also, Keira Knightley has wicked inbred jaw issues.

  • Mad Science||

    I am SO fucking tired of this whole "farm raised clones for organ harvesting" cliche that lazy ass writers keep fucking vomiting out!

    If you have the tech levels present in such stories, THEN THE TECHNOLOGY TO SIMPLY CLONE JUST A NEW HEART OR WHATNOT WOULD BE A VERY SIMPLE REACH! NOT TO MENTION WAY MORE FUCKING ECONOMICAL!

    If a meat-space scientist talks about cloning for medical purposes, THEN ORGAN AND TISSUE CLONING IS WHAT THEY'RE TALKING ABOUT!

    Sci-fi hack writers who shit out these stories are spreading around ignorance and confusion which gets the in the way of real world science!

  • Mad Science||

    Then again, now that the whole Global Warming Movement/Religion is cooling down, maybe Hollywood is just trying to scare up some new cause for dumb fuck college kids to hold protests for!

  • ||

    Perhaps you are right! It's driving me crazy! I am shaking with anger!

    Be the first of your friends to like this!

  • Sosnowski||

    Well put, Sage.

  • T||

    Well, I'm hoping we can force the clones to maturity in less than 18 years. I want my army of clones to unleash upon the world, and 18 years just strikes me as taking too long.

    Between the 20 years to perfect cloning and another 18 to grow my army of deranged female assassins, I'll be too old to really enjoy world domination.

  • fish||

    Is anyone really ever too old to enjoy world domination?

  • mr simple||

    To me that just brings up issues with age of consent.

  • ||

    Heavens, I disagree. Simply cloning a human being would probably be relatively straightforward, just sticking a somatic cell nucleus in a human egg cell and tricking it into undifferentiating. Of course, then you need a willing host mother -- or artificial uterus -- plus you need to raise the children for many years before the organs become of suitable size.

    By contrast to grow a whole functioning organ from scratch and outside of its normal bodily surroundings is a very tall technical challenge indeed, given how intimately cells interact. Much harder.

    This is not to say I find the premise of the movie believable. Even easier and/or less expensive than cloning whole humans or independent organs would be further progress on antirejection treatments that let transplants happen from any donor. That is interesting enough in itself, since it leads to the possibility of less voluntary organ donation than we're used to, and even, in the extreme case, to involuntary donation if, say, you break the law in, as time goes by, increasingly trivial ways (cf. Larry Niven's classic piece, to which I alluded above, The Jigsaw Man, in which a man is condemned to the organ banks for running three red lights in the space of a year.)

    These fears are far more realistic. Already some states are mulling "opt out" intead of "opt in" organ donation registry, and some moderately credible rumors have suggested the Chinese schedule executions of healthy young criminals when a foreign devil in Hong Kong is willing to pay $50,000 for a donated kidney.

  • ||

    Mad Science: Loder is wrong. The book is a horror potboiler even less interesting than its literary ancestor, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Clone organs or people, but not people for cloned organs.

  • ||

    Took you long enough to chime in on this one! Sheesh! I was beginning to wonder if you still worked at Reason :).

    Seriously, thanks for your response. I agree with Mad Science's sentiment. No one seems to want to look at what a true market in organs would be like, and as with many issues, it seems we have a great many sophomoric attempts to discuss this issue by intelligent people who have no experience or knowledge of the fields they are attempting to judge.

  • bubba||

    We already have the technology to clone whole animals, and it can be done routinely.

    Cloning just a heart is orders of magnitude more difficult.

  • Shannon Love||

    I agree this is a stale trope that dates from at least the 50s. Like a lot of science fiction, it says more about the authors dismal view of humanity than it does about any possible future.

    I mean, the story of the a last 500 years has been one of increasing compassion towards everyone. In the past, the military aristocrats of every major society used to treat the great mass of citizens like livestock. Today, even tyrannies like Communism and Fascism had to dress themselves up in egalitarian "most good for the most people". Hell, environmentalism tries to persuade us to commit suicide for the sake of the fluffy bunnies.

    Come to think of it, if you wanted to write a realistic future dystopia it would be one of soft voices, smiling face, cheery state imagery, very little overt violence but instead just a slow strangling of the spirit from a complete lack of individual choice and initiative. The protagonist would realize as he died that he had done the same thing over and over again, never changing anything, never making his own decisions about anything. Genetically engineer mortuary bunnies would scatter his ashes under the state approved unicorn tree.

  • ||

    It's already been written by Jack Williamson. It's called The Humanoids.

  • T||

    And Epi once again validates my belief that there's more sci-fi knowledge among the regulars at H&R than on the entirety of io9.

  • JD the elder||

    Come to think of it, if you wanted to write a realistic future dystopia it would be one of soft voices, smiling face, cheery state imagery, very little overt violence but instead just a slow strangling of the spirit from a complete lack of individual choice and initiative.

    There's a lot of that in Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451. Both of them describe worlds in which you have a lot of entertainment and apparent choices, but very little actual freedom to make any really meaningful choices. Bradbury touched on that in other works too, describing societies in which everyone was "happy", but there was little freedom to deviate from what was officially supposed to make you happy.

  • Mel K||

    Check out Ira Levin's, This Perfect Day

  • Shannon Love||

    Although, in thinking about it, for people who believe that life begins at conception, embryo stem cell harvesting is basically the same thing as growing people just to harvest their organs.

    A lot of traditionalist view both abortion and euthanasia as resulting from a progressive disdain for inconvenient lives that reflects and increasingly selfish, self-absorbed and ruthless culture.

    I hope they're wrong.

  • Gene||

    I agree with Shannon and suggest, in spite of silliness, that Idiocracy is probably a more realistic dystopian vision.

  • Ray Ray||

    Oh, wait, are we really talking about cloning science fiction here? Haha. I just think we should be wary of any message from birth that selflessness is some sort of honor and virtue. Might be clones, but it might just your average liberal bullshit about forcing people to put the needs of others before their own needs.

  • ||

    A truly terrifying book or movie about a dystopia would be about a society where each individual is required (and forced when necessary) to give all of his money to the government for the government to give to whoever the government thought needed it.

  • ||

    Yeah if that ever happened, it would be really terrifying. Wait, Shit.

  • ||

    probably with the rationale "from each according to their means, to each according to their needs"

    Uh, I just need enough for daily infusions of beer, wine, cheetos, and daily massages at Asian spas, unlimited internet porn viewing, and I'm set for life - scarely any needs at all and all absolutely necessary for the fulfillment of my life.

  • ||

    As our own society slouches toward the brink of human cloning, this picture quietly raises the most profound questions about the meaning and worth of human life, and the collision of ethics and commercial imperatives with which we may very soon contend.

    Such utter bullshit. It is far easier to grow human organs in a pig then it is to grow a human without a uterus.

  • ||

    It is far easier to grow human organs in a pig...

    So that's why the pols keep increasing the number of LEOs.

  • ^||

    Oh snap.

  • ||

    If you’re unfamiliar with the story, please bookmark this review and go see the movie. The review will patiently await your return.

    I can see why a fan would not want anyone to know what the plot is....it stinks so high it would turn away any informed viewer.

  • JOhnny MAckson||

    Don't worry, silly human things. Soon, my copies and I will enter our shiny metal death machines, and we will go xenocide on your asses. LOL No more worrying about these ethical dilemmas. It's crazy if you think about it! FTW

    Jess
    www.anon-yes-please.com

  • ||

    Is it a bot, or is it Trollex®?

  • ||

    Before you all trash the theme further here, Never Let Me Go, the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, is truly brilliant in setting up the society and tone for the story. It is one of my favorite books. Please give it a try.

    And for those of you unfamiliar with cloning and the growing of organs, as Carl Pham points out above, the technology to grow individual organs is nowhere near ready. It would be easier to grow a whole human in a borrowed womb; this whole organism cloning is being done with animals now. No one has grown true artificial organs yet. However, there is some really cool engineering of simple organs (like bladders) being done at Wake Forest University, for those of you interested in regenerative medicine.

  • ||

    If I need a replacement appendage, I don't want a copy of my own, which is sadly lacking - I want a clone of John Holmes' appendage.

  • Rima||

    Although it didn't involve clones, the idea that humans can create a race of slaves was one of the the themes of Ridley Scott's brilliant film, "Bladerunner." Interesting that no one in these comments so far has mentioned it...

  • ||

    Larry Niven already covered organ cloning, too, but in a more interesting way, in his novel A Gift From Earth.

  • Edwin||

    Dude,

    that dude from MTV news writes for Reason?
    that's fuckin crazy
    you learn something every day

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