At some point in all of our lives, we pestered our parent’s with the terribly uncomfortable question: “Where do babies come from?” Children have a tendency to take most things in their world for granted. The food in refrigerators (and the refrigerators themselves), the existence of cars and the evening thunderstorm are, at the beginning of our lives, magical occurrences. The wonder of childhood is the period of transition between this unthinking acceptance and a growing understanding of the world around us. The innocent observation of childhood has always been highly prized in our society, often to the point that we forget the striving that accompanies it. As children, we not only appreciate but we dissect. And nowhere is that more apparent than the extremely practical question of where all our new brothers and sisters are coming from and the more deeply existential one of how we ourselves came into existence.
In the beautifully written Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro asks a similarly uncomfortable question: “Where do organs come from?” The answer, in short, is “From people, of course.” But the heartbreaking conflict of his book lies in its science fiction element. The narrator (and almost every character in the book) are clones, born for the express purpose of later giving their organs to average, every day citizens. This looming fate haunts every page of the book, a dwarf crouching at the armpit of the reader whispering, over and over again, “All happiness is fleeting.” It makes for a difficulty read since, apart from this looming threat of “donations,” the lives of these characters are painfully ordinary. They are sometimes petty, often shortsighted, fall in love, are unfaithful and bored and brilliant, all in turn. In other words, they are utterly human.
The central conflict of Never Let Me Go is that, despite the obvious humanity of the narrator and her compatriots, the “normal” people in the book are simply unable to view them through this lens. The trappings of humanity demonstrated by the clones disturb them at every turn. But they cannot turn away from the resources they provide. “Ask people to go back to the time before, with cancer, neurodegenerative disease, they will simply say no.” As much as human being love novelty, we also struggle with it. It takes us back to a childlike place, both pleased and unreasoning. I’ve wondered often about the rise of advanced electronics and the advanced waste that accompanies them, not to mention the human suffering often involved in their creation. I examine the things in my life and am often uncomfortable with the answer to “Where does this come from?” Because the answer is “From people, of course.” Every resource expended on my iPhone and the satellite that brings it YouTube is an investment of human capital. But if you asked us to go back, back to the time before GPS, 10,000 songs in our pocket and god knows how many pixels in our living room? Honestly, I think we’d just say no.