At first glance, nothing much appears to be going on in Kazuo Ishiguro's latest novel, Never Let Me Go. The narrator, Kathy H., who tells the story in occasionally digressive flashbacks, speaks throughout in an understated, slightly melancholic tone; at her most emotional, she achieves only subdued regret. (Even the repressed butler in The Remains of the Day manages to work himself up to an outburst of rage and self-loathing, even if he promptly works himself out of it again.) Most of the novel adheres recognizably to the conventions of that English YA genre, the public school story, complete with cliques and crushes. And there's nothing especially romantic or passionate about the love triangle at the novel's center.
But, in the end, both the muted tone and the apparent littleness of the key relationships contribute to the sheer horror of what Ishiguro describes. Never Let Me Go is, in fact, a work of dystopian science fiction (which, of course, won't be shelved with all the other SF--it's Ishiguro, after all...), set in an alternative England during the late 1990s. Kathy H., like her friends Tommy and Ruth, is a clone, created and raised to give up her organs to the sick. Their public school, Hailsham, turns out to be an experimental attempt at providing a "humane" atmosphere for young clones--we're left to imagine how other clones are raised--and, in retrospect, the education they receive there becomes a sick parody of the liberal arts ideal. In this England, class differences have been transmuted into the distinction between clones and naturally-conceived human beings; the latter, while dependent on the former, regard them as frightening but necessary means to an end. As one of the "good" characters admits towards the end, "[w]e're all afraid of you" (269).
Once the novel's subject matter is taken into account, we can see that Ishiguro has somehow crossed the public school story with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Ishiguro, however, is a far subtler novelist than Huxley, and the moral implications of his subject emerge almost entirely through his representations of both clone subjectivity and the Orwellian manipulations of language used to cloak it. (Readers may find that, in fact, the most unsatisfactory moment in the novel comes when Kathy and Tommy confront the pro-clone activists, Miss Emily and "Madame": this climactic moment of exposition, which reads very much like the scenes with Mustapha Mond in Brave New World, feels a bit like being whacked over the head with a proverbial sledgehammer.) Thus, organ harvesting is called "donation," even though the clones have no choice in the matter; the term creates a convenient fiction that the transaction is volitional, thereby letting recipients off the moral hook. Similarly, clones don't die, but "complete"--granting their lives a sense of teleology or purpose. (While the donation process remains a bit murky, we're told in one ominous aside that the clones don't necessarily die entirely after their fourth "donation," but may remain murkily conscious through a long series of additional harvestings.) And the clones at Hailsham are "students," even though they seem at times to be learning everything except what is actually relevant to their future.
What's even more important, however, is the emotional flatness I mentioned before. The clones love, feel sexual desire, paint, read novels, and so forth, but they do so entirely in the context of their truncated existence. Their past is entirely bound up in their school; their future lies solely in becoming a "carer" (someone who assists other clones during the donation process) and finally a donor themselves. Kathy and Tommy fantasize not about escaping the donation process, but instead simply obtaining a "deferral"--two or three additional years to love each other before the donations begin. (This quest for extra time occasionally feels a little bit like something out of The Wizard of Oz, and the let-down is certainly a man-behind-the-curtain moment of sorts.) Moreover, because the clones are infertile, they experience sexuality as something without consequence or, implicitly, futurity; Ishiguro represents many of the clone relationships as akin to hook-ups. More serious relationships, like Kathy's love for Tommy, nevertheless remain somehow evanescent in the face of impending death. Tommy, the only character who rages against the system, does so inarticulately and, as he himself admits, largely unconsciously. The clones don't regard the prospect of death as something that confers meaning on life, and it's noteworthy that the naturally-conceived humans see the clones as the means of avoiding death. There's a bastardized version of Christ's passion lurking here somewhere. Kathy's affectless transit of England, from one "recovery centre" to another, mirrors the extent to which this society has stripped the clones of free will and purposefulness--even as it uses the rhetoric of volition to conceal its moral debasement from itself.