Spare Parts

by wjw on September 12, 2013

So I’ve just finished Never Let Me Go, a science fiction novel from Kazuo Ishiguro, the British author of Remains of the Day, etc.

A heavy-duty literary author attempting a theme common in genre fiction deserves, I thought, a browse.  After all, Time thought this was the best novel of 2005.

I’m not going to make the usual complaint that Ishiguro has “reinvented the wheel” by using a rather hackneyed science fiction trope under the impression that he was the first to think of it, primarily because I doubt that Ishiguro thinks he’s invented anything particularly new, second because he deploys the SF elements in ways that would be unlikely in genre.

It’s worth looking at what he does, because the  difference in the way Ishiguro uses a science fiction trope, and the way SF writers handle it, is the difference between getting the Man Booker Prize and getting paperbacks with lurid covers.

We open with Kathy, the narrator, recalling her childhood at an elite boarding school called Hailsham, but it’s clear early on that this isn’t a standard boarding school— for one thing, Eton doesn’t call its teachers “guardians.”  Any seasoned SF reader will figure out early on that Hailsham’s students aren’t the children of privilege, but are doomed to be cut up for spare parts— “donations”— until they reach “completion,” which you and I might refer to as “death.”  Kathy and her peers are clones, created explicitly for this purpose.

(I’m not giving much away here, because Ishiguro tells us exactly this maybe 100 pages in.)

Well.  So far, it’s The Island.

Since I worked out the premise after reading for maybe twelve minutes, I spent a certain amount of time wondering when Ishiguro would make his Big Reveal— I mean, could it possibly last till the end?  But since the Big Reveal came early in the text, then I kept wondering what Ishiguro was going to spring on us that would be as big as the Big Reveal.

And then I kept wondering. And wondering.

And that is the big difference between this book and genre.  If this were an SF novel, and the characters knew that they were in a system that was set up to kill them, the characters would spend the novel trying not to be killed.  They would try to escape, they would go into hiding, they would attempt revolution, they would try to hack the system, they would exchange information, they would do research about what’s going on, they’d steal a boat and sail across the Channel, they would riot, they would blow up Parliament.  They would obsess about not being killed, all their conversations would be about how not to be killed, and they would make one attempt after another not to be killed.  Not being killed would become their, I dunno, raison d’être in the most literal way.

But  that’s not what happens in Ishiguro’s novel.  What happens in this book is a coming-of-age story set in a lovely English school, and then, after the characters grow older, a lovely civilized English nation.  We hear a lot more about Kathy’s experiences with her big-hearted friend Tommy and her social-climbing, bossy, quite unendurable friend Ruth than we ever hear about donations and clones.  We hear about Kathy’s personal realizations about her friends, we hear about relations with teachers, we hear about excursions to other towns, and about tensions within her group as Ruth tries to run everyone’s lives for them.

The characters are only vaguely curious about their fates, and this makes them seem pretty thick.  They have questions, but don’t really try to get them answered— there seems to be no Internet on which some basic answers might be found, and there don’t even seem to be libraries where the characters might be able to discover a little information about their reality and how it got that way.

Where the novel derives its power is from the contrast between the civilized Englishness of the characters and surroundings, and the horror that we know surrounds them.  This is effective, but it’s also a bit frustrating for the reader.  I kept wanting the characters to notice at least as much about their reality as I did.

Part of the business of writing an SF novel is “worldbuilding,” which consists of building the scaffolding that makes the story plausible. For instance, if you’re writing a story about characters who are repressed and killed, there would be people onstage who would be repressive and murderous.  There would be jackbooted guards, there would be sadistic scientists, there would be some insanely totalitarian government.  You’d have explanations of how all these things came to pass.  If you’re writing about transplanting organs, you might include a lot of medical information.

Ishiguro doesn’t bother with any of that, and it’s probably the right decision.  He keeps the medical stuff vague, which is a good idea because his scientific premises are pretty much nonsense.  (He mentions, for example, that transplants can prevent cancer.)  And there doesn’t seem to be any agency or individuals charged with implementing the donation program– nobody carrying a warrant card shows up at your door and hauls you off to hospital to donate your spleen, and there doesn’t seem to be any way of punishing people who don’t obey the rules— but then there’s nobody in the story that breaks the rules, so we don’t know.  All the clones are too civilized, English, and diffident to be able to articulate a protest, let alone make one.  Nobody runs away, nobody blows up Parliament.  Instead they have tea and crumpets and talk about their days at school.

And that, it occurs to me, is another difference between literary fiction and genre.  Genre is often about fighting Fate: you love the person you’re not supposed to, or you fight evil, or you solve a mystery and free the person who’s unjustly accused, or you stand up to authority, or you liberate Middle-Earth from a dictator.  And in genre, you’re allowed to do these things.

In literary fiction, Fate is something you cannot escape.  You’re doomed to be Rabbit Angstrom from the second you’re born.  Or Joe Christmas.  Or Blanche Dubois.  Or Oedipus, Cassandra, Gilgamesh, Jason.  Or the butler Stevens, from Ishiguro’s own Remains of the Day.  If you attempt to escape your fate, you become Jay Gatsby and are destroyed far more thoroughly than if you approached your life with the proper resignation.

Never Let Me Go might, I suppose, be viewed as a political allegory.  After all, a degree of our material comfort is dependent on sweat shops and child labor in foreign countries.  The computer on which I write these lines was assembled in a factory infamous for the number of suicides among its despairing workers.  We’ve all pretty much agreed not to think about that. and maybe we wouldn’t spare a lot of thought if China began shipping us crates of spleens, livers, hearts, and kidneys.

But the metaphor fails because of distance.  The sweatshops of China are a long way off.  If the sweatshops were in England or North America, they’d be illegal.  If there were classes of people here created to be massacred, there would be intense curiosity about them, probably even by people who viewed them as subhuman.  There would be media stories, Internet harangues, pressure groups, podcasts, interviews with Hailsham students, with doctors and administrators. (Consider all the stories about Guantanamo.)  China is, in many ways, still a closed country: Ishiguro’s sunny, normal England is not.

So the novel fails both as a political fable and as a realistic depiction of its subject, assuming of course that it attempted to do either (which I doubt).  So what delights might the reader expect should she progress to the end of the work?

Though the Big Reveal happens early on, there are a number of smaller questions raised in the course of the novel.  (For instance, why go to the trouble of creating a large first-class boarding school for people designated to be nothing more than spare parts, when you could as easily raise them in dog kennels?)  All these questions get answered in one spectacularly long lumpy expository conversation near the end of the book.  (The protagonists are too incurious to figure anything out for themselves, so they have to find someone to explain it all to them.)

The chief virtues you find in Never Let Me Go is the same virtue you find elsewhere in Ishiguro, which amounts to a  meticulously observed, sympathetic secondary world.  Ishiguro plausibly inserts himself into the head of an eight-yer-old girl, the same girl at twelve, the same girl at sixteen.  All of the little dramas of growing up are beautifully described, as is the protagonist’s friend Ruth, who is exactly the horrible, manipulative, self-centered monster you encounter in high school, but who somehow ends up your friend anyway.

Either this is the sort of thing you like to read, or it isn’t.  (For me, it’s Not Enough.)

But it’s a book by an absolute talent, touching on our own peculiar world, so if you find it on a shelf somewhere, give it a look and see if it’s something worth your while.


Henry Farrell September 12, 2013 at 2:07 pm

There’s an interesting parallel between Ishiguro’s characters and the protagonists of the Toy Story movies. Both are people whose choices and definitions of themselves are fundamentally constrained by the happiness of others. Also, it’s worth reading the book in the light of Ishiguro’s earlier _Remains of the Day_ which looks at the questions of abdication of choice in a rather more acerbic light, that perhaps casts light on Ishiguro’s intentions in this book.

Stacy Garrett September 12, 2013 at 3:08 pm

Very good comments, Walter. I read this book years ago and was very frustrated with it and all the accolades it received. You’ve summed up nicely why it didn’t work as well for me, a dedicated sf fan, as opposed to those new to these ideas. Thanks for helping me see this in a different light.

Now if only I could bring myself to read a Margaret Atwood book…(I stereotype her as being a literary snob shamelessly using sf tropes without proper attribution)

Raymund Eich September 12, 2013 at 5:18 pm

@Henry, all I know about Ishiguro’s novel is our host’s review of it, but I have a four-year-old, so I’ve seen the Toy Story movies once or twice. (This month).

The Toy Story toys are genre characters–they take action to change their fates. And their fundamental constraints aren’t “the happiness of others,” but the fact that, as Woody puts it, “You. Are. A. Toy!” Their only possible outcomes are good ownership (by Andy or Bonnie) or evil ownership (by Sid, Al, or Lotso). (The Japanese museum is orthogonal to the good/evil spectrum. Instead, its desirability or undesirability is judged by each toy from that toy’s self-placement on a loved/admired spectrum. Yet even here, the “happiness of others” doesn’t come into play).

Perhaps I’ve overanalyzed your comment? 🙂

Michael Grosberg September 12, 2013 at 7:26 pm

Oddly enough this is not dissimilar to the feelings I had while reading The Praxis and its sequels! Here was this this repressive, fanatical, repressive regime coming to its end, with entire worlds scrambling to fill the leadership vacuum. Here were these protagonists who knew very well how unjust and crooked this system was. I was expecting someone to come up with the idea that maybe, just maybe, hereditary nobility is not the best way to run a society, and that the edicts against certain technologies would be removed at some point, but it never came up. I came ot the conclusion that the gods of mil-sf enforce the conventions of the genre with an iron fist; people living in mil-sf universes can’t have democracy or decent tech, and that’s it. But that brings us very close to literary fate in a way.

wjw September 13, 2013 at 4:45 am

Michael>> Well, where were they supposed to have learned about democracy? The whole idea had been suppressed, and any history relating to representative government as available only to historians with special security clearances, and there wasn’t Robert Heinlein to explain it to them. It took thousands of years of history, and a civil war and a revolution, before the Brits were able to create a recognizable parliamentary system.

So far as I can tell, the Gods of Mil-SF enforce the rule that all the fighting is to establish the American Republic somewhere in the future, because they’ve got to want to be as perfect as we are.

Getting back to the Ishiguro, it could also be read as a metaphor for the way we look at death, or rather refuse to look at it, and spend our time in our personal soap operas while the Grim Reaper looms over our existence. Though the metaphor is overdeveloped, if intended.

I keep thinking I would have liked the story better if it were novelette length. It would have had a lot of punch that way, but of course even Booker Prize winners don’t get paid lots of money for novelettes.

Marcus Geduld September 13, 2013 at 4:12 pm

Hi, Walter. I’m a long-time lurker on your blog and a big fan of your novels and stories.

Your post is astute on many levels. I especially enjoyed your comment on fate in literary works and thwarting “fate” in genre stories, though I think you can broaden this idea to a distinction between tragedy (or other “literary” forms of drama) and melodrama. Most genre works are melodramas.

I spent my youth devouring sci-fi and fantasy. As a I got older, I read less of it and more literary fiction, which is now the bulk of my reading, though I dip into genre work now and then.

I don’t rank them against each other. To me, they are different, not superior and inferior, and if I’m in the mood for melodrama, which serves a distinct emotional need, I rarely find good examples from “highbrow” writers, though there some wonderful exceptions, like Dickens.

I wanted to point out a couple of differences you didn’t touch on, and, I think, these are differences not only between genre and literary fiction but between fans of the two forms. (I would love to be wrong, so please correct me if you think I am. I’ve read lots of sci-fi and some fantasy, but I’m not as well-read in those genres as you and many of your readers.)

To me, the most striking difference is how genre novelists and literary ones use (or don’t use) figurative language. I’m making a sweeping generalization here, and there are tons of exceptions, but in general, if you are looking for the sorts of LANGUAGE effects associated with poetry, you’ll be more apt to find them in literary works than genre ones.

Partly, this is because figures can add density to prose, and genre novels are usually concerned with moving swiftly from plot point to plot point. If the reader slows down to savor a word or image, that velocity meets friction.

But there’s plenty of figurative language that isn’t flowery—metaphors that are simple and direct. For instance, Orwell described a character’s sensations while eating a rancid sausage as “bombs of filth exploding in his mouth.” And I was struck recently by how Murakami evoked a phone conversation in which someone abruptly hung up on the protagonist. My paraphrase—as I don’t have “1Q84” in front of me—is “it was as if someone chopped through the phone chord with an axe.”

I live for that sort of thing. It’s one of the main reasons I read fiction. And I’m continually frustrated by how hard it is to find in sci-fi and fantasy. At the same time, I’m often frustrated by literary fiction’s blunders when it comes to world building and its disdain for melodrama, which to me is as respectable as any other form.

Though there are contemporary examples, I often have to go back to H.G. Wells to find what I’m looking for, which is a writer who loves melodrama, plot, and world building but who ALSO is highly skilled with figurative language, as is clear in this famous passage from “The Time Machine.”

“I am afraid I cannot convey the peculiar sensations of time travelling. They are excessively unpleasant. There is a feeling exactly like that one has upon a switchback—of a helpless headlong motion! I felt the same horrible anticipation, too, of an imminent smash. As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a black wing.”

You and many of your readers are have more knowledge of genre writers than I do, so perhaps I’m wrong, but I find it very, very challenging to find that sort of writing in contemporary fantastic literature. When I do find it, I treasure it.

I know there are prose stylists amongst genre ranks, but the ones I see most often tend to be more often fantasy writers than sci-fi writers, and they tend to be attracted to flowery prose (often in an attempt to craft a pastiche of middle English). I prefer telephone chords being cut, bombs of filth exploding in mouths, and flappings of black wings.

(I am always surprised when I mention my love of figurative language and people immediately recommend the most baroque text they can find. Lots of people seem to associate imagery with complicated, Joycean writing rather than with Hemmingway, but the latter wrote …

“I can remember you throwing me into the bow where the wet coiled lines were and feeling the whole boat shiver and the noise of you clubbing him like chopping a tree down ….”

What I also find striking is that, when genre fans discuss literary fiction, they rarely bring language up. From reading your books, I know you care deeply about words, but your post focused mostly on thematic differences between genre works and literary fiction. And I find this often to be the case when I discuss this subject with genre fans. It’s as if they don’t notice language (at least not as keenly as literary-fiction fans) or don’t care about it all that much.

It was odd to me that you contracted the two sorts of works but didn’t mention the different ways literary and genre authors tend to use language, aside from maybe a nod to it when you mentioned Ishiguro’s descriptions. Is this because you don’t tend to focus on figurative language when you read, or is it because I’m wrong—there’s just as much of it in genre writing as in literary fiction, but somehow I’m missing it.

If I’m right, then fair enough. Some people are more focused on plot, character, wold-building and theme. Some are obsessed with language. To me, one sort of person isn’t superior to the other. My frustration comes from having a foot in both camps and so often feeling frustrated when I can’t find a novel that has brilliant plotting, a melodramatic heart, strong world building AND evocative figurative language.

I get excited whenever someone like Ishiguro or Atwood turns to genre territory, because I hope for sci-fi (or whatever) with the language of literary fiction. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised. More often, though. I come away with similar feelings to yours.

(Like many folks, I’m a huge George R.R. Martin fan, but I’m often confused as to why he avoids figurative language. Wells’s “black wing” (and the like) would be so helpful when evoking a fantasy world, and yet I hardly find any of those sorts of metaphors in his novels. It just seems to not be a major part of the modern fantasists’ toolkit. Or am I wrong?)

Another difference is that ambiguity seems more often a technique of literary fiction than genre works, and I think, once again, that’s a function of genre fiction being mostly melodrama. In general, melodrama doesn’t tuck with ambiguity. The hero wins or he gets defeated. That’s the whole point. He doesn’t spend the rest of his life hovering in a state between salvation and damnation. Again, I am generalizing. There are genre works that are ambiguous.

From the get go, “Star Wars” signals that it’s a melodrama. So we’d feel cheated if it ended in an uneasy alliance between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. In fact, the trilogy sort of “goes there,” but it’s careful to resolve that tension before the end. If it didn’t, it would fail to fulfill its contract with the audience. Frodo MUST defeat Sauron or be defeated by him, because Tolkien sets his audience up with a melodramatic framework. It would be highly unsatisfying if the story ended in a stalemate.

Have you seen “Fanny and Alexander”? If not, beware, because I’m about to spoil it. It’s my favorite work of fantasy, and what makes it more akin to literary fiction in my mind is how, near the end, the priest (who is dead) comes up behind the hero, knocks him to the ground, and says, “You’ll never be rid of me.” Then there’s a final scene, which is upbeat. It’s a joyful party. And yet that troubling encounter lingers.

In a standard sci-fi or fantasy novel, “You’ll never be rid of me” would be a clue to wait for a sequel, because a major joy of melodrama is RESOLUTION. It’s what I feast on when I get frustrated that life so often goes UNresolved, and the promise of resolution is what, in my mind, makes genre fiction “escapist,” not the fact that some of it is set on other planets or in fantasy world.

In “Fanny and Alexander,” “You’ll never be rid of me” has nothing to do with sequels. The whole point is that there WON’T be a sequel. Alexander will live the rest of his life haunted by the priest.

Which is similar to what you were saying about fate. But it’s also a bit more complicated, because Alexander DOES spend much of the film fighting. In fact, “Fanny and Alexander” in many ways follows the form of a melodrama, but in the end it isn’t one. It is a variation on “Hamlet,” which is a drama wearing a melodramatic tunic.

What makes the film non-melodramatic isn’t the fact that Alexander loses. He doesn’t. He clearly ISN’T defeated. He ends the movie by going to a party. In a melodrama, the hero can win or lose. Traditionally, he wins, but that’s not a requirement. What separates works like “Fanny and Alexander” (“A History of Violence” also comes to mind) is that it’s hero neither wins nor loses. Or he both wins AND loses. He will endure for the rest of his life as both strong and haunted. He will swim in ambiguity.

Melodrama tends to be about how a protagonist has to change in order to overcome a problem; Drama (or whatever the opposite of melodrama is) tends to be able how life forces protagonist to acquire layers of complexity: to confront the fact that both he and the world are ambiguous and resistant to resolution. (And I think you’re simplifying, “The Great Gatsby,” because it’s protagonist is Nick, not Jay.)

To me, drama’s ambiguity is more realistic than melodrama’s zero-sum-game. Or maybe it’s simply more the way *I* happen to see life. I find myself craving literary fiction when I want to hold a mirror up to nature; I find myself craving genre works when I want to escape into a dream.

Though they’re both fantasies, to me, “Fanny and Alexander” is EMOTIONALLY a realistic movie, whereas the “Lord of the Rings” films (and the books they’re based on) are wish fulfillments. Even a story with an unhappy ending can be a sort of wish-fulfillment: the wish is for things to be DECIDED, wrapped up, UNAMBIGUOUS.

Who writes ambiguous sci-fi? Who writes melodramatic literary fiction?

wjw September 14, 2013 at 3:04 am

Marcus, thank you for your well-thought-out essay. Though I feel obliged to point out that my essay wasn’t “On the difference between literary and genre,” but “How one particular literary author chose to use genre tropes.” I didn’t touch on literary style because that wasn’t something Ishiguro imported from someplace else.

I’m not quite sure I accept your distinction between drama and melodrama. On one level, Never Let Me Go is pure melodrama, it’s only that Ishiguro’s prose keeps insisting that it’s not.

Beautiful writing is indeed the chief reason to read literary fiction, but I’m in the camp that says that beautiful writing isn’t enough. ( This why I’m nostalgic for the days when literary authors did things other than work on an MFA and teach creative writing— Gore Vidal could write convincingly about politics and history because he lived in that milieu; and people like Orwell and Hemingway either fought in wars or got close enough to write about them intimately. There’s revolution in the middle east, financial chaos in the markets, tigers rising in Asia, piracy in the Horn of Africa, the middle class in decline— by God, what Graham Greene could have done with all that!

As for my own writing, it’s grown more spare as I’ve got older. I’m more concerned with being precise and exact in my effects than creating a beautiful simile (though I’ve been known to do that, too). Plus, there’s a problem in SF in that metaphors can be taken literally— “His eyes darted about the room” would be a metaphor in literary fiction, but in SF it could be meant to be taken literally. (I actually want to write a story in which somebody’s eyes dart literally around the room, but I want it to me more than a one-joke story.)

Mike Brotherton September 14, 2013 at 5:54 pm

Thanks for the genre perspective on this book, which I’ve been curious about. Pretty sure I’d hate it no matter its virtues.

Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) September 17, 2013 at 5:36 am

Your reactions to the book “Never Let Me Go” intrigue me. I haven’t read the book, but I have seen the movie made from that book, and I found it very affecting (I reviewed it, along with another movie I found to have similarities in theme here). I didn’t take it as full-bodied genre, but as the sort of genre-lite we often find when mainstream authors want to present themes that are common in genre while still acceptable as mainstream. One very common example is alternate history, like Len Deighton’s “SS-GB”, which is presented as a spy thriller.

Maybe I was more accepting of the movie than you were of the book because I really don’t expect as much from genre film as I do from novels; the tropes are so often more clumsily and self-consciously used.

Duplex Fields September 21, 2013 at 5:58 am

A truly delightful piece that explains to me, finally, why genre is hated by the literary crowd.

I think it even explains my writerly decisions while planning my current My Little Pony fanfiction: the contrast between the childlike innocence of those who think they can change the world, and those who have often felt the heavy hand of fate… explored through a canon Mary Sue trying to help a disabled pegasus filly learn to fly.

And if your brain didn’t explode at that, I just wanted to mention that I loved Implied Spaces for who I became by reading it, and This Is Not A Game for showing me how truly frightful our world is.

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