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iKazuo Ishiguro’s fifth novel, Never Let Me Go (2005), might be set in an alternative reality of the late 1990s in England and focus on fictional characters like Kathy, but the foundations are set in our very real universe. What are these contexts and how do the questions that Ishiguro raises about cloning still resonate today?  

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iKazuo Ishiguro’s fifth novel, Never Let Me Go (2005), might be set in an alternative reality of the late 1990s in England and focus on fictional characters like Kathy, but the foundations are set in our very real universe. What are these contexts and how do the questions that Ishiguro raises about cloning still resonate today?

Never Let Me Go: analysis

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel is influenced by a variety of contexts that span history, literature, the socio-political climate at the time as well as Ishiguro’s own life.

Never Let Me Go: biographical context

Despite being born in Japan, Kazuo Ishiguro lived much of his life in rural parts of England (Guildford, Surrey), giving him an intimate knowledge of the British countryside where Never Let Me Go is predominantly set. When Ishiguro moved to London, he began a job as a social worker in a homeless shelter. This job gave him a deep insight into the sort of role that his character Kathy and the other clones adopt as ‘carers’.

Ishiguro started writing Never Let Me Go with a completely different idea about singers in 1950s America trying to find their fame. However, he became more and more stagnated as he attempted to start the novel several times.

The author then changed the focus to a group of strange students living in the countryside. He wanted them to appear normal, but have a limited perspective of life so that the reader would sympathise with them more. This dramatic change of foundations then evolved into the novel we have today.

Never Let Me Go: literary context, genre and themes

Ishiguro also finds his ability to tell stories stems from a combination of cinema and literature. He admits that even though he is a writer 'probably a lot of my ideas about storytelling came from watching movies on television' 1. Thus it is hard to find out what literary influences may have directly inspired him.

It is clear from the sci-fi and dystopian genre that Never Let Me Go has been influenced by earlier literature in those genres. Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), for example, is simultaneously science fiction and dystopian, but also analyses what it means to be human (a question underpinning Ishiguro’s book). George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) also explores similar themes.

Yet Ishiguro’s exploration of an alternative past enables the novel to enter a line of counterfactual historical fiction. Philip K. Dick also explores this in his The Man in the High Castle (1962), which offers an alternative- reality what-if question: what if the axis powers had won the Second World War? Despite the fact that Ishiguro has 'never read a Philip K. Dick book' 2, there are many elements that reoccur in the Japanese author's novel.

Never Let Me Go: historical context and characters

The way in which the clones are also forced to be ‘carers’ for the other clones during their life is reminiscent of events in the Holocaust. The concentration camp’s working unit – called the Sonderkommando – consisted of prisoners who were forced to assist in murdering other prisoners in the gas chambers. The participation in this merely prolongs the inevitable, just as it does for Kathy.

The 20th and 21st centuries are filled with rapid scientific development, particularly in genetics, a concept that is foundational to the concept of cloning. The discovery of DNA’s double-helix structure in 1953 initiated a greater interest into molecular biology throughout the rest of the century. This also started funding from the government into the Human Genome Project.

At this time there was also an increased interest in stem cell research from the 1980s onwards, after the discovery that stem cells could be removed from mice. Stem cells regenerated themselves into daughter cells, enabling other specialised cells to be created out of them.

This step has created significant advances in the medical field, but it has been met with moral debate over the fact that human embryos are used (that hold the potential for life). The combination of stem cell and genetic research also resulted in the first case of the successful cloning, that of Dolly the sheep in 1996.

Genetics is a part of molecular biology, a branch of biology that is concerned with highly condensed molecules that are vital to life, called macromolecules. Genetics, in particular focuses on the hereditary and variated characteristics of species.

The Human Genome Project was a government-funded research project to discover and map the human genome. A genome is the complete set of genetic material found within an organism. The outcomes of this project gave a vital understanding of the human body, allowing science to become more successful at treating illness and diseases.

Never Let me Go Background, Image of a sheep looking at the reader, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Image of a sheep.

Never Let Me Go: socio-political context

The moral dilemmas that these scientific developments brought involved both social and political perspectives. Even before the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, both President Bill Clinton (US) and Prime Minister Tony Blair (UK) offered triumphant speeches on the achievement.

Clinton was more inspired and claimed that genetics is 'the language in which God created life.'3 Blair, however, reminded his audience of how this science could be 'abused, to make man his own creator.'3 These scientific explorations into genetics even went so far as to clone a human embryo in 2001.

Fears around cloning were also raised in the media (particularly in films). A few months following the release of Never Let Me Go, Michael Bay released The Island (2005), a film about clones created to be harvested (similarly to those in Ishiguro’s novel). In earlier cinema, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) raises fears about cloning an entirely different species: dinosaurs, from Palaeolithic remains.

Never Let Me Go : contemporary relevance

Despite the fact that the novel is set in a different century, many elements are relevant today, not least man’s attempts to prolong life with science. Additionally, both organ trafficking and transplant tourism exist in contemporary society, exploiting those in need and benefiting those who can afford it.

Commercialism also enables people’s ignorance of suffering beyond their realm of understanding. Just as the people of England in Ishiguro’s novel largely chose to believe that the clones do not have souls despite the evidence, many people today often use unethically sourced products with a history of animal testing, child labour, unfair wages, or poor environmental considerations.

The fast fashion industry's clothing, for example, is often mass-produced in sweatshops with minimal consideration to its workers and to the environmental impact, for the sole purpose of maximising profit. At the same time, society makes these products more economically viable, increasing the chances of companies encouraging people to buy them.

Never Let Me Go : influence on literature

Never Let Me Go is an influential novel that was shortlisted for several prestigious awards like the Booker Prize (2005) and the National Book Critics Circle Award (2005). The novel was also made into an acclaimed film with actors Andrew Garfield, Kiera Knightley, and Carey Mulligan, furthering the novel’s influence. Ishiguro won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

Kazuo Ishiguro is a favoured writer by many other famous writers such as Ian Rankin and Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood, writer of The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), particularly admires Never Let Me Go and describes it as 'a brilliantly executed book by a master craftsman who has chosen a difficult subject: ourselves, seen through a glass, darkly.' 4

Ishiguro’s use of an alternative past for a dystopian novel is quite influential. His choice has influenced others like Sally Gardner and her young adult novel, Maggot Moon (2012). Novelist Adam Mars-Jones even recognises the fact that the two are dystopian novels with a mutual 'unflinching' 5 quality in the themes they tackle when children face societies bigger than themselves.

Never Let Me Go background - Key takeaways

  • Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go (2005), has seen drastic changes in its subject matter, from singers in the 50s to clones in the 90s.
  • Ishiguro was writing at a time when there was significant interest in clones in society. The book was inspired by the successful cloning of Dolly the sheep and a human embryo (1996 and 2001, respectively). Its influence is seen mostly in cinema with films like Jurassic Park (1993), and The Island (2005).
  • Never Let Me Go has distinctive similarities in themes to Philip K. Dick’s books The Man in the High Castle (1962) and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) because of the way that Ishiguro’s novel combines the counterfactual historical genre with sci-fi and dystopian. It is important to note though, that Ishiguro has never directly read any of Philip K. Dick's works.

1. Kazuo Ishiguro, 'Kazuo Ishiguro webchat- as it happened', 2015.

2. Kazuo Ishiguro, Interview with Wall Street Journal Live, 2015.

3. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, "Announcing the Completion of the First Survey of the Human Genome Project”, 2000.

4. Margaret Atwood: “My Favourite Ishiguro: by Margaret Atwood, Ian Rankin and More”, 2021.

5. Adam Mars-Jones, “The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: The London Review of Books”, 2015.

Frequently Asked Questions about Never Let Me Go background

Ishiguro wrote Never Let Me Go to highlight a condensed version of human lives, while also discussing the ethics of cloning. The way in which the clones passively accept their fate in the novel reflect humanity’s acceptance of death.

Ishiguro wanted to write a novel on how humanity finds time for love despite the knowledge of inevitable mortality. The lives of the clones is merely a condensed parallel of our own.

Kathy’s memories are important to her, because it is a way that she can enable her now ‘completed’ friends to live on.

Never Let Me Go is not based on a true story, but rather set in an alternative past. In the 1990's, when Ishiguro's sets his novel, cloning is a widely accepted practice for the purpose of harvesting organs for humans.

When Kathy attempts to comfort Tommy in one of his tantrums, he flails his arms and accidentally hits her.

What career has Ishiguro had in the past and why is it relevant?

Ishiguro has worked as a social worker at a homeless shelter. This job that involves caring for people is very similar to the job that Kathy has as a ‘carer’ in the novel.

How has the idea for Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go evolved over time?

Ishiguro actually started the novel with a completely different idea. It was initially about singers trying to achieve success on Broadway in the 1950s, but Ishiguro changed to the idea about a group of strange students living alone in the countryside. This shift in ideas then evolved into the novel we have today.

What sort of genre is Never Let Me Go?

Never Let Me Go combines both elements of the dystopian and science fiction genre alongside counterfactual historical. The society that Ishiguro proposes is inescapable for the clones, and those that have tried resisting like Madame and others have surrendered to it, making it very dystopian. It has science-fiction elements because of the fact that cloning of humans and complete organ transplants are possible (when they weren’t). The counterfactual historical genre makes itself evident in the way that it is set in an alternative version of the 1990s.

What influences Ishiguro as a writer?

Ishiguro admits to being heavily influenced by cinema, because he spent much of his childhood watching films rather than reading.

What writer do many people draw parallels to with Ishiguro?

Many people parallel Ishiguro’s novels to those of Philip K. Dick. Never Let Me Go, for example, seems to have similarities to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and The Man in the High Castle. However, Ishiguro has never directly read any of the influential writer’s works.

What is the relevance of genetics to the novel?

Genetics is a study that was rapidly evolving in the 20th century. It’s history before Ishiguro’s novel included successes with stem cell research, DNA structure, the Human Genome Project and even successful cloning cases. This study provided a basis for Ishiguro’s sci-fi background to the novel.

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