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Avoiding Dystopia

Kazuo Ishiguro’s highly acclaimed new novel, Never Let Me Go, is set in a British boarding school of sorts. We eventually find out it's a boarding school for clones whose sole purpose in life is to exist for organ harvesting. The main character, Kathy, narrates the story in a very straightforward, anecdotally chronological way. The narrative is surprisingly simple and strangely compelling.

The persistent realization that these are clones whose lives will be brief and tragic lends a perverse mood to the boarding school melodrama that plays out in the story. Homework, testing, romance, Huxleyan coupling and existential angst, all typical of boarding school novels, are filtered through the lens of a dystopic reality and so take on a surreally melancholy tone. Although the novel is ostensibly about cloning humans for organ harvesting, the implications and application of the theme extend far beyond that timely issue. Ishiguro seems to be asking us what is necessary to construct a dystopia, and having presented us with the answer—layers of misinformation and willful ignorance—asks us to examine our own culture in light of that answer. So, for both my conservative and liberal readers, I suggest we look at two controversial issues prevalent in our culture today—war and abortion.

Both abortion and war rely on systems of information that prevent us from knowing the full impact of the horror involved. The rhetoric for war probably reached its apex in the John Wayne exploitation film The Green Berets, an apologetic for the U.S presence in southeast Asia. The movie discourages its characters and its viewers from ever seriously questioning why we were there. An interesting dialogue takes place near the beginning when John is offering a briefing for journalists. David Jansen plays the hard-bitten war correspondent who dares to ask whether our being in Vietnam is a good idea. He's treated to a sermon, a couple anecdotes and an invitation to accompany the Green Berets. He does. And what he finds assures us all that we must be there. Admittedly, Coppola, Stone and Kubrick went a long way toward redressing the film industry's cooperation with the machine of government propaganda, but reading the news today and comparing it to what is available from other sources reveals to us that our government, along with the broadcast industry, still goes a long way in shielding us from the ugliness of war.

When was the last time you saw innocent Iraqi casualties? How about those U.S. coffins? The recent report that the U.S. seriously considered targeting the Al Jazeera television network, and the revelation in the documentary Control Room that the U.S. did in fact target one of their field offices, should free us from the notion that we don't have layers of misinformation between us and the reality of war.

Ever see an abortion performed? Want to? I remember how horrified I was when I found out that the John Birch Society was showing films of real abortions to pre-adolescents at a camp in Oklahoma. How incredibly perverse! Then again, if I acknowledge that this isn't something young women or pregnant women should be forced to see before they make that choice, am I not admitting that it's a horror of sorts? And let's not say that we protect people from things like this all the time. That just furthers the argument that levels of misinformation or willful ignorance are necessary for our U.S. culture to continue to exist the way it does. Do you think lawmakers who consistently vote for abortion rights would want to watch an unborn child be dismembered? Would you? When we aren't forced to confront the reality and consequences of our choices, we are helping shape a dystopic reality.

My stepdaughter came home with a rabbit muffler this winter. I told her she isn't allowed to wear it again until she watches a PETA film about the way these animals are treated while alive and then killed. That seems reasonable to me. How else do we prevent ourselves from becoming so insulated from reality that we happily allow horrors to continue?

Ishiguro has one of his characters discuss the way in which the idea that clones were real humans was stuffed back under the rug. She tells Kath that once the benefits of organ harvesting were made available, it was simply unthinkable to go back to a world where people died of liver failure or kidney failure or heart disease. If we have to pretend that clones aren't human to do so, there is a whole entertainment/news machine that makes it all easy and possible. Ishiguro's book is timely, well-written and disturbing. In a world where we are struggling with all the propaganda surrounding stem cell research and bioethics, his warning that science that runs ahead of ethical reflection usually leads to cooperative, group self-deceit is one we need to consider. After all, there will always be compelling reasons to move forward with scientific research. If science wants to assert that it's a moral imperative that we investigate these cures and discoveries, then they've voluntarily entered the field of ethics and morality and we should hold them, and corporations, accountable for the research. How else do we avoid dsytopia?


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