Editor's Note: From time to time, a work of fiction considers problems that arise from science in ways more compelling and with greater popular distribution than standard scientific publications. For this reason, I asked Marvin Mirsky to comment upon Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and to use this book as a starting point for a broader discussion of literature, popular media, and science—Morton F. Arnsdorf, Book Review Editor
The current interest in Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go—a novel about cloning—reminds us that the 20th and 21st centuries have been notable for the number of dystopian novels and films produced. These include the novels Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1984 by George Orwell, The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake both by Margaret Atwood, Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and the films 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick, Blade Runner by Riddley Scott, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence by Steven Spielberg, and Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky.
What is of particular interest, perhaps, is the changing of focus in these works over this period. Initially (as in Huxley and Orwell), the concern was largely sociopolitical—the kind of totalitarian society likely to be brought about by new [End Page 628] technologies, in which populations are largely reduced to class and intelligence stratification and slavery, and in which war is peace, slavery is freedom, and the like. After World War II, with the advent of the atomic bomb and the subsequent Cold War's threat of the destruction of world civilization, the dystopian focus shifted to the problems of the reconstruction of minimal social entities and even of language in such a nuclear devastated landscape (Hoban).
The explosion in the electronic and communications worlds and the rapid creation of a series of "generations" of robots in the latter decades of the 20th century led, inevitably, to the rising concern with the possibility of conflict between humans and their robot servants. Can robots become smarter than the humans who created them? Can they, being smarter, replace or in some way supersede their human creators (Kubrick)? This led, inescapably, to the creation of human-like robots in appearance, in thought processes, and in passions like love, lust, greed for power or money, etc. The desire of robots to replace humans, or to become human themselves, becomes increasingly central (Scott, Spielberg). And with this new possibility the ethical dimensions of the problem (humans versus their creations) begin to emerge in critical terms.
The parallel development, at a comparable speed, of discoveries and new insights in the biological world has once again added a new focus and perhaps dimension to the general problem. With the rapidly improving surgical techniques for organ transplantation, the demand for healthy organs—lungs, hearts, kidneys, etc.—has become all but overwhelming. (For example, as of this writing—according to The Canadian Press, March 18, 2006—in the province of Ontario there is a waiting list for organ donations of more than 1,800 people; in contrast only 148 transplants have been performed in Ontario this year, including 20 new hearts, 12 new lungs, and 81 new kidneys. About 1,300 patients on that list are waiting for a new kidney, 37 need a heart, and 50 are waiting for a lung.) Inexcusably, yet inescapably, in some less carefully controlled locations money and social status will too often determine the recipient of the transplant.
Almost simultaneously, gigantic strides have been taken in the process of cloning. The success of "Dolly," coupled with the growing practice of familial decisions to have an "extra child" for use as a source of organ transplants when needed for earlier or favored children, has encouraged Ishiguro to imagine a time very near the present when society (Britain in Ishiguro's case) will have a regular program for producing clones for the specific purpose of providing a ready supply of organs for transplant. To house, raise, and educate these clones, a chain of special exclusive boarding school–like residences has been established on relatively remote country estates. The...