Winter is ending, and I am slowly but surely making my way through the pile of books I have bought and been gifted over the Christmas period. This month, outside of my studies, I have managed to read Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (four women attempt to investigate a mysterious expanding zone that has caused catastrophic outcomes for every human that has previously crossed its borders), Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (brief but beautiful novel about the compassion of a father who confronts the truth of the Magdalene Laundries) and Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro.
I had only previously read one of Ishiguro’s novels, Never Let Me Go, during the first lockdown. And yes, a tear or two were shed. I fell in love with the tenderness and humanity with which he described his characters, and his ability to create a world in which the dark underbelly is omnipresent but still difficult to properly grasp until the story’s conclusion. Ishiguro looks at the consequences of technological advancement for those who do not enjoy the privilege of its benefits, as the main characters’ suffering and eventual deaths are legitimised as they benefit the lives of the majority.
Francis Fukuyama describes the transhumanist movement as one where humans “must wrest their biological destiny from evolution’s blind process of random variation and adaptation and move to the next stage as a species”. Transhumanists believe in the employment of technology to allow humans to transcend our anatomical limitations, allowing us to reach the next stage of evolution. In popular media, the first two examples that came to mind when I stumbled upon this concept would have been the replicants in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? along with “Be Right Back”, the first episode of the second season of Black Mirror, in which a widow is able to almost re-animate her late husband by algorithmically scanning his text messages, emails and social media posts to re-create his mannerisms before having this new ‘consciousness’ uploaded into an android copy of his body.
However, transhumanist ideology has been subject to criticism. Billionaire cowboy and ex-Twitter CEO Musk has faced backlash for his claims that we are to flee to Mars and become one with technology through his Neuralink (a brain implant which he hopes could “restore full-body functionality to someone who has a spinal cord injury” . Ashley Capoot writes: “Musk invested tens of millions of his personal wealth into the company and has said, without evidence, that Neuralink’s devices could enable “superhuman cognition,” enable paralyzed people to operate smartphones or robotic limbs with their minds someday, and “solve” autism and schizophrenia”. While Musk seems optimistic about the capabilities of this device in treating complex neurological and psychological conditions, he also views this fusion of the human brain with computers as a necessity in combatting the increasing complexity of artificial intelligence algorithms. While transhumanist ideas are becoming increasingly topical in popular culture and academic scholarship, there exists the ever-present rebuttal that these ideas–especially those touted by the Musks and Bezoses (?) of the industry–exist to benefit the exceedingly wealthy. I have already discussed the role of class in environmental discourse and how the effects of climate change disproportionately affect the poor, while those who are most at fault are the same group who will have the option of fleeing to Mars if worst comes to worst.
Ishiguro’s speculative fiction Never Let Me Go observes the impact of the advancement of the human race on a hidden underclass of clones that have been sterilised and raised to function solely as organ donors to benefit the rest of humanity. In this world, man has discovered cures for almost all disease and extended human life expectancy greatly through the raising of these clones, as they are raised in Hailsham School for the sole purpose of growing defectless organs (hence they are forbidden from smoking or otherwise engaging in risky behaviours and are unable to reproduce) and fulfilling care duties for their peers who have already donated tissues or organs. However, this disturbing practice is only implied for a large chunk of the novel, with the eventuality that the main characters are to face some unsettling but as of yet intangible fate hanging over the text’s earlier chapters. Ishiguro follows Kathy and her friends Ruth and Tommy as they navigate friendship and romance as they come of age in Halisham. It is not until the end of the novel that the characters realise that their circumstances are inescapable; that the art that they were made to create at Hailsham as children was not some key to their escaping, but rather was being collected as part of a protest by their mentors and different human rights activists to demonstrate that the students possessed souls and that the practice that had benefitted humanity so greatly had been actively violating the rights of a manufactured outgroup. The process of donation is treated with an unusual sense of honour by the end of the novel, after Kathy is left to care for her friend and romantic interest, Tommy. As Tommy draws closer to being summoned for his fourth donation, Kathy describes the way in which ‘completion’ (a euphemism for death used throughout the text) is treated by those who face it:
“I’ve known donors to react in all ways to their fourth donation. Some want to talk about it all the time, endlessly and pointlessly. Others will only joke about it, while others refuse to discuss it at all. And then there’s this odd tendency among donors to treat a fourth donation as something worthy of congratulations. (…) Even the doctors and nurses play up to this: a donor on a fourth will go in for a check and be greeted by whitecoats smiling and shaking their hand”.
The novel ends after Tommy’s ‘completion’, as Kathy faces a future having outlived the vast majority of her peers. Ishiguro’s choice to examine the outgroup of a supposedly utopian society brings the reader to reflect upon the ramifications of this accelerated technological development. The miraculous medical advancements that have come about as a result of the cloning are often mentioned, yet it is difficult to feel optimistic about these changes when the primary characters actively suffer as a result. The new medical treatments are not seen directly in the text, only alluded to, rendering them all the more difficult to believe.