Tuesday, April 10, 2012

I is for Ishiguro and The Island

For today’s post I was planning on discussing a few of my favorite sci-fi movies that begin with the letter “I” (Inception, Independence Day, I Am Legend . . .). However, when I was doing my research I came across something else I couldn’t resist writing about, so instead I’m going to be talking about two of my favorite pieces of science fiction:

Never Let Me Go is the 2005 novel written by Kazuo Ishiguro. The three protagonists of the novel are friends – Tommy, Ruth and Kathy – raised together at Hailsham Boarding School in England. They’re also clones. All the children at Hailsham are, created and raised as organ donors for non-clones, or originals.

The most interesting thing about the novel is the attitude toward these human replications. For the most part they’re considered soulless beings whose only purpose in life is to provide for originals. The clones themselves merely accept their fate, knowing that after leaving school they will make several donations before eventually “completing” (aka. dying). They never rebel against their hopeless situation or impending fate. The only form of protest comes from the boarding school itself. Spoilers: The reader discovers that Hailsham was built as an experiment in order to study their genetically duplicated pupils with the intention of determining whether clones do (against popular opinion) have souls.

Sci-fi film The Island draws on a similar theme. Like Never Let Me Go, the plot centers on a society of clones being raised as organ donors. Spoilers: However, the clones in the film aren’t actually aware that they’re replications, and their originals have no idea that they’re awake, let alone cognizant beings. Though the doctors take every measure to keep the clones ignorant and docile, one – Lincoln Six Echo – starts to emotionally progress beyond regulation and develops unprecedented discontent with his life. It is, for lack of a better word, the evolution of an enlightened being; against all precaution, Lincoln Six Echo has become an individual.

Both movie and novel then make me wonder, what is it that divides “us” from “them”? What makes clones any different from their originals? Genetically they’re certainly the same; duplicates in fact. Why then should we believe they lack a soul? Is it a question of religion and morality, or one of convenience. Clones would, after all, cease to be mere organ incubators were they recognized as “real” people.

In Brave New World the cloning process is one which alienates society from individuality, but the clones in The Island and Never Let Me Go are full of passion, love, fear, emotion . . . humanity. And yet they’re considered soulless beings (if beings at all). More often they’re perceived as simply another technological advancement in the quest to extend the natural lifespan.

What then constitutes a soul? How do we define it? Can it be replicated? And most importantly, is that what makes us human?
This post is part of the Blogging A through Z Challenge 2012. My theme is (in case you didn’t already guess) science fiction. Stay tuned for the rest of the alphabet, and if you’d like to check in on the rest of the participants, simply click here.


  1. Fascinating post. I haven't read Never Let me Go, but now plan to visit the library.

  2. Ahh!! I started reading Never Let Me Go a while ago but haven't got around to finishing it yet. Need to do that ASAP! And yeah I enjoyed the Island as well. :)

    I don't understand why "do clones have souls" is even a question. We don't have this arguments about monozygotic twins. It's a total non-issue; people are just freaked out by the term "clone" because of some misleading portrayals of clones in the media, and because it sounds all scientific and scary and unfamiliar. If you had a clone he or she would be just like a younger twin brother or sister. Definitely an individual human being, and one who would be even more different from you than a twin your own age since the two of you would belong to different cohorts.

    Also, from the perspective of neuroscience, there isn't really any such thing as a "soul," just brain chemistry and neural pathways and such. The idea of souls is a popular and fascinating concept, great for philosophizing and literature and theology and exploring spirituality, but it has no place in a scientific discussion since it doesn't exist as far as science is concerned. So I would say that souls are irrelevant to defining humanity, in my opinion.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post! :)

  3. Great post!
    I liked The Island, and I just saw Never Let Me Go last week which I liked even more. That movie sunk me low for a couple days. (spoiler alert for those who haven't seen it): the scene where the couple find the home of the art collector & headmistress and are told that it wasn't to see what was in their soul, but to see if they had souls at all.. yikes. It reminded me of the debates which took place in the Catholic Church in the 1500's about the native Americans, trying to decide what these people were and if they had souls. many wanted a ruling that would say no, they don't, so they'd be free to use & exploit them any way they wished. Just like in these dystopian stories, people convince themselves that the clones have no souls, so they are not human and can be used any way they wish.

    Never Let Me Go took it one step further than the Island though- there people didn't convince just themselves, they convinced the clones that it was their nature & purpose too. That scares the hell out of me. That people can be so trained in their way of thinking that while they may wish for something else, they'd accept it nevertheless. It scares me because I think it is accurate, it could be done.

    'Soul' is such an arbitrary term. What is it? Hard to say since it can't be proven to be real at all. But it is a handy way of saying 'the value we place in a life'. So where there is life, there is a 'soul',anything less means we stop valuing life.

  4. Never Let Me Go has been on my to read list for awhile, thanks for reminding me. The questions it and The Island raise are interesting. There's been a debate about artificial intelligence as well and at what point could it cross over into being human.

  5. I always find the idea of 'do clones have souls' quite a strange concept. We already have clones, they're called twins. And I'm pretty sure they have souls.

    Moody Writing

  6. Agree with Laughing Ferret above about the art dealer/head mistress scene in the movie version of Never Let Me Go. What a tragic story, and not one you can easily dismiss. Kiera Knightly has the beautiful tormented thing down to a science. At least in The Island, they got the boat! And justice was served! And the lovers got to walk into the sunshine together! (Sounds like I am trivializing the movie but it was seriously good.)

    PS Getting up to read your Sci-Fi posts with morning coffee has become my routine. Thanks for making me think! What will I do in May???

  7. I have neither read the book or seen the movie so I'm going to have to look into these. I suspect people who clone their pets (dogs say) will discover that while the dog looks like their original dog, there's absolutely no guarantee the dog will have the same personality. So in my opinion, clones was souls, have their own personalities.

  8. I've read the book and seen the movie and I liked them both. It's horrifying what people are capable of doing to others. I shiver.

  9. I haven't read either of these but my knees go weak for sci-fi so I'm game:)

  10. I'm pretty sure I just added that book to my Amazon Wish List two weeks ago.

  11. I never realised that Never Let Me Go was about cloning - now I'm interested. I saw The Island. I love the whole concept - like the early film, The Boys from Brazil.

  12. Wow those are deep questions. It also relates to the whole pro-life, pro-choice debate; when does a life actually become a life? It would also raise questions as to parenthood/ownership and what actually constitutes being born. Ow, my head hurts now!

    Absolutely love The Island and Never Let Me Go sounds absolutely fascinating.

  13. I loved The Island. I wish I had a few clones to get my work done. LOL. Not sure what constitutes a soul. Living possibly?

  14. I didn't think I'd read Never Let Me Go, but I have - your summary reminded me. I might have to check out The Island.

    As for the ethics of clones, that's tough. They are still new beings - they might have the DNA of someone else amd therefore personality traits, but they don't have the memories or experience. It's the experiences that creates the person you are today, so your clone, having different experiences of - say - being in a boarding school would utilise the personality traits differently.

  15. So that's what Never Let Me Go is about. It sounds like a very interesting book!

  16. Linda – Comparing clones to monozygotic twins, that’s very interesting. As well as your opinions on souls and science. It’s fascinating the way the literary community places so much importance on the development of a “soul” while the scientific field argues that it’s completely arbitrary. Two such different communities coming down (at least in this interest) on the same side.

    Laughing Ferret – Never Let Me Go (the movie) depressed me as well, that scene in particular. And I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s terrifying that we might hold so much power over a group of people that we can actually convince them it’s their purpose in life to die for others. It’s, in some ways, very like the martyr complex that leads to suicide bombers – though of course that leads to a very different outcome. But they have similar foundations. And I really like your definition of a “soul” – while it may be nearly impossible to definite, it is the way in which we decide who’s life is valuable, and who’s is expendable. I can’t help but wonder if the people making the decision have a soul themselves.

    Mooderino – Haha, this is once again terrific logic. It’s so simple.

    Jade Oak – The Island is definitely the much happier of the two, but I think they asked equally deep questions. And are both wonderful.

    Bish – Personality then becomes the litmus test for souls. Awesome.

    Rusty – Me too. I’ve learned to fear what people are capable of. It’s some of these very people that seem soulless to me.

    Deanna and Joshua – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. It’s a beautiful and spellbinding book.

    Susan – WHAT? A clone movie I’ve never seen? I’m on it.

    Angeline – I know. I developed a headache as I wrote this post. It’s certainly a debate which extends far beyond clones in sci-fi and literature.

    Mina – That might be one way to look at it. Does every living being have a soul?

    Annalisa – Again it’s that question of how closely personality, memory/experience and souls are related to one another.

  17. I'm with Mina - I would love a couple of clones to do all the things that I want to do!

  18. I've seen The Island but have read no Ishiguro. I'm with the commenter who pointed out that we don't treat monozygotic twins (or triplets) as being less individual, so I've never understood why we would do so with clones.


  19. Thought provoking blog which points out that films are more interesting when they raise more questions than simply just answering them such as with an action film. I've seen The Island and often think back to it just for the reasons you've written about and am so glad I did as the comments here from some posters have helped sort them out in my mind, for instance thinking that a clone would be somewhat like a twin.
    Cloning does frighten me, though, and I hope science slows up on experimenting with it.
    I hadn't realised Never Let Me go was a book by Kazuo Ishiguro, nor what it was about so will definatly have to watch it now. I tried avoiding the spoilers given so thanks to those warning us :)

  20. I haven't read Never Let me go...sounds good tho- might pick it up for my next book! I am currently reading Half Blood Blues.....really good :)

  21. Powerful questions. I think we've got to be very careful that our technology doesn't outdistance our humanity - our souls :)

  22. I almost really liked The Island, but I think Bay took the easy way out and just made it a big action film at the end. I think it could have been more than it was.

    I did a lot of clone research for my series. I think I mentioned some of it, but it ended up being a specific topic I passed over.

  23. Can't remember that one clone movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I really loved the twist how he thought he was the original and ended up being the clone.

    1. The Sixth Day! I have a weak spot for sci-fi flicks that rate about a 6 or 7 on a 10 point scale!!

  24. I do believe the difference between clones and naturally created individuals is the the naturally created are God-created and the clones are man created. Thus the naturally created are created with souls, the clones without souls. That is my answer to your question. Best regards to you, Ruby/ I, too, am taking part in the AtoZ challenge.

  25. We talked about Never Let Me Go in my book club and it was one of the best discussions we've had all year. We found their lack of desire not to run away very British. It was heartbreaking and real in many ways.

  26. Did you know The Island was a remake of a really bad late 70's film called Clones/Clonus Horror? The Island was much better!

    1. However, the MST version of "parts: the clonus horror" is AWESOME!!

  27. You ask some very deep questions that are hard to answer in a few statements. I believe it has to do with the soul of a person. I volunteer at a care center. I've gone to a lot of funerals. What's missing is that spark of life . . . their soul. That cannot be replicated.

  28. You ask some very deep questions that are hard to answer in a few statements. I believe it has to do with the soul of a person. I volunteer at a care center. I've gone to a lot of funerals. What's missing is that spark of life . . . their soul. That cannot be replicated.

  29. I liked the movie The Island--I've been thinking about watching it again. The film Moon also examines the concept of clones in a rather thoughtful way.

    A Few Words
    An A to Z Co-host blog

  30. DayDreamer – “Films are more interesting when they raise more questions than simply just answering them...” I so agree with you. That’s what I love about these sci-fi books and movies I’ve been discussing in this challenge. I think they invite so much discussion, and ask such pertinent questions. They make me think, and I love that.

    Rana – Half Blue Bloods? I’ve never read that one. Looking it up pronto.

    Jemi – what a great point. Yes, that’s my concern too. I very much agree with scientific exploration, but only so long as we never lose sight of why we’re searching in the first place.

    Andrew – Yeah, Michael Bay took it over the top, as he does with most of his films. It distracts some from the real depth of the story, but I try to overlook it in an effort to reach those depths. It certainly could have been pushed further under a different director. Clones are definitely one of my favorite topics of research and discussion.

    Kimberlee and Mock – The Sixth Day was a surprisingly good movie. I’m always shocked when Schwarzenegger winds up in good movies (like the Terminator), but hey, he must have a great agent.

    Grammy – yes, I find that that’s the most prominent argument against clones. And I think it’s a valid and interesting one. I’d certainly love to hear more on the subject.

    Alex and Mock – I actually did, and I’ve been trying to get my hands on a copy since I’ve never actually seen the original before (something that bothers me greatly). Guess it’s time to get on Amazon.

    Kathi – But can it be developed? I always wonder if human beings can lose their souls, can a clone develop one?

    Arlee – I’ve never seen Moon either. Good lord, I need to do more research! (Which in my book is ALWAYS a good thing).