The promise of a biotechnological future driven by practices such as cloning and organ transplantation increasingly forms part of our cultural landscape. Outside the realm of science, these practices supply new themes for genre fiction (SF and horror) or the visual arts. Figures such as Patricia Piccinini create unease by fusing the familiar and the grotesque. Strong on horror and visceral impact, weak on narrative and existential questioning, these works seem less able to engage with the politics of being post-human, or even to ask what kind of society desires a world where cloning and organ harvesting are the norm. Here we might turn to narrative fiction to see if it can explore the question of our post-humanity outside of the limits of genre fiction or the visual spectacle.
Two recent books, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island, both use cloning as subject matter. They both contain first-person narrators depicting their lives in flat affect-less voices, and both stories culminate in the extinguishment of hope. However, in other respects they are diametrically juxtaposed. Ishiguro’s highly mannered and understated work bases itself around the exploitation of innocence; Houellebecq’s characters by contrast are all too knowing — spiritually and morally exhausted subjects at the end of history. The Possibility of an Island is laced with lurid sex, nihilistic politics, misogyny and racism, as Houellebecq flaunts his trademark ressentiment. Yet for all their differences in tone and style, both novels are marked by an overwhelming passivity — and in different ways their respective authors link this to the post-human condition.
Never Let Me Go is set in England in an alternate late twentieth century, where the narrator, thirty-one-year-old Kathy H., reflects back upon her formative years at ‘Hailsham’ — that we initially believe to be a privileged boarding school. Here life seems ideal for the students, who are encouraged to be creative and health-conscious by their supportive teachers. Indeed the school seems almost to make a fetish out of their creativity and health. Periodically, the school has a series of ‘exchanges’ where students can swap their artistic creations. A mysterious woman called ‘Madame’ collects the best of the artwork, and it is a great privilege to have works selected in this way.
What appears to be a fairly standard coming of age tale grows increasingly sinister. Students never seem to leave the school grounds (they are put off by a grisly tale of one student who was found dismembered in the woods beyond). Then there are the strange terms that appear in the narration — ‘carers’ ‘donors’, ‘guardians’, ‘completions’ and so on. The narrator’s account seems to contain more gaps and ellipses than we first thought. We learn that the students are different somehow from those in the outside world. Teachers who appear to say too much suddenly disappear. When the students surprise Madame one day, they are shocked to find the she recoils from them as one might ‘a spider’.
Eventually the larger picture emerges. The students are in fact human clones, grown for their organs. The school’s concern for their wellbeing is primarily to ensure the integrity of their bodies — seen as a collection of spare parts. One of the strengths of the novel is how this horrific notion — that Hailsham is essentially a kind of death row for adolescent clones, waiting in limbo until called to give up their organs — emerges in piecemeal fashion. There is no revelatory moment in the narration; the students at Hailsham both know and do not know the truth of their situation. Yet the most disturbing thing about the novel is the sheer passivity and acquiescence of the students. So thoroughly have they been interpellated as subjects within this horrific world that even after their first ‘donation’, as they lie in hospital knowing that at best they can only donate one or two more times before they ‘complete’, they look fondly back on their days at Hailsham. If Stevens, the butler in Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, remained unable to see beyond nostalgia to grasp the fact that his Master was a fascist sympathiser, neither can Kathy nor the other students recognise a similarly totalitarian process that utterly frames their lives.
Ishiguro effectively creates a sense of creeping horror at this subtle yet brutally pervasive exploitation. If the novel suffers stylistically in mimicking the prosaic tone and limited descriptive capacities of an adolescent, it gains in power because the narrator insists upon the possibility of shared experience between herself and us (continually using phrases such as ‘I don’t know how it was where you were but here we …’) when there is in fact a radical distinction between clones grown for parts and the rest of humanity. Kathy can never be part of our world; the things that might reveal her humanity — her art, her love — come to nothing in the end. The book’s weakness lies in the fact that it is able to say nothing about the society that would sanction this kind of living organ factory. In this sense, Ishiguro’s work is too removed from the actual world; its tale of loss, of possibility denied and hope extinguished, remains a humanist tale in a post-human world, in essence not dissimilar from his other works. In a context where the brutal trading of organs already occurs in, Ishiguro’s horror at the post-human future is perhaps too distant, too understated.
The same cannot be said for Houellebecq’s work. Like his earlier work, The Possibility of an Island is propelled by disgust for virtually everything in the contemporary world. Houellebecq’s characters adopt a Schopenhauerian contempt for existence (complete with the latter’s misogyny). Both Schopenhauer and Houellebecq argue that humanity’s problems are rooted in desire. If the former hoped to cure desire through the contemplation of art, the latter turns to cloning as a means to escape this essential suffering. Island extrapolates from Houellebecq’s earlier novel Atomised, whose core thesis was encapsulated in the following statement:
Everyone says that Brave New World is supposed to be a totalitarian nightmare … but that’s hypocritical bullshit. Brave New World is our idea of Heaven: genetic manipulation, sexual liberation, the war against ageing, the leisure society. This is precisely the world we have tried — and so far failed — to create.
Island alternates between the story of Daniel 1, a contemporary human, and Daniels 24 and 25, future clones of the original. These neo-humans exist in a world where human civilisation has been wiped out by war and disaster — the remaining humans have reverted to Neanderthal types, surviving in the ruins. Houellebecq’s central preoccupations — cultural pessimism, a fixation upon pubescent sexuality, hatred of children and a horror of ageing, Islamaphobia and so on — are articulated though Daniel 1 who functions as a mild parody of the author.
Daniel makes his living as a comedian and writer. He becomes highly successful for his politically incorrect shtick and taboo-breaking observations. Imagine a low-rent version of Baudrillard doing stand-up and you get the idea. Daniel’s career on the stage makes him rich but not happy. Even his only love, Isabelle, begins to repel him as the first signs of ageing set in. Eventually Daniel retires to Spain where he oscillates between his obsession for new girlfriend Esther (a typical Houellebecq cliché — young, sexually accommodating and, of course, wearing short skirts with no knickers) and spending time with a new cult called the Elohim (based on the Raelians) who are obsessed with eternal life and cloning. The ageing Daniel is losing his sexual powers, and his brief periods of sexual transcendence with Esther eventually end. He becomes more involved with the Elohim group, ultimately committing suicide after donating his DNA and his assets to the cult. Daniel’s life story is interspersed with comments by his future clones, who read his story as we might read the gospels: for spiritual clues. The Daniel clones look back at Daniel’s life with increasing perplexity as they become divorced from the possibility of emotions, losing even nostalgia for them.
Island’s flat prose and jaded misanthropy soon wear thin. Nevertheless, Houellebecq encapsulates the kind of social changes (consumerism, individualism, sexualisation of adolescents, the erosion of religious foundations and their replacement with faith in science) that invest the idea of the post-human with an almost transcendental power — whether it be in the Raelian cult, the pronouncements of writers like Ray Kurzweil, or in the elevated status of bio-medical researchers as heroes of our time. In some ways Houellebecq’s book explains the culture that would sanction the instrumental cloning that occurs in Ishiguro’s novel. Yet if Houellebecq’s social analysis is critical of contemporary society, it remains one-dimensional. He is able to expose the paradox of desire and crisis of meaning that haunts the consumer society, yet he reduces this crisis to a biological essentialism — we are desiring-creatures in a world where the old, the ugly, the child-rearing are excluded from the only source of temporary happiness: the sexual marketplace. Even the sexual sublimation made possible through cloning only condemns the human clones to a life of sterile abstraction. In Houellebecq’s universe, the post-human is ushered in as a kind of passively accepted destiny — there is nothing left for humans to do or believe in — ultimately not all that far from the odd kind of acquiescence found in Ishiguro’s novel.
As Liam McNamara has observed, Houellebecq’s protagonists are perfect models of Bauman’s ‘flawed consumers’ — those for whom consumption does not lead to social inclusion. For Bauman, the flawed consumer is a construct of the contemporary market, whereas for Houellebecq, the market merely finesses contradictions inherent in human nature. This is perhaps why Houellebecq’s scathing critique of society — despite its obscenity — appeals to the political right. It works, as Tim Adams has noted, as a kind of ‘literary Le Penism’ — a tirade against multiculturalism and American capitalism — and can be read as nostalgia for church and state.
If these novels represent partially flawed takes on the post-human condition, the passivity and banality that pervades them is a useful social barometer. Will we, complacent in the face of global warming and the destructive practices of our elected governments, continue to seek refuge in half-truths like the students of Hailsham? Or will we wait for the God of techno-science to deliver us from our ennui? Or can the post-human be something other than our passively chosen fate?
Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications editor.