Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go”

As I think back on this book, I can’t help but think that this novel fits perfectly as the final work we’re going to discuss in class. It seems to me a sort of culminating work that in many ways brings every other work we did together. I didn’t think that at first; at first I was appalled by the novel and the implications of these clone/non-humans that were human and had to live in order to die. But the more I think about it, the more I realize just what this alternate reality means in the grand scheme of our class.

Over the course of the semester we’ve encountered many different types of technology: from the surveillance technology in “1984” through last week’s exploration of medical technology and biological warfare. Each one has caused us to consider the implications of technology; what does the rise of the internet mean for us? What does the development of the nuclear bomb represent about our society and our future? In each work we’ve studied, we’ve focused not just on the technologies themselves, but on the people who are directly impacted by them. While each of these works are some version of speculative storytelling, “Never Let Me Go” stands out to me as the most effective in this regard.

“Never Let Me Go” was woven in a way the rest of the works we studied weren’t. In each of the other works we read and saw, it was very clear from the first chapters/minutes that this was speculative fiction. It was obvious that the work was going to discuss a particular technology and the implications of such a technology. On the other hand, “Never Let Me Go” stands out as something totally different; we’re introduced to the characters, recognize there’s something a little funny going on, but don’t come to fully realize what’s going on until far into the novel when we are already invested in the characters and their stories. Ishiguro writes from Kathy’s perspective- much of the novel is composed of her sometimes inane and sometimes informative memories. In some ways the novel is a Bildungsroman; it explores Kathy and her friends formative years at Hailsham, making the reader privy to all their teenage years. We become invested in them, though we wonder what is really going on. It is only once we find out what is going on behind that scenes that we can fully appreciate the horror of their lives.

Born to die. Born to keep themselves healthy just so others can live. Born to give away parts of themselves until they themselves die. If they were not so darn human it wouldn’t be so bad; at least that’s what I tell myself. And that indeed is what most of the world thinks; as Miss Emily explains at the end of the novel, it’s much easier for people to accept donations from innocent children raised for slaughter if they think of them as less-than-human. And so they do. Despite the fact that these clones (or whatever they are) are SO human. They live, they love, they’re happy and sad, they fight and make up, they read James Joyce and porn magazines, they listen to tapes and dance around. They have souls, just like Miss Emily and Madame always knew. So tragic.

In any event, this seemed to me to be the epitome of what we’ve discussed in class. Though the technologies might be different, the implications are always the same: what will happen to humans in this new version of the world? Where does our humanity go when we become so utterly dependent on new technologies? Do we turn into the “regular people” of “Never Let Me Go” who allow humans to be raised as cattle for slaughter? I sure hope not. At the end of the day, we need to take a long, hard look at ourselves and the technology we produce and think how best to utilize it. It’s always exciting when a cool new gadget comes out or there’s a fantastic breakthrough in medical science, but if we’re going to be responsible it is our imperative to judge each new breakthrough and consider what this could mean for the future of our world and our species.

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The first time I saw Contagion, I was on a plane and I also happened to be sick with flu-like symptoms. I knew it was only a movie, but I will admit there was a small part of me that was nervous; I wasn’t nervous that I had MEV1, because I knew that was totally made up. But nevertheless I was nervous. I was sitting on a plane breathing recirculated air with 500 other people, any of whom could be carrying (if not MEV1) a strange new microbe. I was already already sick with something and wondered what would happen if I was the one infected with some strange new disease that would infect the entire plane. After about ten minutes worrying about this, I just gave up and went to sleep. There was nothing I could do about it, anyway. My flu-like symptoms disappeared a week later and I didn’t develop any strange new disease.

Of all the films we’ve seen and the books we’ve read this semester, none has shaken me as much as Contagion did. Thinking back on that first time I saw it brings me to one obvious question: why in the world was I so scared from it?

The whole idea of a pandemic and biological warfare fascinates (and terrifies me) – I’m going to be writing my final paper on this topic, actually. In doing my research for the paper, I have read some crazy things (for example, “The Coming Plague” by Laurie Garrett) that have only validated what I have come to understand about my initial reaction towards Contagion. My conclusion is this: I was so shaken by Contagion because it’s so realistic; this isn’t some hazy The Road type apocalypse- this is something that has happened in the past (think 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic, or even the global spread of HIV/AIDS) and can certainly happen again at any time! With every advance we make in science, it becomes clearer and clearer that the microbial world is at a distinct advantage: we can’t predict what they’re going to do next.

Contagion reflects society’s great fear of the microbial world and biological warfare. It’s a fear that’s well deserved; in our battle against the microbes, we’re not always victorious. Think of the vaccine-resistant strains of diseases that emerge every once in a while: we can fight our hardest, but sometimes that’s just not enough.

It’s a scary thought.

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Delillo’s “White Noise”

It took me a while to get into this book; honestly, I’m still not a big fan of it. As a novel, I just wasn’t feeling it. However, as part of course on technology it did touch on several interesting topics. First, and most obviously, is the Airborne Toxic Event of Part II. That’s kind of what we’ve been talking about in class the past few weeks; the only difference here is that this Airborne Toxic Event didn’t end in a worldwide catastrophe. However, Delillo makes important observations about what could happen and how society would react to it. Interestingly, most of the people in White Noise were very calm about the Event; it seemed like until they were forcibly evacuated, most people didn’t think exposure to toxic chemicals was all that big a deal.

During this whole ordeal, Delillo makes a fascinating point through Jack, who assures Heinrich (and himself) that they would be okay because these sorts of things only happen to the poor and lower classes. Obviously that’s not true, but Jack’s statement made me wonder if there are real people out there who think “it can’t happen to me” around today.

The second thing I noticed in the novel was the focal point of television and radio in life; from Babette’s insistence that they all gather to watch TV on Friday nights to the College’s incredible focus on popular culture and television studies, it seemed to me like TV (and popular culture in general) was everywhere! People relied on TV and radio for all sorts of information and entertainment. While I can see what Delillo was talking about: chemicals and TV/entertainment, I finished reading it unsure what point he was trying to make about them. I guess I’ll have to wait until Monday to find out.

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The Road

I read the novel The Road a couple of years ago, and since then have always wanted to see the film; obviously, I never got around to it until now. It was exactly as I imagined it. Director John Hillcoat didn’t deviate much from the book, and really captured the essence of the novel. The bleakness, the grayness, the utter hopelessness of the new post-apocalyptic reality is thrown into sharp focus when contrasted with the very opening scene: the sunny and green scene where the world looks beautiful and normal.

This is all stuff I’ll talk more about tomorrow in my presentation. But I’d like to generalize by saying that The Road, unlike other post-apocalyptic films we’re familiar with (including The Matrix) uses aesthetic tools to portray the absolute hopelessness of the post-apocalyptic world. Think about the color scheme in particular- the whole movie is in shades of gray- there is no life anywhere on the planet. There is no hope for renewed life, save for what The Man sees in his son. Similar to On The Beach, there seems to be no valid hope for redemption. And when I think about it compared to the fantastical adventures of Neo or I Am Legend’s Dr. Robert Neville, I can’t help but feel like this is way more realistic. It’s a sobering thought.

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Shute’s “On The Beach”

I’m having a hard time writing this post because I’m still grappling with the after-effects of reading it. Sorry.

This book gave me nightmares. I knew as soon as I finished reading it that I was going to have nightmares, so I tried to take my mind off of it by reading some inane comedy I found in my house. But I had nightmares. I’m not a paranoid person; I know the nuclear obliteration of humanity as described in “On The Beach” was written during the Cold War, when Americans was thoroughly terrified of the Soviet bloc and nuclear warfare. Yet as I read the book, I couldn’t help but think that the plot was just a little too realistic. Though the nuclear threat of the Cold War is gone, there are other countries that have replaced them as American Enemy #1; countries that may already have or are currently developing nuclear technologies.

My first reaction to “On The Beach” was emotional; I was horrified for the characters. I couldn’t help but think “what would I do?” I’ll admit that I’m having a hard time even thinking about it right now. Every time I try to grapple with the consequences of the holocaust in “On The Beach” I really just get agitated and depressed. That’s kind of happening to me right now. Where Shute excelled was in absolutely and completely portraying the horrors of nuclear war and its aftermath. Maybe it should be required reading for all world leaders. I don’t know.

One of the most powerful lines in the book was delivered by Commander Towers. He says, “Maybe we’ve been too silly to deserve a world like this.” If I had to pick a word to describe what humanity has done to itself, it would not be silly; yet nevertheless Towers makes a very powerful point. Mankind took the natural world and turned it into the greatest weapon possible in order to obliterate each other. And for what? Nonsense. Trade ports and arable land. I’m reminded of one of those no-texting-while-driving campaigns that says something like “No text is worth risking your life.” Well, humanity, no trade port or arable land is worth risking humanity.

I think that the reason I’m so struck by “On The Beach” and get so worked up over it is because I don’t believe much has changed since then. Our enemies may have changed, but there is still a very real, very scary nuclear race going on around the world. And for what? Are we going to end up like the characters in “On The Beach” – killing our children and ourselves to avoid a miserable death brought on by radiation from a war we never wanted?

The nuclear technology in “On The Beach” was absolutely devastating to me because it doesn’t seem so unrealistic. What’s to stop some horribly stupid nation in the world today from attempting to engage in nuclear warfare?

On one other note: as I read the book (and began preparations for my own presentation on The Road) I wondered where exactly it fell: was it apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic? Shute brilliantly created a work that displays both; it was the destruction of the last remaining survivors of a nuclear holocaust and apocalypse. In my opinion, that’s the most depressing kind in the genre. We had a chance, and we blew it.

So, like I said before… let’s start a petition to get all world leaders (both big and small countries) to read this book.

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The Thirteenth Floor

Before anything, I want to share this link:

This is a four-hour PBS documentary called “The Fabric of the Cosmos” – you can read the description at that link. I haven’t watched the complete four hours; in fact, I’ve only ever seen bits and pieces of the documentary. But what I have seen of this program seemed to fit in with what we saw in The Thirteenth Floor. For those who don’t feel like clicking on the link, here’s a brief line about the documentary:

“Much of what we thought we knew about the universe- that the past has already happened and the future is yet to be, that space is just an empty void, that our universe is the only universe that exists- just might be wrong.”

In this first episode, physicist Brian Greene makes an astonishing statement. He says,

“Our picture of space has gone through a remarkable transformation… Surprising new clues are emerging that everything, you and I, and even space itself, may actually be a kind of hologram. That is, everything we see and experience, everything we call our familiar three dimensional reality, may be a projection of information that’s stored on a thin, distant, two dimensional surface- sort of the way the information for this hologram is stored on this thin piece of plastic.”

Obviously I’m not really qualified to talk about the science they’re discussing, and I don’t really understand much of what the physicists are saying about black holes and space as a hologram. So instead I’ll quote some more.

“Space within a black hole plays by the same rules as space outside a black hole or anywhere else. So if an object inside a black hole can be described by information on hte black hole’s surface (as science has proven), then it might be that everything in the universe, from galaxies to starts, to you and me, even space itself, is just a projection of information stored on some distant two dimensional surface that surrounds us.”

What does this mean for us? I’m not in any way qualified or knowledgeable enough to say. But it is really, really interesting to consider. And I highly recommend watching at least the first episode of this groundbreaking documentary.

But back to the movie. The Thirteenth Floor, like Ubik, left me with many questions. While the movie was definitely easier to understand than Ubik, it did leave me wondering. Both Jerry Ashton and Douglas Hall found out that their worlds- that they themselves- were simulations. Jane Fuller explained to Hall that his world was created by a computer in her 2024 world. On the surface, the ending seemed neat: Hall joined the 2024 world and became a “real” person, while David died in the 1990s world. This begs several questions. The first, most glaringly obvious was this: who is to say that 2024 is the real world at all? Could it be that the 2024 world was a simulation in itself? I’d been viewing the worlds as layers- with the 1930s on the bottom, the 1990s on top of that, and 2024 on top of that. Could it be that 2024 wasn’t the end of the line? There’s really no way to know. This, of course, is the point of the movie: we can never know if our reality is “real.”

The second question is a product the first question. What makes someone or something real, anyway? This is a deeply philosophical question and it’s beyond me to go into a discussion about it on this blog. But just like Ubik, The Matrix, and other such books and movies, The Thirteenth Floor‘s biggest strength is in forcing the viewer (or reader) to ask the question “what defines reality?”

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Dick’s “Ubik”

“I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am. I made the suns. I made the worlds. I created the lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here… I am called Ubik, but that is not my name. I am. I shall always be.” (Introduction to Ch. 17)

As I write this blog post, I’m still trying to figure out what exactly just happened in Ubik. I’m baffled. Though it took me a couple of chapters to figure out what was going on, once I did I finished the book very quickly because I enjoyed reading it so much. I love the plot, and I love the consideration of reality it portrays. From the moment Runciter’s image and words began to appear to the group, every page begged the question “what is real here? Who is experiencing what reality?” In ways that reminded me of The Matrix, Dick portrays these strange realities where one isn’t sure what’s going on.

By the end of Chapter 16, I thought that everything was neatly and thoroughly explained. As Myra Laney explained to Chip, Ella Runciter and other half-lifers who were threatened by Jory invented Ubik. It was used to protect themselves from being destroyed by Jory and others like him. Chip and the others were in half-life. The rest had been destroyed by Jory, and now Chip had to use Ella’s invention to protect himself for the remainder of his half-life. I found that a nice, clean ending. The only thing that seemed really odd to me was how the half-lifers created something so powerful that had so many uses in the outside world (as seen in the introductions to the chapters.)

Then, along comes the introduction to Chapter 17 (quoted above.) If that quote is true, then Ella and the other half-lifers couldn’t have created Ubik. I wasn’t sure what to think of it. In some ways, it seems like Ubik is God. The implications of the above quote are fascinating: if Ubik was man-made, had it reached sentience? Did it think it was all-powerful? And if Ubik was not truly man-made, then where did it come from?

These questions nagged at me as I began to read Chapter 17. However, as in most of the book, the chapter didn’t talk about Ubik at all. Instead, it showed Runciter trying to pay with a coin that had Joe Chip’s profile on it. Throughout the rest of the book, in Chip’s presumed half-life, Runciter’s face consistently appeared on money. So what does it mean that Chip’s face was now appearing on Runciter’s money?

“He had an intuition, chillingly, that if he searched his pockets, and his billfold, he would find more. This was just the beginning.”

Through the end of the novel, I had assumed that everything being explained was reality; Chip and the rest of the group were in half-life and Runciter was outside trying to reach them in as many manifestations as possible. This, however, challenged that. What was Chip doing on Runciter’s money? With my mind blown, I began to consider that perhaps it was Runciter who had died in the blast. But if that’s true, then what was really going on with the rest of the group? Was everything that happened to them in Runciter’s mind? On a much broader scale, this book introduced really fascinating and terrifying questions; what is reality? How can we define it? How is it perceived?

I have no answers. In fact, I don’t think there are any absolute answers. Like the movie Inception, there is no way to know with absolute certainty what is reality and what is an imagined figment of someone’s imagination. And like Inception, Ubik‘s lack of a clean ending is perhaps its greatest characteristic. I finished the book and yet I can’t stop thinking about it and the questions it posed. This post is somewhat scattered because I still haven’t managed to sort through everything I’m thinking about this book and what it represents. Ubik‘s brilliance is in it’s ability to conjure up all these hugely important questions and let us figure out the answers (if there are any) for ourselves.

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The first (and last) time I saw Avatar, I viewed it as a story; instead of focusing on specific details, I remember seeing it as a story with a beginning, middle, and end. This time, I chose to refocus my attention away from the story itself and onto the technology present in the film. In doing so, I began to see similarities to other works we’ve studied in class; I also felt much more awed by themes explored in the movie when seen in context of the technology present. What I mean by that is this: viewing it before as a story left me with the impression of “that was a cool movie. Great story line. It moved forward at a decent pace and left plenty of room for character development. Oh, and the avatars were pretty cool too.” By altering my focus, I finished the movie wondering what the implications of the technology in Avatar are.

In many ways it seemed that the story line used technology to update the story we all know of the Europeans colonizing and taking over countries to exploit their natural resources. The soldiers in Avatar didn’t care about the Na’vi, their homeland, or their beliefs; Pandora had an incredibly large supply of Unobtanium, which could be sold for exorbitant amounts of money. Instead of using diplomacy or trying to understand each other, the majority of the humans on Pandora wanted to just barge in and take this natural resource. In this way, Avatar paralleled Sleep Dealer; in both, technology was used by the “haves” to exploit the “have-nots.”

In both Sleep Dealer and Avatar, there is a neural link technology that allows a person to link up with something non-human. In Sleep Dealer, this can be anything- we see that Memo becomes a robot working on a construction project. In Avatar, this neural link allows Jake, Grace and other select humans to link up with an avatar- a Na’vi in appearance, but with their human brains intact. As mentioned before, in both cases this technology is used to exploit natives. In Avatar this is not as obvious; the humans who link up to avatars (i.e. Jake and Grace) seem to really want to understand and learn from the Na’vi. However, at the beginning of the film Jake is sent to live with them in order to help the soldiers and corporations. At the end of the day, the neural link technology was used by the oppressor in order to get exactly what they wanted. The implications of this are intriguing: does superior technology necessarily mean exploitation of everyone else?

On a totally different note, another thing I found interesting was Jake’s initial reaction to his avatar. Because Jake was a paraplegic, he went kind of crazy when he woke up with two working legs. Throughout the time he spent in his avatar, he seemed to appreciate more and more the physical capabilities of the Na’vi. During the movie, he even made a comment along the lines of “Out there is the true world, and in here is the dream.”

I felt like Jake (who didn’t have much of a physical life as Jake) was enthralled with the possibilities being an avatar gave him; it enabled him to fly through the forest, run wherever he wanted, and not be dependent on a wheelchair or other people. For Jake, the avatar represented his escape from his typical human body into a bigger, better, and more powerful Na’vi one. While we don’t have technology as advanced as that yet, this did make me wonder about the possibilities available to enhance the human body. We’ve discussed this before in class- such as robotic arm transplants- and I still haven’t decided how I feel about it. In some ways, it could be incredible; yet in other ways that technology in the wrong hands could be a disaster.

In any event, the technology I saw in Avatar raised several questions for me. The first is the same one I had regarding Sleep Dealer; could this possibly be our future? What can we do to avoid such a future? The second question is about Jake’s human body. Jake’s broken human body could not compare to his avatar one. Should we push for “better” human bodies and tamper with evolution’s natural course? While I don’t have answers yet, I can’t help but think about the (good and bad) possibilities.

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Butler’s “Dawn”

“We acquire new life- seek it, investigate it, manipulate it, sort it, use it. We carry the drive to do this in a minuscule cell within a cell- a tiny organelle within every cell of our bodies… One of the meanings of Oankali is gene trader. Another is that organelle- the essence of ourselves, the origin of ourselves. Because of that organelle, the ooloi can perceive DNA and manipulate it precisely” (41).

With these few sentences, Jdahya explains to Lilith what drives the Oankali. The question that pervades the early chapters of Dawn is simple: Why did the Oankali save us? Lilith asks it early on, and doesn’t seem to get a clear answer. Here, Jdahya is explaining to Lilith the Oankali’s driving spirirt: an acquisitive nature that makes them look above and beyond what they already have. Every action the Oankali take in Dawn can thus be attributed to this innate desire to “acquire new life” and “manipulate it” to their advantage. After Jdahya tells Lilith about this drive within all Oankali, he explains what the ooloi are doing with human cancer cells: they are testing it for all kinds of crazy possibilities like regeneration, controlled malleability, increased longevity, etc.  This explanation of the Oankali’s activities colored everything they did throughout the rest of the book. As I read the book I was constantly reminded that what pushed the novel forward- what motivated every Oankali action- were the possibilities available through genetic manipulation.

Whereas Lilith and the other humans saw a trade with the Oankali that would create mixed species children as the ultimate loss of humanity, the Oankali recognized the possibilities such a trade could have to benefit both their descendants. In all honesty, I didn’t understand Lilith’s desperation to escape from merging with the Oankali. I get that she had gone through the most traumatic war ever, and that she very much wanted things to go back to the way they were. However, at the same time I recognize the benefits that would emerge by joining with the Oankali; during some portions of the novel I felt like the “old” humanity, if given another chance, would only destroy themselves again. With the Oankali genetic modifications, we might actually stand a chance of surviving.

That’s a pretty pessimistic reading of the novel, but I can’t help thinking that the genetic modifications the Oankali shared with the humans were beneficial and could definitely help us survive in the future. While we wouldn’t be surviving as pure-bred humans, I think we’d have a better chance to survive (and thrive) as “half-breeds.”

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Sleep Dealer

Since the beginning of the semester, we’ve seen and read about incredible, futuristic, and oftentimes scary technologies. Each movie we’ve seen and book we’ve read portrayed technology in unique ways, and as such each made very different (and powerful) points. “Sleep Dealer” presented fascinating technological developments- the nodes and all that could be accomplished with them were certainly powerful tools. However, what made “Sleep Dealer” so unique to me was the portrayal of the technology within the realm of neo-colonialism/colonialism and capitalism. Especially in our era, where the issue of immigration (particularly from Mexico) is so hot, this film helps shed a new light on what could very well be our future.

So far we’ve discussed technology in the realms we’d most expect to see it: networking, privacy, robotics, etc. The technologies we saw in “The Social Network,” Neuromancer, and 1984 were not wholly unexpected or shocking manifestations of technology; in “Sleep Dealer” I really felt like my eyes were opened to a whole new world of possibilities (both good and bad) that I had never before truly considered. Technological development encourages globalization, but I hadn’t really thought about the implications that could have for neo-colonialism.

In thinking back on “Sleep Dealer,” I can’t help but wonder if that is what our future as a first-world nation will be: developing and then imposing powerful technologies on weaker nations in pursuit of more wealth and power. Rivera really did a wonderful job portraying the implications of these technologies on both developed and developing countries.

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