Ishiguro’s reticent world-building

I’m interested in Ishiguro’s reticent world-building in Never Let Me Go. With “omnivorousness” in mind, this withholding of information (about the specifics of systematically cloning humans for organ donation) seems to negotiate not just the degree to which the reader understands Kathy’s circumstances, but also the degree to which the reader can identify the text’s “SF”-ness. Reticence might then be a formal, structural, and thematic way in which Never Let Me Go negotiates (satisfies?) readerly tastes for/expectations of both “literary fiction” and SF. 

From the start, Ishiguro hints at something else going on that marks Kathy(‘s world) as different. These mostly stop at hints, without illuminating what they signify or how they might radically change our apprehension of the textual world. The moment “when we know this is an SF novel” is thus deferred or strangely diluted, so that we suspect (with the help of paratext), but don’t know. Hints appear in Kathy’s vocabulary: she uses terms like “carer,” “donor,” “completing,” “recovery centre,” and “collections,” (3, 5, 16). The reader starts to collect and make some hazy sense of these terms, but explicit explanations aren’t given (yet). (“England, late 1990s” is another cryptic scene-setting gesture.)

The novel’s world-building does hinge on a few instances of explicit description of the cloning system. These eruptions (ex: Miss Lucy’s speech, page 81) produce rents in the fabric of the text’s reticence, allowing the reader to retroactively piece things together. The process of gleaning subtextual, tonal clues and finally recognizing the contours of the dystopia parallels Kathy’s own experience of learning (or always already partially knowing). She reflects that: “certainly it feels like I always knew about donations in some vague way, even as early as six or seven. And it’s curious, when we were older and the guardians were giving us those talks, nothing came as a complete surprise. It was like we’d heard everything somewhere before” (82-3). How are we to read the novel’s tight-lipped tone/plot before, amidst, and after scenes of rare explicitness? And how does the novel resist such clear temporal distinctions between stages of understanding? Finally, how do generic codes/expectations play into this? 

Generic Reticence and Mediation in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

This project takes up Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, focusing on reticence as a stylistic, structural, and narrative practice which mediates readerly access to or awareness of the novel’s non-realist, dystopian, “genre” elements. I argue that the novel’s effectiveness depends on its careful withholding (and revealing) of precisely how its world-building differs from what might be expected (and is uncannily performed prior to and around moments of revelation) of a realist, non-SF novel. Considering the novel’s reception by various reading communities (reviews and profiles in publications like NPR and the New Yorker, SF fan responses to Ishiguro’s “genre” novel(s), and academic articles that situate the novel within fields such as “Global Anglophone” and “World Literature”), and responses to Ishiguro’s 2017 Nobel Prize, I identify the novel’s suppression of SF/dystopian/generic explicitness as a key characteristic which allows for its uptake by and mobility between different cultural fields.

in good company: collections, curations, (sub)categorizations

“Johnny Mnemonic” was first published in the May 1981 issue of Omni Magazine, 5 years before Burning Chrome’s publication. Ben Bova’s “First Word” at the beginning of the issue sketches a picture of SF’s role in relation to other disciplinary/generic ways of thinking futuristically: 

Here at Omni magazine, science fiction has been an integral part of our editorial ‘mix’ from the very beginning. Because Omni is ‘the magazine of tomorrow,’ our aim is to examine the future in every way that we can with feature articles, columns of subjects as diverse as television and astronomy, interviews of the world’s thinkers – and with science fiction. In fact, science fiction allows us to present dimensions of the future that cannot be seen in any other way. (6)

Bova privileges SF as particularly apt for playing out scientific/technological futures: “Writers use [SF] as a computer simulation laboratory.” He ends by emphasizing how “useful” SF can be. Thinking back to Galaxy and the ways its editorial materials identified a “mature” SF field/readership (and its paucity of ads + the overwhelming majority of its pages devoted to SF stories/serial chapters), what are the effects of situating SF as one “legitimate” experimental mode of thinking futuristically amongst others? How does encountering SF amidst articles on astronomy, the environment, space, etc. change the reader’s engagement or disposition towards the fiction? 

A few pages later, Gibson’s story is specifically introduced alongside (following!) the issue’s other fiction piece by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury is given a comparatively extensive introduction, mentioning his “four decades” of prolific publishing “in magazines as disparate as The New Yorker and Weird Tales,” his “remarkable novel Fahrenheit 451” and other works that “won him international acclaim,” and the recently published “volume of his 100 best [stories], published by Knopf” (8). Clearly the more established writer, Bradbury provides the coattails for Gibson to ride — or it’s at least presented that way: “Accompanying Bradbury’s story this month is William Gibson’s [JM]” (8). Of course, this makes sense since Gibson had not published nearly as much as Bradbury, but the editorial uses (and “usefulness,” for Bova perhaps) of writers with more cultural capital seems worth consideration. We might also look to the (fan-made) “SF table of elements,” where each element is an SF writer (126, page 78 of the pdf). 

Brief additional considerations! :

How does a short story collection signal another kind of curated set? How does it position a single author within the field? One Publishers Weekly review calls Gibson’s writing in Burning Chrome “old, worn and tired….This weak collection of 10 short stories seems to have been rushed out to cash in on Gibson’s current popularity” (103-4). 

Publishers Weekly (1993) includes “A User’s Guide to SF Subgenres.” Gibson is listed under “cyberpunk,” with other subgenres including “epic fantasy, military science fiction, Elves-in-the-real-world (aka Elf-punk), Hard Science Fiction, Space Opera” (55). How do we think of subgenres as cultural fields, and how does this kind of organization/categorization negotiate “walls” around SF(s)? 


guide to sf subgenres

publishers weekly gibson 1

publishers weekly gibson 2

Galaxy + Gravy = maturity

The editorial materials in Galaxy strategically position the magazine in relation to other SF magazines/publishers and interpellate/define their readership. In the first issue (Oct 1950), the editor’s note, “for adults only,” interpellates an exclusively “mature” readership (2). This performance/proof of “fanciness” extends to a discussion of the materiality of the magazine itself: it “is dressed in Champion Kromekote, an expensive and unusual coated paper” (3). The ads differ from the “get-rich-quick” variety; here, they are advertising contests and further reading that would encourage continued engagement/belonging with(in) Galaxy. SF stories are only rarely interrupted (if it is an interruption at all) by notices for “a genuine science fiction contest” (60). The first issue advertises “new books by leading science fiction writers” (139) and the back cover reminds us of where Galaxy and the leading, authentic, mature mode of SF it represents stand in relation to other SF, the kind that “you’ll never see…in Galaxy!” (164). There’s a consistent effort to establish Galaxy as a “mature,” “genuine,” “advanced” incarnation of the genre, apart from other SF spaces/communities/publications.

How might the editorial framing of Gravy Planet amidst all of these status-claiming gestures be read in relation to the text’s own class/economic politics? In the July 1952 issue, the inside cover offers a self-description of Galaxy as “the aristocrat of science fiction magazines.” The blurb immediately preceding the second installation of Gravy Planet whets our mature readerly appetite: “A displaced person in a Utopia is worse off than in any other society…especially if he happened to help build it!” (108). Gold, in the issue’s editorial intro, again frames the story as Utopian: “the ideal society for an entrepreneur, as in Gravy Planet, is obviously not the same as that of a socialist or a hobo” (2). How do the glossiness and the correlating seriousness/legitimacy/value of Galaxy mesh with the allegory/satire/critique of advertising/Sales in the text? How might we isolate or consider those dispositions (allegory, satire, critique, etc.) as lenses for encountering the text, depending on where the SF “maturity” needle lands? 

SF in and beyond the university

Thinking through Guillory’s argument about cultural capital as “distributed” and “regulated” by the school/university in relation to SF specifically, how does the university structure a field of SF in ways that either bestow cultural capital onto non-university-based SF spaces or that “rescue,” elevate, and selectively legitimize certain kinds of SF literacy?

Guillory suggests that “the school…regulates access to literary production by regulating access to literacy, to the practices of reading and writing” (ix). The emphasis on textuality, reading, writing, and the framing of “literacy” as having the proper positionality/tools/posture for cultural consumption, raises the question of which SF objects are primed to be taken up by the school. What hierarchies would emerge within/between different media (novels, movies, TV, fanfic, etc.), and how would those valuations cross over the (hazy) boundary between university SF literacy and non-university SF literacy? Within non-university-based SF communities of readers/viewers/producers, issues of canon, literacy, and being a “real fan” (gatekeeping) are also present. How do these structures get co-opted, refuted, or reconfigured by the university’s claims to arbitrating “linguistic capital” (“the means by which one attains to a socially credentialed and therefore valued speech”) and “symbolic capital” (“a kind of knowledge-capital whose possession can be displayed upon request and which thereby entitles its possessor to the cultural and material rewards of the well-educated person”)?

Guillory argues that “literary works must be seen…as the vector of ideological notions which do not inhere in the works themselves but in the context of their institutional presentation, or more simply, in the way in which they are taught” (ix). Does this weighting of “institutional presentation” lead to a bifurcation between university SF worlds (their texts, preoccupations, modes of reading) and the sites of most SF production/consumption/circulation, each with its own regulations of “literacy”? What relationship would such a bifurcation create/exacerbate between those “literate” in SF within and outside of universities? So many questions (!), but basically I’m interested in how plural systems bestowing cultural capital onto SF changes the cultural field of SF and might lead to contesting fields/SFs.