This week on our blog, Insight writer Timothy Roberts discusses the comparison texts Never Let Me Go and Things We Didn’t See Coming.
Every writer envisions the future differently, but there are often strong parallels between these imagined futures. We can see contrasting yet complementary visions presented in two works of dystopian fiction: Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. By exploring how people should choose to live their lives in a nightmarish world, each author depicts similar themes about ethics and human behaviour.
Ishiguro’s novel explores technology’s potential to ‘dehumanise’ people, if used unethically. The characters attend Hailsham, a school that seems normal at first. However, each character is forbidden from leaving, and has to obey many mysterious rules. With her friend (and later partner) Tommy, Kathy begins a quest to unravel their predicament. Kathy’s discovery that she and her friends are clones who are being used as organ donors without their consent raises several serious ethical dilemmas, with no easy answers to be found. For example, is society’s decision to raise these beings ethically justified, because their organ donations save lives? Or does the moral crime of creating and incarcerating these people override any broader gains? Another dilemma Ishiguro raises is the contrast between ignorance and knowledge. For example, through two teachers, the novel compares different approaches to truth, examining which is superior. Is Miss Lucy right for trying to tell the children about the grim details of their situation, even though it would cause them pain? Or is Miss Emily right for trying to protect them from this knowledge, even at the expense of truth? Again, the answer is left for the reader to decide.
In Things We Didn’t See Coming, Amsterdam presents a similar set of moral dilemmas. Following a man through a series of unpromising jobs and depressing situations, Amsterdam subtly shows us the story of someone stubbornly trying to hold on to what makes him ‘different’ from the people who surround him, who he believes will take advantage of weakness at the first opportunity. Resisting this, the protagonist uses his (extremely limited) power to push back against his situation. Ethical choices, especially whether or not to steal, haunt the protagonist. In several instances – the ruined house in ‘Dry Land’, for instance – he resists. By doing this, in his view, he is pushing back against a sick society’s attempt to exploit him. It’s never clear, though, whether his sacrifices are ultimately ‘worth it’. Is he a hero for holding out against temptation in the very small ways available to him, or is this all futile? Are characters like Margo monstrous for taking all they can, or are they just making the most out of their meagre resources?
Kathy, too, rebels. By volunteering to become Tommy’s carer, she demonstrates the meaning of showing compassion towards another person, even if she’s never received this herself. She and Tommy use their optimistic view of individuality to create a sense of purpose in their lives. But is it really possible for her to do this, or are her actions futile? Similarly, the central character of Things We Didn’t See Coming refuses to bow down to those who take advantage of weakness. In a modest, dogged and flawed way, he uses his limited power to carve out a small space for human dignity, even as he’s forced to make painful compromises in the process. He even gives up Margo, the woman he loves, because of her corrupting tendencies. The life he chooses is lonely and unrewarding … but in his mind, he’s kept his integrity.
In Never Let Me Go, the children’s efforts to solve the mystery of their situation lead them to discover the final ‘truth’ from their former teachers. The end of this quest doesn’t offer any easy answers – they’re still enslaved to an exploitative system, with the truth the best consolation they can hope for. Kathy and Tommy, though, don’t think this matters. They refuse to ignore their situation because they believe it’s always better to face painful truths, no matter the consequences. The rejection of corruption also costs the narrator of Things We Didn’t See Coming almost everything – most tragically, Margo. He forces himself to reject the ways of society, sacrificing a relatively comfortable life and career so he can keep a clear conscience. It’s an extremely costly way of remaining morally pure, and it’s never clear whether these efforts are worth it.
Working like these two narrators to uncover the truth, you’ll be forced to confront your values. Is it logical to make great sacrifice for little personal gain? Or are these characters deluded, given that their actions make little difference? To assess each character’s motivations, you’ll be required to consider what matters most to you, including how much value you place on meeting society’s expectations. Assessing each character’s actions, of course, requires stepping into their mindset. Doing this will give you a deeper appreciation of how personal values influence behaviour. By presenting their characters with only compromised choices, Amsterdam and Ishiguro compel us to interrogate our own assumptions about right and wrong.
Sample essay questions
- ‘The “corrupt” characters in each text are viewed completely unsympathetically.’
Do you agree?
- Do Amsterdam and Ishiguro give any hints about how we can prevent the bleak futures they depict?
- ‘The struggles of each text’s central character make no difference in the long run.’ Discuss.
- “What’s wrong with a little bit of caring?”
How does each novel view the potential of love?
- How does each main character resist the social pressures to conform to accepted values?
Need more help with comparing texts? We have an Insight Comparison Guide for every Year 12 English/EAL text pair. Written by experienced English teachers and professional writers with expertise in literature and film criticism, each Insight Comparison Guide includes a detailed breakdown of each of the two texts, and a close analysis of their shared ideas, issues and themes.
- Daniele Sansone/Unspash