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Literary and Genre Fiction: Cloud Atlas and Never Let Me Go July 10, 2011

Posted by futurewired in comment, David Mitchell, Iain M Banks, Kazuo Ishiguro.

One thing I’m really interested in exploring on this blog is the overlap between genre fiction and what is commonly termed ‘literary’ fiction. I’ve mentioned before the Bruce Sterling coined phrase ‘slipstream’, referring to a sort of literary feeling of strangeness, of slight dissonance with what we would consider recognisable reality in fiction. Another grouping you might see as being along the same lines would be magic realism, in which fantastic elements occur in ‘realistic’ settings. Both of these have been disputed – Terry Pratchett once notably described magic realism as a name for fantasy that happened to be written in Spanish. These kinds of arguments over terminology are fairly common, like Margaret Atwood’s insistence on the use of the term speculative fiction rather than science fiction to describe her dystopian novels, to differentiate them from books about ‘talking squids in space.’


Now putting aside the awesomeness of that particular concept, I tend to be fairly relaxed about labelling. It seems fairly clear that there are differences between, say, to pick two random examples from a nearby bookshelf, 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks, and that to class one as science fiction and the other as literary fiction, or even mainstream fiction would not be a problem. When books arise that straddle that gap a little more – The Time Travellers Wife for example, a book that has a classic sci fi conceit but tends overwhelmingly to be shelved with general, mainstream fiction and treated as such – I think it’s fine to talk about them as either, depending on the point you wish to make.


What I think is particularly interesting to explore however is the idea of using devices, tropes and elements from what is normally considered genre fiction, in this case sf, for what would normally be considered more literary purposes. To explore topics relating to that hackneyed phrase, the ‘human condition.’ Now I’m not saying that writers of straight sci-fi or fantasy novels can’t do this in their own right, there are many that do, far better sometimes than most of their more ‘literary’ counterparts. There are however some books, often by writers more associated with literary fiction, that use sf ideas to explore these issues in a distinctively, for want of a better word ‘literary’ way.


Two examples of this that I’ve read recently are David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Both were short-listed for the Booker and Arthur C Clarke awards, a sign perhaps that they successfully bridged the gap between genre and mainstream. Both use fairly staple ideas from certain areas of science fiction – an underclass of clones created to serve the purposes of the rest of the population is common to both. Both use these as a device to explore other issues, human nature, predation and authenticity in Mitchell’s case, the loss of innocence and the shortness of human life in Ishiguro’s. I really enjoyed both of them, particularly Cloud Atlas but they were the books that came to mind when I read an article by Iain M Banks a couple of months ago.

‘Science Fiction is Not for Dabblers’

Here, Iain M Banks, a writer of both literary and science fiction, describes a scenario he has seen multiple times; a respected literary author has a great idea to write a science fiction book that isn’t really science fiction (because of who is writing it.) Said author does not do their research, doesn’t engage in the necessary dialogue with the history and legacy of the genre and so can’t help but replicate pre-existing ideas without really adding anything new.

Do Mitchell and Ishiguro fall into this category? Both are literary authors, at that certain point of their careers who have written books involving familiar science fiction concepts, but as to the charge at hand, for me, the answer would have to be no.

I’ll start with Cloud Atlas. The book consists of six related narratives, spanning perhaps hundreds of years, from the 19th century to a post-apocalyptic future. The author has described them as ‘nested’ stories, that sit over each other like a matrioshka doll. Each one gets interrupted, apart from the last, and each refers to the previous one in some fashion. The characters are implied to be reincarnations of the same soul, this being indicated by a comet-shaped birthmark, a device reminiscent of Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetrology (Mitchell used to live in Japan.) There are lots of recurring elements, common themes, as well as self-references. The two chronologically last stories could be said to have sf elements. In one, a clone servant in a fictionalised fast food restaurant in a future North Korea becomes slowly conscious of her position and is recruited by a rebellion against the totalitarian society she lives in; the story is narrated to an archivist prior to her execution. In the last civilisation has more or less disappeared. Zachry, a Tribesman living in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, narrates the story, as an old man, of his encounter many years before with a member of the last technologically advanced group in the world.

The whole book consciously adopts different literary styles to tell each story, incorporating the devices of each into the narrative. So, we have a South Pacific tale in the style of Herman Melville, an Evelyn Waugh style story set in the 20’s, a slightly satirical section telling the story of vanity publisher in the style of Martin Amis, and ‘the first Luisa Rey Mystery’ a fairly formulaic thriller. Each of these are delivered in the style of documents however – the Luisa Rey mystery is a thriller, a manuscript delivered to the publisher, one character comments on the suspiciously neat narrative style of an earlier section.

When it comes to the more sf chapters, the pattern continues. The author has stated that Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker was an inspiration for the post-apocalyptic Hawaii section, and while this shows, the story nonetheless has a life, a rhythm and a vernacular all of its own. Similarly the clone story could be seen as drawing on numerous sources, from 1984, to Zamyatin’s We, and it’s big reveal towards the end is wholly predictable. None of this takes away from its impact however, nor from the novel as a whole, which is definitely more than the sum of its parts. What it has to say about predation, exploitation, about the individual and society, progress and technology, goes beyond the limits of the formats of the individual stories.

So, Cloud Atlas seems to evade Ian M Banks’ charges. David Mitchell is clearly aware of some of the history and tradition he draws upon, he engages in the dialogue, and he uses the tropes to create something, that feels to me, genuinely original

Never Let Me Go then. This book was made into a film last year, with initial trailers that made no mention of the basic premise, leaving the impression that it was a coming of age story, with a love triangle set at an exclusive boarding school. This is all true of course, but it just happens to be a boarding school for clones created for the purposes of organ donation.

A familiar enough concept then, featured in a number sf books and films; Michael Bay’s The Island released at the same time as the book was based around the same idea. But the key difference is in the type of story Ishiguro tells; rather than a thriller, where the characters struggle against their fate, or try to escape to some off-stage utopia, Never Let Me Go is a melancholic coming of age story, in which the characters essentially just live out their lives in the only way they can.

There’s no real antagonist, no authoritarian state holding society in its thrall. Ishiguro imagines a world seemingly more or less the same as our own, with one key difference, the use of cloning for transplants resulting in the elimination of many medical conditions. This ‘real’ world is kept at arms length – an early and recurring image in the book is of Kathy, the main character driving on back roads at night, never encountering another soul. We follow her, Tommy and Ruth through a series of more or less closed environments; school, a sort of half way house complex called the cottages, and as carers and donors through various hospitals and homes We see the loss of the constructed innocence of their childhoods, the slow obliteration of fleeting dreams, betrayal, resignation.

The shortened lives of the characters serves as an amplifying effect, heightening the impact of individual actions on each other, creating an impression by the end of the book that whatever they do, it’s always already too late.

The book’s focus on the everyday in the three characters lives, on the strange but mundane world they live in, makes it somehow completely convincing along with the way that individuals and rumours form a sort of collective mythology in their hermetically sealed world. There are oblique references to outside events, everyday notions like working in an office that seem fantastically alien and desirable, and ominous euphemisms. The result is a book that can seem cold, bleak even, but one that is beautifully written, an exploration of life, love, the loss of innocence and death.

A review in the New York Times suggested that Ishiguro intended to upend science fictions banal conventions with this book. Stepping aside that slight to genre fiction, Never Let Me Go seems more like a case of combining different conventions from different types of writing; a science fiction conceit with a narrative structure and tone more usually found in literary fiction.

Now, I’ve just focused on the sf aspects of these books and as such, as a review this is pretty rubbish. There’s so much more to both of these books than what I’ve discussed here, so many more ways in which you could read them than the slightly shallow way in which I’ve approached them here. The point is, partly in response to that Iain M Bank’s article, it is possible to write ‘literary’ books using perhaps unoriginal concepts more usually found in genre fiction, and that the results can be fantastic. The answer might lie, not in the style of writing, nor the devices employed, or the conventions flouted, but in something more simple than any of that; whether the author has anything real to say. Both David Mitchell and Kazuo Ishiguro clearly do, and by having the freedom to explore different styles, to adopt elements from genres sometimes frowned up by mainstream literary critics, they have each managed to create something original and worthwhile.

Heres a link to Iain M Banks’ article;


and heres one to a response by Jeff Vandermeer that makes a lot of better points than mine




1. rlesliesnyder - August 17, 2012

What an excellent article. I found it to be highly interesting as I’d often thought of the book Never Let Me Go, as well as the movie and tried to place them in the right genre, which of course as you point out well, cannot be done. I will check out Cloud Atlas as well as the links posted here. Well done and thanks.

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