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The Unread Alphabet I and J: The Comfort Zone of Apocalyptic Dystopia

There are some genres and topics in fiction writing that somehow just make you relax and enjoy yourself, no matter whether the book is well written or the characters well rounded. For me, that’s dystopia. I’m definitely a concept girl, I love any work that seeks to explore the impact of one significant cultural or scientific phenomenon on human life and society.  However, as much as I love sci-fi, there is always the risk that devotion to the concept or the technology can obscure the impact on the individual and the personal narrative can be lost.

 What I really enjoyed, then, about getting into Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and P.D. James’ The Children of Men was that both of these novels find a good balance between the exploration of the apocalyptic or scientific event and a character-driven narrative.

*Kazuo Ishiguro

With Never Let Me Go, the scientific advances that have taken place, and the ethical conundrum accompanying such advances, are very much the backdrops of a story about the lives of three children as they grown into adulthood. What is particularly effective about this is that the nature of the scientific advances are kept obscured for the majority of the book and are used as a discovery/revelation about who the young people really are, which is used to shock the reader into a much stronger emotional response to the scientific-ethical side of the book.

 The Children of Men takes a slightly different approach, in mixing diary writing with third person narrative centred on the main character, Theo Faron. The diary provides a good balance between getting to know Theo and his life, as well as his perspective and analysis of the political events after the apocalyptic event of mass infertility across the world. James certainly explores the political implications in greater depth than Ishuguro does, aided by the fact that Theo is the cousin and former adviser to the tyrannous Warden of England.

*P.D. James

 Both books also involve a plot to change the current circumstances. The Children of Men sees a badly thought out political plot to overthrow the Warden, or at least to make him see reason on some of the worst human rights abuses that are taking place under his regime. The plot seems realistic, undertaken by a few would-be revolutionaries who have all the right rhetoric but are confused as to how to go about it. In the midst of this, one woman becomes pregnant, showing that political revolution cannot be achieved without a sense of hope.

In Never Let Me Go, the plot is personal, taken forward by the two main characters who seek to delay their unfortunate destiny by a few years by pleading with their former school teachers. I found this quite gut wrenching; although their teachers have dedicated their lives to better ethical treatment of these kids, their immediate response is to say ‘don’t you know how hard we have worked for you already?’ That the young people demand more and demand to be treated as more fully human than they are already being treated is an affront to these teachers sense of ‘charity’. This hit me squarely between the eyes as I work in the voluntary sector, and it is so easy to consider your own sense of charity and goodwill as more important than who you are actually working with and how you treat them. I see everyday that it is so easy to become self-orientated due to burn out after years of campaigning and work.


All in all, both books do a good job of exploring a post-apocalyptic society. I prefer James’ dystopia largely because it is more clearly explored and a bit more apocalyptic….if there’s such a thing as an apocalyptic-dystopian scale!


I know that both books have been adapted into films, but I have only seen Children of Men. In a rare occasion for me, I saw the film before the book and, in an even rarer occasion – I think both are brilliant and different enough to stand alone without offending hardcore fans. I have no desire to see the Never Let Me Go, for one reason and one reason alone. Kiera Knightly. Enough said.


 The Unread Alphabet – Ishiguro and James


Previous instalments of The Unread Alphabet: Explanation and A-C; Worthy vs Enjoyable and D-F; Cultural Classics and G-H


Kazuo Ishiguro – Never Let Me Go

 The story is told through the eyes of Kathy, who remains a passive, child-like character throughout the book – even her language remains childish, choosing to use words like ‘poo’ in a bad situation rather than swear words. The story focuses on her relationships with her two closest friends, Tommy and Ruth, and remains something of a love triangle throughout the book. Sometimes I felt that this aspect of the book got in the way of developing the scientific and ethical elements, but ultimately seeing the young people discover the true nature of their situation within the context of their relationships brought greater emotional power to these issues.

What is also done very well is that these children lead fairly peaceful lives and there is a strong sense that their lives and plight is largely ignored by wider society; the collective conscience looks away in order to benefit from the goods that these questionable practices bring.

What I will say is this – the one thing that annoyed me about the book is that the characters never think of simply leaving – just packing a bag and running away. This is perhaps part of their intensive boarding school upbringing, and it doesn’t ruin the narrative at all, it was just one thought that perhaps affected my suspension of disbelief for the book as a whole. The scientific advances that are behind the setting of the book are entirely believable, making this feel like a very real possibility for a not so far off future.


P.D. James – The Children of Men


I had already seen the film before I read the book, and so I worried that I already knew the premise or that I would fail to see the main character as anyone other than Clive Owen. However, I was sufficiently gripped by the book and shocked by the early revelations about Theo’s past that I was able to encounter the book in it’s own right. James’ outworking of the impact of the mass infertility is genius – from the excessive pandering treatment of the ‘omega generation’ to the enforced and humiliating fertility check ups, and the Isle of Man becoming a penal colony. I particularly loved her exploration of the psychological effects on the omega generation as they have been so intensively spoilt and studied at the same time; the result is aloof arrogance in most, with aggressive cult-like madness in others. She also explores how many people take to seeing pets much more like children, or even caring for dolls in a delusional charade that the dolls are real.  The political conspiracy is well done because it is not slick and well worked out, but feels more realistic as each of the characters has entirely mixed motivation for their involvement. James also touches on a religious element to the events – in the apocalyptic event as well as in the abuse of power and the sought revolution – but she manages to do this without taking an overtly religious stance on the whole issue or becoming preachy. It was difficult to become attached to the main character, Theo, and the end is left entirely ambiguous as to whether he is (and will turn out to be) a good guy or a bad guy – or just a guy in the right place at the wrong time.


One comment on “The Unread Alphabet I and J: The Comfort Zone of Apocalyptic Dystopia

  1. I really enjoyed both these books for the same reason: they didn’t feel like they were set in a distant future. So many dystopic novels feel as though they are and in fact, often are set in a future time riddled with flying cars and life-like androids. For me, the feeling of “now” in both Never Let me Go and Children of Men was chilling, like this really is our immediate tomorrow.

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