reviews, recs, riffs.

There are no computers in this novel about the future. In fact, there's no future either. It exhibits a sort of retro-futurism, and the lack of technology is a clue to the fact that the real target is technology itself and the progress it promises. Not that Ishiguro would say so outright, since he doesn't say much outright. He excels at what is not said. The graphic horror takes place off-stage, in the service of a sort of utopia that we never see. It is literally obscene, which is the point: utopia always conceals such obscenity. In agonizingly slow burn he cleverly inverts the standard tropes of sci-fi in which a dystopia is foregrounded (meaning fetishized), and with superhuman patience unfurls the price tag of progress. Spoiler: it's pretty damn high.


The novel's lurid 1960's sci-fi hook, photographed in browns and yellows, isn't really what it's about. Instead, it's about the future (the other thing missing in the story) and the illusion of progress. It argues almost Baudrillard-like that progress itself is a crime of concealment, we just self-interestedly choose to surrender its victims to the secret archipelago of suffering in our midst. But, and this makes it truly science fiction, it is also all a metaphor for metaphysical anguish. About how we rationalize away the inevitable horror of aging, sickness, and death from ourselves. The narration is glacially patient - perhaps too much so for some. It is also curiously mute and drab, possibly a consequence of Ishiguro’s conclusion about humans raised without intimacy, and the lack of obvious technology makes it feel so deliberately anachronistic as to be otherworldly, almost dreamlike. Still, it is a brilliantly wrought fork for literary sci-fi.

The mystery at the heart of this book is not the murder that ties it all together, but the mystery of guilt itself. Who feels it, why they feel it, why they don't feel it, and what they do about it all. Perhaps this is why Greene is often called a Catholic novelist, but the guilt he is examining is more than theological. Here, the morally scrupulous and unscrupulous alike are hopelessly entangled in self-serving narratives as the grand wheel of history turns. None more so than the world-weary narrator, who deploys droll asides over endless G&T's and bowls of heroin, in what amounts to an extended trip to the confessional in lovely prose. But his humor is barbed and conceals great fury, both at empire and himself.


Greene beautifully portrays a world of mutual deceptions and self-deceptions, told by one of history's losers. He illuminates an interdependent play of illusions that generates casualties. And at a moment (1955) of the twilight of one empire (French), and the dawn of another (American), he finds plenty of casualties. They are a kind of remainder, the irreducible leftovers of western imperialism. These are the casualties of war, but they are also casualties of love, which he does not spare in its secret ideological dimension, or imperialist unconscious. Ultimately, this is a deft weaving of political commentary, spiritual musings, psychology, romance, and thriller. Quite hard to beat.