Friday, 8 February 2013


Natsuhiko Kyogoku, 2001 [Anne Ishii, 2010]
(January 2013)

“Computers were viewed strangely for too long,” Shizue said. “Clearly the excessive illusions about computer technology wrought confusion at one point, and society thereafter attempted to adapt a midcourse, and these thoughts overflow in this generation of people who can’t let go of their outmoded ideas.”


I’ve only myself to blame for this one. Chapter Two gives us the Backstory Conference, and we’ve seen that device before. Alarm bells should have started ringing right there and then.

The dialogue. Oh good lord, the dialogue. All the worldbuilding and exposition is achieved through dialogue, and while that’s usually a better way of doing it than in narrator infodumps, it still has to be actually readable. You’d obviously prefer it to sound like something a real person would actually say at some point, but you’d settle for just being able to read it without experiencing genuine physical discomfort. Discussions are often between more than two people, and it’s equally often less than clear who is meant to be saying what. The flow is terrible and really inhibits development of plot and character.

The timeline is all screwy, too. This is set a few decades into the future – about 2040 as far as I can tell – and yet it seems like the present day is basically Ancient Egypt, it’s so alien:

              “If I recall, he was into what I think was called cel animation. He did collect that. We’re talking about artifacts from over thirty years ago.”

Over thirty years ago. ‘Artifacts.’ The character who (I think) says this was apparently born in the 20th century, which means he would be of an age with the current cohort of High School students I teach. I can certainly vouch for the fact that they’re all completely ignorant of anime, and I can see how easily such an insignificant aspect of Japanese culture would just slip out of the popular recollection like that, in much the same way as the fifty-year-olds of today are wholly ignorant of all pop-cultural phenomena prior to 1980.

More generally and less sarcastically, individual characters do eventually bludgeon their way into existence – through sheer weight of repetition if nothing else – and in fairness that quote right at the top is completely in-character for the speaker. The problem with this is that Shizue’s character synopsis probably reads: “supercilious and pedantically politically-correct exposition lady with a stick up her arse.” The additional problem is that she’s one of the two main PoV characters, so you have to spend half the book enduring a disjointed lecture from the improbable lovechild of Hermione Grainger, Lieutenant Commander Data, and Gilbert Huph.

She’s the worst of the bunch, but almost every other character also seems to have some form of autism spectrum disorder. Some more quotes for your enjoyment your edification evidence –

              “That’s even worse,” Hinako said. “A presentiment simply means there is a ‘pre’-existing ‘sentiment.’ That kind of thoughtless use of words is what damages society.”

              “I don’t know the specifics, but all living beings are programmed to behave the way they do. Rather, that’s the essence of life. Children aren’t raised because they are cute. They’re raised to protect the seeds of the future. Love is a convenient word humans devised to differentiate themselves from animals.”

              “That gongfu you busted out is a thoughtfully exquisite fighting style.”

              …the door slammed shut.
              Hazuki looked for Rey Mao’s back, though the shut door hid it.
              Needless to say, the door – a quadrilateral affair with no decorations – broadcast not one piece of information on Rey Mao’s current location, distance, or speed of departure. Nontheless, Hazuki knew implicitly that Rey Mao was going farther and farther away.

This last is by far my favourite. All the more so for being, as far as I can tell, completely straight-faced and sincere. It might be a joke, I suppose, but if so it would be one of only two in the whole book. All those quotes are by or about fourteen-year-old girls, and this is why I feel the autism comparison is actually justified. It’s often used as a lazy and not inoffensive way of saying someone’s just a bit socially inept and nerdy, but it’s pretty much the entire basis for the world posited in Loups-Garous (‘werewolves’ in French, since you asked, with the added pun on ギャル/gyaru/girl): a surveillance state where people communicate almost entirely though personal ‘monitors’ (smart phones, basically) and actual face-to-face interaction is strictly policed by the powers that be and generally avoided by all and sundry.

This is obviously teenage angst and alienation pushed to the nth degree and extended to an entire society (werewolves, you see: growth; puberty; the terrifying inevitability of change; the thin, easily cracked veneer of ‘civilization’ separating us from our bestial natures; yadda yadda). It’s so ingrained that every character seems to possess, at the very least, some form of OCD and a marked inability to function in social situations. That doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t tell a decent story. Mark Haddon and Dustin Hoffman both managed it to great effect, but that’s not the case here. It’s interminable.

              “Why are you crying? This is the first time I’ve seen anyone cry. You’re pouring liquid from your eyes.”
              “I am?”

              …Shizue felt suddenly like a hole had opened in her stomach.
              This must be what they call being sad.

              Captain Kirk, what is this thing you humans call ‘Love?’

An Artifact

I’m going to slightly bend my policy of not talking about the quality of the translation here. As always, I have nothing but awe for anyone with the linguistic skills to attempt a translation of an entire novel, let alone someone trying to parse some semblance of meaning from such a turgid mass of cod-philosophical guff as this.


I can’t help but be reminded of when I have to native-check some of my Japanese colleagues’ work. Obviously you want to end up with some beautifully crafted prose that rolls sweetly around the mouth before tripping lightly off the tongue, but oftentimes the first draft is such a stinking, clunking mess – weeping L1 interference from every sub-clause and conjunction – that it takes an inordinate amount of effort just to beat it into something with vaguely coherent grammar and sense of meaning. The ‘finished’ product bears no relation to anything a native speaker would ever produce, but it is at least comprehensible. It’d be better just to strip it all down and start again from the original, but you don’t want to risk giving offence (or exacerbate the headache you’ve inevitably acquired) so you just say, “Fuck it, at least it’s kind of understandable. That’ll do.”

I’m not accusing Anne Ishii of my level of apathy, certainly, but I can easily believe that the prissy, dull, mechanically grinding awkwardness I suspect of the original quickly reduced her to the point where ‘at least it’s kind of understandable’ represented the best outcome she could hope to achieve. And to be honest, picking out examples of the awful prose is fairly amusing, they come so thick and fast. I’ve really had to be selective with the quotes I’ve used here, and I’ve still clearly gone a little overboard with them.

Even the ‘so bad it’s good’ writing isn’t enough to keep you going for over 450 pages, though. So why keep reading? Well, a few reviews promised twists and that the plot (if nothing else) picked up towards the end, and that’s certainly true. There’s a killer on the loose, see, and Shizue’s strand of the story follows the adults who are investigating, while the other half follows that group of teenage girls as they get mixed up in affairs. The PoV character for this strand is Hazuki – she of the cunning ‘how a door works’ intuition – and as that excerpt suggests, she’s as dumb as a bag of hammers.

She’s strangely endearing though. I can’t quite work out why. Annoying as all hell, obviously, but at the heart of her character there’s such a deeply internalized lack of understanding about everything that it’s hard not to feel sympathetic and slightly protective towards her, especially as her two closest companions clearly don’t share that outward incomprehension of the world and are unafraid to expound upon their opinions. At length. One of them, Mio, despite being an über-hacker tech-nerd, is also the most socially confident character in the book which makes for a nice inversion of the standard trope, on top of which she gets the other joke, right at the death.

However, all the dialogue – all of it, both external and internal – is constantly interrogated and dissected by the narrative voice and the characters themselves. That’s a stylistic choice that’s certainly in keeping of the themes of the book, but has the unfortunate effect of making large sections nigh-on unreadable. The content of every utterance and reaction gets broken down and atomized in search of meaning and this has exactly the opposite effect. If you reduce everything down to its smallest constituent parts you’ll find they’re largely indistinguishable, just a fuzzy subatomic haze where nothing means anything anymore.

It all reminds me a little of Michel Houellobecq. Seriously. Atomized (there you are) suggests a world where cloning has removed the necessity for romantic love from human reproduction so leading to the atomization of society, and here too cloning – this time of animal proteins – widens the rift between socially acceptable behavior and the more ‘natural’, visceral side of human nature. In both books technological advancement goes hand-in-hand with a kind of desperate nihilism; achingly dysfunctional and lonely individuals isolated from the world all the while telling themselves that, ‘It’s better this way,’ despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Houellobecq though, for all that he’s a grimly depressing self-absorbed enfant terrible/shit-stirrer who’s not half as profound as he thinks he is, does at least have the ability to construct a readable sentence.

I’m really not exaggerating when I say it’s all gratingly awkward to read. The frantic final quarter is still infested with exposition-as-dialogue, the reading of which is so wince-inducing and distracting it’s like hearing polystyrene blocks rubbed together as you try to flick one off the wrist. This, remember, is in a section full of those promised twists, and where the plot doesn’t so much pick up as trip on the top step of chapter 20, stumble rapidly down the next two or three, before finally losing balance completely and careening, hooting and flailing, down the entire flight of the last 60 pages knocking shit over as it goes.

I actually quite enjoyed that bit. Blood, gore, and plasma rifles. Teenage girls kicking ass and taking names. If only that’d been the case 400 pages earlier.

This is not a book without interesting ideas, but they’re spread too thinly and are not enough to forgive all the other problems. There are (eventually) a couple of engaging characters and the dénouement is fun but moronic, and falls very far short of repaying the investment expected to get there. And, of course, it’s all smothered by a thick, crunching slurry of impossible and downright ugly language. One more example of which I can’t resist sharing with you through the appropriately impersonal and tired medium of an internet meme -


  1. Capt Kirk in tha hizzouse!!


    I was preparing my car for an audio competition when the sponser told me to use a Radiohead track....I thought he was trippin'...Radiohead? For Bass clarity??

    Um...yes...oh yes..

    This track at 142 dB = WIN!!

    I used it to set off car alarms too because the resonant freq it gives off just travels

    good times!!

    1. See what you've done now? Despite already owning almost everything they've done, I've just spent far too much time looking at Radiohead videos on youtube.

      Plus youtube and my laptop speakers don't really do it justice. Still, a low fidelity Radiohead track is better than a high fidelity track by most other people. Good times indeed, thanks for that :)

    2. No..thank you! Sweet memories. That track can test the excursion of the finest low freq drivers (speakers) in the world. It absolutely abuses weak quality speakers and shows off the best ones. I woulda never had known that.

      This was the tester for High freq.

      This for Mid freq.

      When you listen to some songs at very high volume on high quality drivers you can pick up sounds that were unintended for the listener

      "At Last" performed by Etta James has the piano players foot slipping off the pedal. Only heard it in my car but it was clear. Can hear it anywhere else because the distortion comes in too soon and it gets lost.

      Background talking in the studio on many many tracks like Earth Wind and Fire's September among them. They didn't anticipate such sonic clarity when producing the tracks and the older tracks exhibit this often.

      Having an expensive system playing at ground shaking volume has little prizes that make you appreciate the money you spent even more.

      Radiohead is just sonic orgasm...the simulated kick drum is a test of the drivers response but the synthesized low key note that ...that abuses speakers and gives them fucking seizures.

      Did I say good times?

      I meant great ones...out fucking standing ones.

    3. I only know bits of this from overhearing the techs at my old job, but aren't High Frequency and Bass Clarity different thing? You use the same track for both or was that a mistaken link? Not that it's overly important, but I'm intrigued now.

      Music and smells. I love how they're such incredibly specific memory triggers. I mean, they're good for other reasons as well, but that memory thing. Yeah...

  2. The hooting and flailing bit made me spray on my keyboard. Good thing I'm at work.

    Is this a Haikasoru production? They're usually a little more solid that this appears to be.

    1. It is, yes. The only other one of theirs I've read is All You Need is Kill, so I've not got much of a sample size to draw conclusions from. For a couple more waiting to be read though, so we'll see.

      While looking through the internet for other people's ideas about this I found two things which may be of interest. One is that they made a movie out of it, which was pretty poor by all accounts. Which is a shame because I reckon a free enough adaptation could actually be pretty good. Fillet the dialogue, dump the adult chatacters, keep some of the concepts and cut to the chase quicker. There's actually a half-decent story trapped inside here.

      The second is that, annoyingly, my rapid tumble metaphor has also been done before (not for the first time ;) I found this blog a few weeks back, and something tells me you might appreciate it.

    2. Your tumble metaphor was better. I've now bookmarked that blog and will be perusing her archives in coming days.

      I would recommend Harmony as the best Haikasoru book; it seems like something you'd like. I also (unlike this other blogger) really like Mardock Scramble, but that will likely depend on your opinions of cyberpunk. I doubt you'd enjoy the Nagatama tales. They're a bit wimpy.

      And with that, my kids have turned Just Dance 4 and One Direction on again, so I'd best sign off and go regulate.

    3. Harmony's actually one of the ones on the pile. I might bump it nearer the top now. Thanks.

      My kids are too young for One Direction, thank christ. I'm sure it's just a matter of time before I find their music flat-out objectionable. And so the world turns.