Friday, 9 January 2015

The Cage of Zeus

(January 2015)

Before we begin, I’m going to refer you back to a previous post, specifically the opening paragraph, which I think must now stand as my standard disclaimer for Japanese SF. All clear? Good. So you’ll understand why I wasn’t expecting great things from this in terms of craft, but even so the first few pages of The Cage of Zeus must count as one of the most inelegant, leaden, and bluntly cack-handed opening scenes I’ve ever read in a professionally published novel.

It’s not that the exposition is entirely info-dumptastic, for while it is, that’s pretty much par for the course. It’s just that it’s info-dumping in what is essentially a prologue, where you’d normally expect to find something in the way of a narrative hook, something left unexplained or unknown to compel the reader to turn the page. Spattering it with crudely formed lumps of worldbuilding is the opposite of this. Worse, on the fourth page of the story some kind of hook is attempted, resulting in this, as two agents attempt to persuade an apparently retired assassin into one last hit:

“We’ve taken something you treasure above everything else hostage. If you refuse the job, the hostage will die.
“I have no family or friends that can be taken hostage.”
“You’re wrong. There’s one thing you refuse to abandon. Something you’d give your own life to protect.” Morgan whispered the name of the hostage. He explained just how he would kill the hostage if she refused the job.

It’s hardly ‘Rosebud’ is it? I mean come on; exactly how many times does this Morgan character need to tell his mark how much they value the hostage? Surely the whole point of taking such a hostage would be that their value was indubitable, in which case why is he reiterating (twice!) information the other character already fucking knows? And then the whispering of “the name”. Fucking hell. If you’re going to withhold information in order to create tension at least try to not do it in such a pathetically transparent fashion. At least try to credit the reader with some sort of intuition and initiative, instead of shitting all over their suspension of disbelief as you work a narrative tease with all the graceful dexterity of a drunk teen fingering their girlfriend in a pub car park.

The lack of faith in the reader (that hostage explanation is repeated word-for-word on page 138, lest any of us had forgotten) and inept handling of nuance continue over the rest of the book, and unfortunately extend beyond the stylistic to the thematic. At this point I’m going to rein in the snark a bit, because while I think that shitty narration is absolutely fair game, arguably the whole point of fiction in general, and Science Fiction in specific, is to allow for exploration of ideas with greater freedom than in the real. In this exploratory sense the core conceit of The Cage of Zeus is excellent, and I can detect none of the self-serving irony a more ‘sophisticated’ author might have deployed in an attempt to deflect potential criticism. Ueda is, as far as I can tell, making a genuine and honest attempt to explore the issues she raises, and honest conceptual engagement is always a positive, however clumsily it is handled or misguided the conclusions. Ripping on that would just make me feel cheap.

OK, cheaper.

Anyway, as part of its drive to colonize the solar system, humankind has started to dabble in genetic engineering, creating a new strain of hermaphroditic people called ‘Rounds’; the theory being that if everyone is capable of bearing children this will reduce conflict and make establishing new worlds that much more efficient. Normal people have reacted to this in the way people who consider themselves ‘normal’ so often will, with a mixture of incomprehension, confusion, and disgust. This has resulted in the establishment of a space laboratory in the orbit of Jupiter (the titular Cage of Zeus), where the Rounds and their ‘Monaural’ creators and guardians exist in a state of mutual suspicion. News filters through of a terrorist plot against the station, and an extra security detail is sent in, adding to tensions. All of this is explained over the first third of the book in a single, interminable infodump, in which the new security team acclimatize themselves and the reader with the station and its politics through interactions that consist of various two-dimensional characters expositing at each other. And just when some are threatening to become 3D the attack occurs; thus the second half of the book is largely the same as the first but with explosions.

The weaknesses in characterization carry over into the conceptual explorations; because the characters are so thinly drawn they exist only as blatant straw-men (and whatever the equivalent is of straw-men that you agree with). This makes it hard to care about what they think, and the overt manner in which these characters represent various ‘positions’ on gender make the flaws in those thoughts more apparent and less forgivable, and ensures that attribution of faulty logic inescapably rests with the author and not her characters. The principal and rather glaring problem is that, for all that the novel makes token gestures towards the conception of gender as a social construct, it still buys in wholeheartedly to notions of biological essentialism. Everything in this novel, everything, comes down to whether people have a cock or a fanny, or both. In a book explicitly posited on non-binary constructions the conflicts are still resolutely two-way: multi- versus monogenitaled, new humans versus old, us/them, uchi/soto.

At the risk of indulging in a bit of cultural essentialism myself, I’m going to say that this is a very Japanese way of looking at things. One of the most stubborn national myths the Japanese weave about themselves is that of Harmony; that they and their nation are a single, homogeneous, indivisible entity of one mind and one heart. This is demonstrable bollocks of course, but its acceptance and propagation by many Japanese people encourages an essentialist, dualistic view of human relations, whereby the world exists in concentric circles of people who belong to your group and those who don’t. Those who are in are ‘normal’ just like you, by whatever definition you are currently using (age, race, sex, etc); those who are out are fundamentally unknowable, and are thus treated with a sort of polite confusion, suspicion bordering on the contempt, or outright hatred.

These attitudes are obviously not unique to or universal in Japan, but they are manifested particularly strongly here, and all are rehearsed in The Cage of Zeus. Character is a product of biology, and those who are different are unfathomable. I lost track of how many times various Monaural characters tried to categorise the Rounds they encountered; how many endless discussions they had with each other about whether X was more male than female, or vice versa; the incessant, almost obsessive need to pigeonhole people into the ‘correct’ category from the first encounter, regardless of how little import that assignment might bear on subsequent interaction. The one saving grace was that in all the brouhaha about plumbing no one had time to ask about age or blood type.

In one way I actually have a fair degree of sympathy for this. If you come from a relatively homogenous background then the first time you meet people who are markedly different it is only natural to have your curiosity piqued, but with each subsequent meeting the unusual becomes usual and you move past the surface to the substance. Unless, of course, you continue to insist that the surface is what matters most, that the package is more important than the contents, and each subsequent meeting sees you reiterating the same slightly gormless shock that such people could even exist. The ceaseless circling around the same issues does nothing to dispel the impression that it’s the latter attitude which holds here. With a lighter touch, a more coherent structure, and less thunderously dull repetition, The Cage of Zeus could have been an interesting and imaginative exploration of genuinely important issues. As it is, it’s like eavesdropping on an elderly relative telling your lesbian cousin, as they do every Christmas, ‘not to worry’ because she’s ‘just not found the right man yet’; you know they mean well, but it’s equally obvious that on some fundamental level they’re just not getting it.



  1. So... I won't read it. Sigh... Look, there's a more literate point than the one I'm going to make, more culturally sensitive, comprehensive and less overarching: but Japanese literature sucks. All of it. It fucking blows. It's boring, stupid, poorly written, unedited and without a single compelling character: the lot. Whether their SF, Genji, Kawabata, Mishima or various Murasaki, it isn't worth the time. I stopped reading the shit after giving it too many chances the final straw being Oe's 'A Private Matter': an asshole drives around Tokyo with his flippant mistress trying to get a doctor to kill his disabled infant by his wife, who wants no such thing. Oe's real son is that child!

    Movie anime and chambara on the other hand, especially from Ghibli and Kurosawa, makes Western cinema good/evil dichotomy, triumph against impossible odds, look completely infantile.

    Oh, I also have a soft-spot for Endo Shusaku, but as a Christian Japanese, like a German Jew or an Armenian from Turkey, it's almost impossible for him not to have something compelling to say.

  2. Not something I'm likely to read, but an interesting take-down nonetheless ;)

    As for the comment above - um, well, no. Basically.

    1. In one way I find the similarity in cross-cultural SF weaknesses to be quite reassuring. Another point against the whole nohonronjinron thing.

      Actually, as I write this a thought occurs. If SF is basically about social change, is it a reflection on Japan's relative social stagnation that even relatively recent SF is still rehearsing stuff that got bypassed in the West a few decades past? Hmmm. That needs fleshing out at a later date.

      Sorry, rambling now. As you were :)

  3. What an interesting review! You've intelligently explained exactly why I should stay away from this book - so rare in blog reviews. Thank you!

    I also second Tony's response to the first comment. There are some books from every country that are terrible, but also many excellent ones.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting (and so flatteringly as well). There's enough interesting conceptual stuff going on in the first half of this that you can, if you force yourself, forgive how clunky it is. Sadly the second half doesn't really advance the arguments at all. Not something I'd recommend to people who read primarily for the love of language. Or character. Or plot. Or...

  4. You are both as entitled to your opinions as am I: 'matter of taste', etc. With the exception of Endo, whose merits I identify more of the nature of outsider than of Japanese, I've had a long and various streak of bad luck with Japanese authors.

    1. You guys are all adults and well capable of conducting this discussion without my sticking my oar in. I will just mention though that Ant is a regular round here and a noted misanthrope ;) My own personal feeling is that he plays this aspect of his character up slightly (don't we all online?), so I wouldn't take any of his more provocative statements to heart. Especially on, as he says, 'matters of taste'.

    2. It's a funny thing about human nature that what I praised is skipped over entirely: anime and movies far more worthwhile and 'literary' than their modern novelists.

  5. Thank you for dredging up an awkward and brain melting memory of my brother in law going off on my wife about how the Japanese are all One and The Platonic Ideal of Unity Incarnate and that's why everyone should just buck up and have more babies, or something like that, over dinner.

    I need to find an indisputably brilliant JSF novel soon to restore my faith. Know if any?

    1. Ah, the in-laws. It's such a cliché that it'd be funny, if you didn't actually have to deal with it, of course.

      As for recommendations, nothing immediately springs to mind, I'm afraid. You're well aware of my travails with J-SF. Much as I enjoy giving Ant a little gentle ribbing, I can definitely see where he's coming from. I'm not quite at his level of absolutism just yet, but am definitely starting to feel that, absent some major change in generic (or at least publishing) fashions, my reading of the J-SF is going to be more valuable for the critiques it produces rather than the actual experience itself, if that doesn't sound too pompous.

    2. No, I can see where you're coming from. I have hopes for the Bento Books edition of Many Many Sheep (odd name for a space opera), and there are a few books I picked up on my last trip that show promise, but a lot of the Haikasoru offerings are mixed at best.

      Did you ever take a look at The Navidad Incident? Not SF really, but possibly to your liking.

    3. Not yet. Seems to be quite pricey that one, and I'm having no luck ethically sourcing it from other places. Definitely looks interesting though.