Shuna no tabi (The Journey of Shuna)

shuna-no-tabi

Title: シュナの旅 (Shuna no tabi)
English Title: The Journey of Shuna
Author: Miyazaki Hayao (宮崎 駿)
Publication Year: 1983
Publisher: Animage Bunko
Pages: 149

This guest review is written by L.M. Zoller (@odorunara on Twitter).

Shuna no tabi (The Journey of Shuna) is a short watercolor manga by Studio Ghibli director Miyazaki Hayao. Shuna is not only the precursor to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, but also to Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä’s spiritual successor. It contains many of the themes that define Miyazaki’s oeuvre, such as the relationship between humans and nature, human rights, and pacifism.

Shuna is a prince from a small nation in a valley where food cannot grow easily and the people and animals are starving. One day, an injured old traveler wanders into his community. Before the man dies, he tells Shuna about a place where golden grain grows in abundance and gives him some seeds that a traveler gave him when he was a young man. Shuna decides to set off on a journey in search of the grain with Yakuul, his red antelope. Along the way, he fights slave traders and thieves and rescues a young woman, Thea, and her sister from slavery in the castle town of Dorei. They outrun the slave traders and eventually part ways. Thea and her sister go to a town in the north where they live with an old lady. Thea farms, raises animals, and weaves. Meanwhile, Shuna enters a forest full of giant green humanoids who become the forest when they die. The giants are people sold into slavery who are transformed into giants in an organic machine with the help of the Moon, who appears almost like a mask in the sky and appears to be a deity or other supernatural creature. Shuna finds the fabled golden grain in the forest, but his journey back to Thea and her sister is more difficult than anticipated.

Fans of Miyazaki’s work will be delighted to discover the prototypes for certain themes and scenes from both Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke in Shuna no tabi. While the story is certainly more simplistic than the works it inspired, there’s still a lot going on beneath the surface. What is the machine that turns people into forest giants? If the Moon is a god, are there other gods? What relationship do the slave traders have with the Moon?

Additionally, many illustrations from Shuna no tabi were later recalled in Miyazaki’s animation. A scene of Shuna eating while looking at some fox-squirrels in the forest is reused in Nausicaä, whose heroine eats with her pet fox-squirrel Teto in an identical pose. After Shuna leaves the city, he encounters and camps with an old man who tells him to go west to find the grain, a scene that is used again in Mononoke when Ashitaka camps with the monk Jiko, who tells him the iron bullet he found came from the west. The old man’s character design is reused for a priest in Nausicaä as well. The aesthetic elements of the Valley of the Wind also have their origins in Shuna no tabi, particularly the formal wear of the northern village and the murals in Shuna’s home. Some of the illustrations depicting the forest, especially the image of the flowers growing out of Shuna’s gun, were later reused in Mononoke.

From the perspective of gender representation, one thing I’ve noticed and admired in many of Miyazaki’s works is that he doesn’t use extreme sexual dimorphism – that is, his young adult male and female protagonists tend to be built alike. Shuna and Thea look nearly identical in body shape and facial features, and they both resemble Nausicaä and Ashitaka. While Miyazaki’s character designs for middle-aged characters feature more differences in height and build, the dimorphism is nowhere as extreme as it is in Disney and Pixar films (and for that, this genderqueer reviewer is grateful).

The biggest difference between Shuna no tabi and the works that followed it, however, is Miyazaki’s commitment to pacifism. Shuna spends a lot of time defending himself by shooting at people with his gun, and at the end of the story the village in the north still has to use guns to defend their land. In contrast, both Nausicaä and Ashitaka commit acts of violence in the beginning of their stories, mostly in self-defense. These experiences directly shape their commitment to pacifism as they both try to end the violence surrounding them; Nausicaä’s goal is to end a war between the kingdom of Tolkmekia and its colonies, while Ashitaka does his best to intervene in a conflict between Tataraba (Iron Town) and the deities of the forest. This is not to say that these characters refuse to commit violence, but that the narrative tone regarding violence shifts significantly as their stories develop.

The watercolor images are gorgeously rendered, and all the pages are in full color. My only complaint with the publication quality of the book is that the text, which is often printed directly onto the images instead of in word bubbles, can sometimes be hard to read, especially when the text is printed in white or blue ink. Adding the standard border and background to set off the text from the surrounding image would have eliminated this difficulty, albeit at the expense of preserving the full glory of the paintings.

I recommend Shuna no tabi primarily for fans of Miyazaki’s films who want to explore his earlier work. Shuna no tabi has not been translated into English, but it is written at a middle school level of language and should be accessible to readers with a high intermediate proficiency in Japanese. I would evaluate the Japanese at an N2 level, more so for the vocabulary than for the grammar. There isn’t a lot of violence in Shuna no tabi, but its depictions of slavery and starvation may be uncomfortable for some readers.

* * * * *

L.M. Zoller is a former JET CIR with an MA in Japan Studies. Ze wrote zir senior thesis on moral development theory in Miyazaki’s films and has probably seen Princess Mononoke 100 times (no joke). L.M. blogs about media and gender at The Lobster Dance (@odorunara) and food, sexuality, and gender at I’ll Make It Myself! (@illmakeitmyself).

shuna-no-tabi-page-93

Biogenesis

Biogenesis

Title: Biogenesis
Author: Ishiguro Tatsuaki (石黒 達昌)
Translators: Brian Watson and James Balzer
Publication Year: 2015 (America); 1994, 2000, and 2006 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 240

Biogenesis collects four stories by Ishiguro Tatsuaki, who is both a practicing medical doctor and an acclaimed writer of horror-themed science fiction.

The book is dominated by the first story, “It is with the Deepest Sincerity that I Offer Prayers…” which takes the form of a scientific report (tables and endnotes and all) on a species of winged mice that have suddenly disappeared from their habitat in Hokkaido. The report focuses on the activities of Dr. Akedera Nobuhiko, an AIDS researcher employed under somewhat shady circumstances to “preserve the cellular and genetic information” of the vanishing species. Akedera was apparently so fascinated by what he found in the process that he insisted on undertaking ecological research as well, recording accounts of sightings and deaths.

Akedera was able to draw a number of unsettling conclusions from this data. First, the winged mice seem to die in waves. Second, there are unusual patterns regarding their movements and seasonal behavior. Third, many of the people who have documented and captured winged mice attest to a strange glow either emanating from their bodies or otherwise present when and where they gather. Finally, live mice are most often found and photographed by or in the prescence of human children.

Akedera is sent back to Tokyo, but he continues to involve himself with research and preservation efforts, which result in the discovery that cultures of winged mice cells exhibit startling tendencies and may even possibly be immortal. What exactly is going on with this species – and what exactly drove Akedera’s intense interest?

The dry tone of the story’s scientific prose forms a gorgeous ironic contrast to the fantastic nature of what it relates, and the reader is encouraged to employ her own analytical acumen to excavate a number of details from between the lines. The typeface used for this story, which lends it the air of an unpublished manuscript, is a nice metadiegetic touch.

The second story in the collection, “Snow Woman,” begins with a clinical description of hypothermia. The narrative quickly moves to a discussion of a medical condition called “idiopathic hypothermia,” in which an individual’s stable body temperature is about 15°F lower than normal, which suggests “the possibility of an extended lifespan due to lower metabolism.” This information serves as an introduction to a scholarly account of the discovery of the condition and the mysterious death of the army doctor who published the first paper about it in the 1920s. This doctor, Koho Yuhki (which is the name he published under in German), had been stationed at a mountain clinic in Hokkaido, where he had been instructed to investigate cures for frostbite.

At a certain point during his studies, Yuhki was presented with a woman who had entered a coma after falling asleep in her woodshed in subzero conditions. Although she regained consciousness, her body temperature never rose above 86°F, and any attempts to return it to normal were met by a dangerous drop in her blood pressure. The scientific community considered Yuhki’s published findings a hoax; but, in 1997, a number of army documents were declassified, revealing that his case study was even stranger than it seemed.

“Snow Woman” is written almost exactly like a scholarly essay, so much so that Ishiguro almost managed to convince me that “idiopathic hypothermia” is real. Seriously, I had to google it.

The science fiction subgenre of providing rational explanations for seemingly supernatural phenomena is not new, but Ishiguro handles the “science” elements more deftly than any other writer I’ve encountered. The metadiegetic elements he incorporates into each story imbue the experience of reading them with an extra touch of thrill and wonder, as if you yourself have stumbled onto a rare and bizarre scientific breakthrough, perhaps by having slipped ever so slightly into a parallel universe in which such things were truly possible.

The third and fourth stories in Biogenesis are equally intriguing, but I’ll leave you the pleasure of discovering them for yourself. Ishiguro’s fiction is as much about the art of science as it is about the pleasures and potential of the unexplainable, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that more of his work finds its way into English soon.

10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights

10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights

Title: 10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights
Japanese Title: 百億の昼と千億の夜 (Hyakuoku no hiru to senoku no yoru)
Author: Mitsuse Ryū (光瀬 龍)
Translators: Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander
Publication Year: 2011 (America); 1967 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 284

According to a 2006 poll published in Hayakawa SF Magazine, 10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights ranked at the top of the list of science fiction novels originally published in Japanese. I can’t say for certain whether 10 Billion Days is the “greatest” Japanese science fiction novel of all time (or what that would even mean), but it certainly is epic. The writing (and translation) are beautiful, and there are some interesting ideas floating around as well.

Also, 10 Billion Days has an entire chapter devoted to a cyborg deathmatch between Buddha and Jesus. It’s awesome.

This review will contain spoilers. The concept of “spoilers” doesn’t really apply to this novel, as its narrative tension is generated more by speculation and atmosphere than it is by plot, but be warned. If you’d like the point of the review here at the beginning, here you go: I love this book and you should totally read it. It’s not perfect, and it will try (and reward!) your patience, but it will stay in your memory for years. The short commentary by Oshii Mamoru (the director of the landmark animated sci-fi film Ghost in the Shell) is of interest as well, especially to fans of Japanese pop culture.

The premise of 10 Billion Days is that all life on earth has been painstakingly curated by an extraterrestrial (and possibly extradimensional) entity that may not be benevolent. Some characters are aiding it, some characters are opposing it, and some characters are merely trying to understand it. What is clear is that our world is very small and unimportant on the sort of cosmic scale suggested by the novel’s title.

After a prologue that sets the tone by emphasizing the eternal passage of time across aeons, the novel opens with a dramatic description of the struggles of the first fish to walk on land. At the end of the chapter, it is revealed that this creature is being monitored and gradually enhanced by highly advanced technology.

The next chapter skips to Plato, who is seeking the mysteries of Atlantis. What he finds is that the gods are real, and frighteningly so. The next chapter focuses on Siddhārtha, and the next on Jesus of Nazareth. Both God and the Buddha realms are real, but these early seekers of truth can only see a fraction of the picture and describe it in terms they can understand.

The first half of the book is dedicated to creating an air of mystery and adventure. For example, when Plato arrives at the village where the last descendants of the people who fled Atlantis live, this is how Mitsuse sets the scene:

Far across the sea of burnt yellow sand, the fading sun had set halfway, sending its rays upward to paint the high clouds blood red. Crimson spread out across the darkening sky even as night seeped from the eastern horizon toward the vault of heaven, reddish-gray melding with crimson blue. The wind was completely still, and the twilight pooled like heavy oil upon the sand. There was not a sound. Plato wondered what the people who lived inside the stone houses of the village must be doing for such silence to reign – not a single spoken word, no faint echo of evening song. All was filled with the barren quiet of the sand sea and the silence that comes with the death of something long forgotten, unchanged for thousands of years. (49)

This passage is interesting not only for its lovely imagery but also because of its treatment of one of the main themes of the novel, which is that all civilizations will eventually fade into shadows of their former selves. This theme is visually translated at key points in the story, in which the spotlessly clean metal of a future space city is just as desolate as an ancient desert.

The second half of the novel tessellates to the year 3905, in which the entire planet has become a wasteland. Just as the cyborg fish of the first chapter cautiously made its way onto land, cyborg Siddhārtha (yes, really!) emerges from the ocean into the ruins of Tokyo, where cyborg Plato (who is now calling himself Orionae) fills him in on the situation. As the two are talking, they are accosted by Jesus, who also turns out to be a cyborg – a dirty cyborg with rotting teeth a gross clothes. So a cyborg zombie, then. And then they fight! I promise this is just as ridiculous as it sounds. There are some great lines during this section, such as…

Siddhārtha gingerly extended his tri-D antenna from the crack in the wall, searching for his foe. (181)

…and…

Glumly, Jesus admitted to himself that his attack had probably failed to destroy his enemy. (194)

Just roll with it, okay?

Siddhārtha and Orionae (in other words, Buddha and Plato) are joined by a non-organic lifeform in the shape of an adolescent girl, who is called “Asura” after the eternally warring god-kings of the Hindu and Buddhist faiths. Asura had earlier revealed herself to Siddhārtha, claiming she is fighting the entity that Jesus understands to be God, and at the end of the novel she takes him and Orionae on a journey through space to meet and hopefully defeat this being. What follows is a series of battles and revelations that progressively mount in scope and impact throughout the last eighty pages of the book. Like the beginning of the universe itself, this novel is a massive explosion.

10 Billion Days is not a perfect book, and at times it moves through complicated and nuanced religious and philosophical topics quickly and with an absolute minimum of narrative grounding. I will also admit that I find the actual story unsatisfying. However, the strength of 10 Billion Days lies in the questions it raises in the mind of the reader. These questions are almost classically existential. In an uncaring and absurd universe, how can an individual find meaning and hope?

The weekly speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons will be hosting a roundtable discussion of 10 Billion Days in October, and I’m honored to be one of the participants. I have strong feelings and opinions about this novel, and I’m looking forward to learning what the other discussants think. There’s a lot going on in this book; and, if nothing else, it’s a fantastic conversation starter.

All You Need Is Kill

All You Need Is Kill

Title: All You Need Is Kill
Japanese Title: オール・ユー・ニード・イズ・キル (Ōru yū nīdo izu kiru)
Author: Sakurazaka Hiroshi (桜坂 洋)
Translator: Joseph Reeder with Alexander O. Smith
Publication Year: 2009 (America); 2004 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 200

Although I read and very much enjoyed Sakurazaka Hiroshi’s virtual reality gaming novel Slum Online, I was not interested in All You Need Is Kill, even after watching Emily Blunt do endless sexy pushups in Edge of Tomorrow. I have trouble with prison stories, and army stories are like prison stories except worse.

After hearing Akiko Hirao give a paper titled “All You Need Is Kill: Deciphering the Game Elements in the Novel and Film” at the Japanese and Korean Mediascapes conference at the University of Oregon this summer, however, I knew I had to give the book a shot. Drawing on Henry Jenkins’s essay Game Design as Narrative Architecture, Hirao outlined how the structure of the novel’s narrative evokes the experience of playing a video game but ultimately bows to the demands of fiction as a storytelling medium.

The main protagonist of All You Need Is Kill is Kiriya Keiji, a recent high school graduate who enrolled in the United Defense Force after he was romantically rejected by an older woman. Since he has no other ambitions, he decides to prove himself by joining humanity’s fight against alien invaders called Mimics. After spending six months training to fight in a special armored exoskeleton called a Jacket, Keiji is deployed to the Flower Line Base at the southern tip of the Bōsō peninsula (in Chiba Prefecture, on the east side of Tokyo Bay). The novel opens with Keiji’s swift death in his first battle and continues when he wakes up alive and unharmed – but with all of his memories – that same morning. After falling in battle three more times, Keiji realizes that he is caught in a time loop that is reset by his death. He decides that the only way out is to not die, but that’s easier said than done.

I found Keiji to be a bit generic. Even though I just finished reading All You Need Is Kill, I couldn’t tell you exactly how old Keiji is, or where he grew up, or what his relationship with his parents was like, or whether he had any friends, or what his interests and hobbies are. For the first one hundred pages of the novel, all the reader gets is Keiji the soldier in a time loop. He is bitter, introverted, and fairly introspective, but he seems to act as more of a substitute for the reader than as a character in his own right. Keiji is a video game protagonist, and his musings are the musings of a video game character on the game world he occupies:

At the end of the day, every man has to wipe his own ass. There’s no one to make your decisions for you, either. And whatever situation you’re in, that’s just another factor in your decision. Which isn’t to say that everyone gets the same range of choices as everyone else. If there’s no one guy out there with an ace in the hole, there’s sure to be another who’s been dealt a handful of shit. Sometimes you run into a dead end. But you walked each step of the road that led you there on your own. (54)

As the passage above illustrates, the language used by Keiji and his fellow soldiers is rough; but, as far as military diction goes, it’s fairly tame. There’s “fucking” but no “cunting” or “cock-sucking,” for example. I feel like an especially good opportunity was missed in the author’s failure to assign a creative and obscene nickname for the Mimics. The banter between the soldiers is stale, and Keiji doesn’t take advantage of his consecutive time loops to come up with good one-liners to use against his superior officers or the jerks who try to pick fights with him in the cafeteria, which for some reason is actually referred to as a “cafeteria” instead of a “mess hall,” “cookhouse,” “DFAC,” or any number of other military slang terms. The blandness of the language is indicative of how uninterested the novel is in building a world beyond Keiji’s limited range of experience.

This all changes in the novel’s third chapter, which takes the American Major Rita Vrataski as its point-of-view character. The nineteen-year-old Rita became the Mimic-destroying “Full Metal Bitch” after being caught in a time loop of her own; and, unlike Keiji, she actually has a personality. Rita verbally spars with a war photographer named Ralph Murdoch, lets down her guard down around an engineer named Shasta Rayelle, and remembers her childhood in Pittsfield, Illinois, offering glimpses not just into her inner world but out onto the wider world as well. In her paper, Hirao referred to Rita as an NPC (“non-player character” in a game), and this description is apt, as it is through Rita that the player/reader learns more about the nature of the conflict that drives the novel. What are the Mimics? Where do they come from? How can they best be fought? What’s up with this time loop business anyway? Rita doesn’t have all the answers, but she’s got some pretty good guesses.

Rita also has some cool passages in her section, such as when Shasta says…

“America’s at war, and we still find the time to turn out terrible movies.”

Rita couldn’t argue with that. The UDF existed to protect a world obsessed with creating worthless piles of crap, Rita thought. (130)

Preach it, sisters.

The fourth and final section of the novel switches back to Keiji’s perspective, which is a shame, because at the end of the story he becomes the video game hero he was meant to be, which is to say that he is awarded his own tragic backstory. If you’ve ever played any video game ever, you can probably guess how this happens: A woman has to get fridged, and it has to be the woman Keiji falls in love with despite the fact that she doesn’t have a great deal of choice in the matter. It’s a really stupid ending. To make matters worse, the author is too lazy to expand on any of the implications of this ending beyond the fact that Keiji becomes the warrior he never wanted to be. He is a troubled teenager, hear his angst.

In his Afterword, the author explains how is inspiration for All You Need Is Kill did indeed come from a life spent playing video games, writing,

I’m just an ordinary guy, and I’m proud of it. I’m here because I put in the time. I have the blisters on my fingers to prove it. It had nothing to do with coincidence, luck, or the activation of my […] powers. I reset the game hundreds of times until my special attack finally went off perfectly. Victory was inevitable. (199)

The Afterword contains one of the more interesting passages in the entire book, as Sakurazaka is fairly negative both towards video games and the people who play them. Okay buddy, whatever.

If you’re curious about what a video game with all of its gameplay mechanics intact would look like in novel form, look no farther. I thought Slum Online was much more entertaining and skillfully constructed in its representation of what it means to be a video game protagonist, but All You Need Is Kill has the advantage of being short and fast-paced. Also, it’s got forty gorgeous pages full of Rita Vrataski, which is not enough but better than nothing.

I want to give a big thanks to Akiko Hirao for her wonderful and insightful paper on this novel, and I hope to encounter more of her work soon!

Sword Art Online: Aincrad

Sword Art Online: Aincrad

Title: Sword Art Online: Aincrad
Japanese Title: ソードアート・オンライン: アインクラッド
(Sōdo Āto Onrain: Ainkuraddo)
Author: Kawahara Reki (川原 礫)
Translator: Stephen Paul
Illustrations: abec
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 2009 (Japan)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 248

Before I begin this review, I feel I should admit that I only made it through five episodes of the Sword Art Online animated series. The show involves an inordinate amount of yelling and boob grabbing, and watching it gave me a headache. Despite the fact that I am quickly becoming an old woman who has lost her patience with screaming teenagers and fan service, the show was fairly popular in both Japan, where more than 35,000 DVDs have been sold (in a market in which few titles break the ten thousand mark), and in America, where it was hailed as one of the smartest shows to come out in 2012. The Sword Art Online anime is based on a light novel series, which achieved bestseller status in the year the anime was televised. Sword Art Online: Aincrad is a translation of the first novel in the series, which is currently on its fourteenth volume.

Sword Art Online: Aincrad takes place in the fantasy world of Aincrad, an enormous castle with one hundred floors that serves as the setting of an immersive virtual reality MMORPG game called Sword Art Online (SAO). Released in 2022, SAO is the first game of its kind in that players are able to fully enter the virtual world through special hardware called NerveGear, which intercepts all brain activity and leaves the player’s physical body in a dormant state. As might be imagined, the game completely sells out on the day of its release.

As the new players orient themselves on the first floor of Aincrad, however, they receive a nasty surprise. Kayaba Akihiko, the game’s executive producer and head programmer, appears in the sky above the Town of Beginnings and announces that players will not be able to log out of the game until the final boss monster on the top floor of Aincrad is defeated. If someone from outside the game attempts to remove or unplug a player’s NerveGear helmet, the player will die. Even more troubling, if a player dies in the game, his NerveGear will send an electric shock to his brain that will result in death. It is thus in the best interests of the roughly ten thousand players trapped within Aincrad to master SAO and beat the game as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to progress through the game, especially since its high stakes discourage risk taking, and the players have already been in Aincrad for two years when the main story begins.

The novel is narrated from the perspective of a teenager named Kirigaya Kazuto, who goes by the name Kirito in SAO. Kirito was one of the game’s one thousand beta players and, although he was only fourteen years old when he first entered Aincrad, he is already a veteran gamer. He is thus quite adept at the game mechanics and has managed to develop an ability called “Extra Skill Dual Blades,” which is unique to him as a player. Although Kirito wants to be able to return to the real world, he declines to work with the player guilds that have sprung up as collaborative efforts to progress through the game, instead fighting and gaining experience on his own. He gradually warms to a slightly older teenager named Yūki Asuna, who serves as a sub-leader of the Knights of the Blood guild and is popularly known as “Asuna the Flash” because of her high speed statistic. The trust and friendship between Kirito and Asuna gradually deepens over the first half of the novel, which is ultimately less sci-fi suspense or action adventure than it is a fantasy-themed love story.

Although there is plenty of action in Sword Art Online: Aincrad, world building is neglected in favor of establishing a romantic relationship between Kirito and Asuna. The reader is told that Algade, the city on the 50th floor of Aincrad, is reminiscent of Akihabara, and that Collinia, the city on the 75th floor, looks like ancient Roman city, but that’s about all there is in the way of description. What, specifically, does it mean that these cities “look like” other places – what are their styles of architecture, how are their streets laid out, do they any public monuments? How big are these cities? How big is each floor of the castle beyond the cities? What sort of trees and other plants grow on each floor? Are there pets or other domesticated animals? What sort of monsters do the players fight? What do the dungeons look like? We know the players can eat in the game, but what do they eat? We know there are healing potions, but what do they taste like? When magical crystals are used as items, what does it feel like? Can the players smell things? Can they feel temperature and humidity? Are certain textures pixelated or repetitive, and if so do the players notice? The reader is provided with few details that might serve to make the world of the novel more (or less) real.

Some visual detail is provided by eight color illustrations at the beginning of the book and ten black-and-white illustrations interspersed unevenly throughout the chapters, but these illustrations have a strong emphasis on character design. The illustrator abec, whose special skill seems to be depicting the springy softness of braless breasts through school uniforms (the link to his blog is not work safe, by the way), seems to be especially enamored of Asuna, who gets a full two illustrations in nothing but her underwear, one of which is overlaid with text in which she asks Kirito/the reader not to look at her. Even without such illustrations, the novel feels more than a bit like an extended romantic fantasy for straight adolescent males. It goes out of its way to objectify Asuna, devoting an undue amount of text on when and how many times and under what circumstances its male protagonist is able to hook up with her. Although Asuna is supposed to be an exceptionally skilled player, her strength and abilities are only shown in relation to male characters, such as when she fights beside or cooks for Kirito. As Asuna is the only female character in the novel, Sword Art Online: Aincrad doesn’t even make it past the first portion of the Bechdel test (there are other female players in the game, but Kirito is not interested in them, stating simply that they’re unattractive and thus unworthy of attention).

Aside from its casual sexism, the narrative emphasis on Kirito’s pursuit of Asuna results in missed opportunities with other male characters as well. For example, the least utilized but perhaps most interesting character in the novel is Heathcliff, the leader of the Knights of the Blood. Why is this older man playing the game (which is something I wanted to know more about even after learning his real-life identity), and why does he act as he does? Where does his strength of character come from, and how does he honestly feel about the deaths of the players under his command? What are his motivations, and what is he escaping from in the world outside the game? Who is caring for his physical body? Unfortunately, all such questions are ignored in favor of Heathcliff acting as a vaguely defined father figure who prevents Kirito’s immediate access to Asuna.

Another potentially interesting male character is Kuradeel, a member of the Knights of the Blood who is eventually revealed to be a former member of a guild called Laughing Coffin, whose members specialize in killing other players. I am always interested in PvP (player versus player) mechanics in MMORPGs, and I’m doubly interested in what rationale might lie behind PvP conflicts in a game that can easily result in real-world death. About two-thirds of the way through the book Kuradeel snaps and allows the reader a fleeting glimpse into the depths exposed by his ebbing sanity, which would be an excellent chance to explore the negative psychological effects that would doubtlessly be engendered by the situation in which the players find themselves. But alas, Kuradeel’s role in the story is merely to act as a barrier to Asuna, and the section in which he traps Kirito and then delivers his limited exposition is only fourteen pages long. The male characters who don’t come between Kirito and Asuna, such as Kirito’s friend Klein and the shopkeeper Agil, have few speaking parts and no backstory at all.

My favorite part of Sword Art Online: Aincrad is a quiet twenty-page segment towards the end of the book that serves as a bridge into the power metal chorus of the finale. After Kirito and Asuna finally get together, they run away from the whole business of dungeons and guild politics to go on a honeymoon of sorts to the 22nd floor of Aincrad, a sparsely populated wilderness distinguished by its lakes. Between bouts of dialog that feels lifted from shōjo manga targeted at the elementary school crowd, the lovers encounter a middle-aged man named Nishida, a technician employed by Tohto Broadband, the network management company responsible for the internet access lines leading to SAO’s servers. While testing the game’s connections on its launch day, Nishida was trapped along with the players, and now he spends his time fishing. By chatting with Nishida, Kirito and Asuna are able to reflect on what their time in SAO has meant to them and why exactly they still want to leave. These conversations are also the only point in the novel at which the reader is able to pick up hints concerning what the lives of players not directly involved in Kirito’s personal drama might be like. This is as close as Sword Art Online: Aincrad gets to addressing what could have been its most interesting theme, namely, whether there is any quantifiable difference between lived experience in the real world and lived experience in a virtual world. As a sixteen-year-old boy and reader stand-in character, however, Kirito is not the least bit concerned with such matters, and the novel quickly makes an awkward leap back into fighting and yelling territory.

Although I can’t make any judgments about the anime, I can say with relative certainty that the first volume of the Sword Art Online novel series is little more than an extended romantic fantasy for straight adolescent males. In other words, if you’re a straight adolescent male and you want the girl of your dreams to fall in madly love with you because of how awesome you are at level grinding, then this book was written for you. Enjoy yourself!

If you are not in the target demographic for the series, however, you might want to give the novel a pass. Although I am given to understand that more female characters are introduced as the series progresses, there is also a fair amount of damseling. In the second volume, for example, Asuna is apparently stripped of her powers, kidnapped by a male villain, and threatened with sexualized violence in order to provide Kirito with renewed narrative impetus. That sort of ridiculous bullshit aside, however, Sword Art Online: Aincrad is a fairly entertaining read that draws the reader in with a well-blended mixture of sci-fi and fantasy elements and a compelling series of crises. Chapters are short, about ten pages on average, and the translation is smooth and meets the high standard of quality one would expect from the team at Yen Press. Whether the admittedly enjoyable “lightness” of this light novel can counterbalance the nagging sexism is up to the individual reader, however.

A good distaff counterpart to the “virtual world romance” scenario presented in Sword Art Online: Aincrad is Vivian Vande Velde’s 2002 Heir Apparent. In this short young adult novel, a teenage girl finds herself trapped in a virtual reality game with strong RPG elements, which she must escape through her own cunning and the help of the handsome teenage game developer. Since the game resets every time its player-character dies, the reader is also able to enjoy a type of The Edge of Tomorrow scenario, only with fewer explosions and sexy pushups and more political maneuvering and backstabbing. Deadly Pink, Velde’s 2012 follow-up to Heir Apparent, focuses on the love between sisters instead of romance and manages to be smart and funny while treading carefully around some surprisingly dark themes. While much of the intended appeal of Sword Art Online: Aincrad may not be of interest outside of the novel’s target demographic, I can wholeheartedly recommend Heir Apparent and Deadly Pink to any reader interested in young adult fiction and themes relating to the pleasures and perils of virtual worlds.

Ring

Ring

Title: Ring
Japanese Title: リング (Ringu)
Author: Suzuki Kōji (鈴木 光司)
Translators: Robert B. Rohmer and Glynne Walley
Publication Year: 2004 (America); 1991 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 282

In Nakata Hideo’s 1998 film adaptation of Ring, the point-of-view character for most of the story is female. This is an effective casting choice, as cinematic audiences are primed to experience danger and vulnerability through female protagonists in horror films. Suzuki Kōji’s original novel is less about thrills and chills than it is about hardcore investigative journalism, however, and its hero, Asakawa Kazuyuki, is male. The female lead in the Ring film’s husband, Takayama Ryūji, is Asakawa’s friend in the novel, which sees the two men travel across Japan in an attempt to save Asakawa’s wife and child from a deadly curse apparently connected to a mysterious bootleg videotape.

In the opening pages of the book, two creepy things happen: a teenage girl dies suddenly in her family’s apartment in Yokohama, and a boy on a motorcycle falls down dead on the road in front of a taxi. A month later, the taxi driver reports the latter incident to a random passenger, who happens to be the journalist Asakawa, whose niece happens to be the teenage girl involved in the former incident. Asakawa, upon realizing that these deaths, as well as two others, all happened at the exact same time on the exact same day, tracks down the connection between the teenagers to a cabin in the woods near the seaside resort of Atami, which is a two-hour train ride southwest of Tokyo. It is there that he encounters an unmarked videotape upon which a surreal series of images has been recorded. White letters at the end of the sequence warn that the viewer will die in a week unless a certain “charm” is performed, but the four dead teenagers recorded over the actions needed to perform this charm as a prank.

In order to figure out the charm before his time is up, Asakawa enlists his college professor friend Ryūji to help him figure out as much information concerning the origins of the tape as possible. What follows is a surprisingly unsuspenseful series of adventures in which the two men eat things, drink things, and leisurely chat with all manner of people as they gradually puzzle out the life story of Yamamura Sadako, the beautiful young woman whom they believe to be responsible for the cursed videotape. Although Ring is structured around a quest for Sadako, the novel, unlike the film adaptation, is a man’s world. The primary female characters are offstage and only glimpsed through the recollections of various male characters, who are far more interested in localized histories of science and medicine than they are in the supernatural.

The reviews excerpted on the back of the novel promise that it is “very frightening” and “an engine of disquiet” and “shocking” and “so creepy your hair will literally stand on end;” but, to be honest, I don’t think the book is that scary, and the fright factor is only a marginal portion of what it has to offer a reader. Instead, Ring unfolds as a mystery in which clues must be painstakingly tracked down one at a time as the principal players struggle to draw connections between them. It’s the search for these bits of information, as well as the thrill of hard-won eureka moments, that will keep the reader entertained, and the paranormal elements are for the most part examined in a rational and pseudo-scientific manner. The true horror of Ring does not lie in its ghosts or shocking imagery, but rather in the absolute inability of human beings to comprehend the vast and menacing world that lies outside the realm of our control.

Ring is set in the same decade in which it was written, and the condominium high-rises, mass media publications, and corporate culture of the late 1980s saturate the background of the novel. The primitive fear of disease still haunts the advanced society that provides the backdrop of Ring, however; and, although the science and technology of the age strive to contain natural forces, some things cannot be controlled. The author is able to accentuate this anxiety by continually linking the actions of Sadako’s curse with images of the natural world at its most hostile and overwhelming. For example, one of the greatest of natural forces, the sea, is a constant presence in Ring, and it only appears under the cover of darkness and in contrast to human constructions, a juxtaposition which creates an impression of a dark, brooding malice lurking beyond the boundaries of civilization. The novel opens with an image of the highly developed industrial area which lines the bay fronting the city of Yokohama:

Off to the south the oily surface of the ocean reflected the glittering lights of a factory. A maze of pipes and conduits crawled along the factory walls like blood vessels on muscle tissue. Countless lights played over the front wall of the factory like insects that glow in the dark… The factory cast a wordless shadow on the black sea beyond.

Suzuki equates the factory with humanity as he compares its bulk to a human body, endowing it with “blood vessels” and “muscle tissue.” The multitudinous lights of Yokohama at night also metaphorically dot the surface of the factory, but none of this light has any effect on the “black sea beyond.” Instead, the factory as a symbol of humanity and its ingenuity merely “cast[s] a wordless shadow” over the silent ocean, which almost seems to mock its presence.

Even with our incredible advances in technology, contemporary societies still have trouble coping with the facets of existence that lie beyond the explanations offered by science and ordinary experience. We are all insignificant and ephemeral points of light flickering on and off somewhere in a dark, callous, and unfathomably large universe. While the film and graphic novel adaptations of Ring delight in the uncanny horror of the female demonic, the horror of the original novel is more Lovecraftian. The protagonists of Ring are ultimately punished by the narrative not because they don’t strive tirelessly for information, but rather because they believe the achievement of knowledge has the capacity to help them in any way.

A reader should not come to Ring expecting the same sort of jump-horror at which its cinematic adaptations excel; there are no creepy little girls stuffed in closets or climbing out of television sets. Suzuki’s novel instead rewards intellectual engagement and curiosity, which it subtly mocks and discredits in the most terrifying of ways.

The Lord of the Sands of Time

Title: The Lord of the Sands of Time
Japanese Title: 時砂の王 (Tokisuna no Ō)
Author: Ogawa Issui (小川一水)
Translator: Jim Hubbert
Publication Year: 2009 (United States); 2007 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 196

Sometimes you get to the end of a book and wonder what just happened.

The Lord of the Sands of Time was like that for me.

Allow me to spoil the ending:

The weakness of the aliens attacking the earth is salt water.

There is also time travel involved. Androids with highly advanced artificial intelligence are sent back in time to fight seemingly mindless mechanical extraterrestrials who for some reason are bent on wiping out the human race, and it takes the best among the androids several sweeps of human history to figure out that sea water kills the aliens.

I’ll be the first to admit that premise of the novel is kind of silly, but it’s still an engrossing tale of adventure across alternate histories.

The Lord of the Sands of Time is about Orville, an android who was created on Triton, one of the last outposts of human civilization in the year 2598. Orville is one of many Messengers, who were engineered with the purpose of going back in time and saving the humanity from destruction at the metallic tentacles of an alien force from beyond the solar system, which is collectively referred to as ET.

The novel begins in Japan in the year 248, a destination at which Orville has arrived after many timestreams of trial and error. With the cooperation of Himiko, the ruler of the Kingdom of Wa, Orville tries once again to rally the human race against the ET, but the situation is dire. The ET have already overwhelmed the Asian mainland, and many of Orville’s Messenger comrades have fallen over the course of their long journey. Even worse, the ET are also capable of time travel; and, unlike the Messengers, they have the capacity to attack from space.

Every alternate chapter tells a segment of Orville’s backstory. The Messengers first came to Earth in the twenty-second century, but humanity was too busy bickering with itself to launch an effective resistance against the ET. After failing to rescue humanity in that timestream, the Messengers try again, transporting themselves to the eve of the second World War. Once again, however, humanity is too busy bickering with itself to fight the ET. The Messengers thus try again, and again, and again, their numbers decreasing as the ET use their own version of time travel to thwart them.

Although it first appears that the humans of Himiko’s timestream will also fall victim to internecine warfare and thus prove incapable of marshaling a united front against the ET, Himiko is strong willed and politically savvy enough to keep the peoples of the Japanese archipelago from killing themselves long enough to realize the full extent of the threat the ET pose. Even though Orville lends Himiko his superhuman strength and knowledge of technological advances, the outcome of this timestream seems bleak as well, and the fight will be a close one.

For the first half of the novel, tension builds steadily as Himiko deals with political machinations and Orville comes into his own as a character. The descriptions of Japan in the late Yayoi period are just as fascinating as the descriptions of the doomed yet utopian society on Triton, and Himiko’s growth as a ruler is just as compelling as Orville’s blooming love affair with Sayaka, a human woman in the Triton Defense Force, as he learns about what he is trying to protect.

Unfortunately, things begin to fall apart in the last quarter of the novel. As the narrative rushes toward its conclusion, world building and character development are neglected in favor of battle scenes. In the midst of this fighting, Orville trips and falls into bed with Himiko. This is not quite as epic as it could be. In two short paragraphs, Orville tells Himiko about Sayaka, Himiko calls Orville by his first name, Orville cries, and Himiko hugs him. There’s a page break, and then the narrative is back to talk of fighting and armies.

“From that night on, Miyo [Himiko’s personal name] and Orville shared the same bed” is about the extent of the romance between them, but Himiko undergoes a startling personality shift after she begins sleeping with Orville. She becomes a background character in her own story and spends most of her time panicked and helpless. The following “newsflash,” which has been making the rounds on Tumblr recently, states:

If a strong, independent female character falls in love, it does not automatically mean that she has lost her values or that she’s become less strong and independent, and does not necessarily change her story into an anti-feminist one. The idea that all women should fall in love and get married IS sexist, but a woman actually falling in love and getting married of her own free will is NOT sexist. Thank you and good day.

Sometimes, however, a female protagonist will fall love with a male protagonist and suddenly cease to be a protagonist at all, and that’s what happens in The Lord of the Sands of Time. Himiko is barely even fully conscious throughout the final quarter of the novel, and Orville is too busy kicking ass and taking names off camera to have any real input in the story. With the two main characters out of the picture, the novel gears up for its big reveals – what the motive of the ET is, how time travel works and doesn’t work, how the ET will be defeated – but these big reveals are rushed don’t really make any sense. The weakness of the aliens is water, the power of love plays a role in this discovery, and the aliens don’t have any real motive for attacking the earth. The time travel mechanics are especially disappointing. To be fair, time travel never makes sense, but it’s as if the author got around all the problems implicit in time travel by simply pretending that they don’t exist.

The last sixty pages of The Lord of the Sands of Time thus pass by in a flurry of tropes and battle scenes that might have worked better if they were filmed instead of written. In the novel’s defense, though, the buildup to these last sixty pages is strong enough to carry the reader all the way to the end. Sure, the love story between Orville and Himiko/Miyo never goes anywhere, and sure, this flaccid non-relationship diverts the narrative focus away from the relationships between Orville and the other Messengers (which are infinitely more interesting), but the reader is still curious to see how it all ends (and don’t worry, I didn’t spoil everything).

The Lord of the Sands of Time is not high art or epic romance, but it’s a fun novel, especially if you have a soft spot for science fiction. Jim Hubbert’s translation doesn’t call attention to itself and allows Ogawa’s prose to flow quickly and seamlessly. (In fact, I’m so impressed by the eighties American sci-fi feel of Hubbert’s translation that I’ve already ordered a copy of his other translation for Haikasoru, Hayashi Jyōji’s The Ouroboros Wave.) As much as I make fun of science fiction tropes, I can’t get enough of them, and The Lord of the Sands of Time fully satisfied my holiday craving for a sci-fi novel of manageable length to chill out with over a relaxed weekend.