Just for fun, I went to the SF community on Mixi (Japan’s largest social network) and asked, “Is this book really the greatest Japanese SF novel ever? Because the publisher here says it is.” I failed to kick up a hornet’s nest, but did get a general admission that, “Greatest” or not, it’s certainly one of the most revered and influential SF books to come out of the country. (The ensuing discussion also inexplicably prompted someone to call me, roughly, an “ill-mannered poser.”) In that sense, 10 Billion Days is rather like Japan’s Dune or Foundation, which makes reviewing it slightly intimidating. It also means that, as a self appointed ambassador of Japanese fiction, I’m under that much more pressure to deliver a profound and life-altering review.
The basis of any claim that 10 Billion Days is the greatest anything is this poll from 2006, where the readers of SF Magazine (a Japanese publication) voted on the best stuff. My Japanese sources countered with the 1998 poll, which swapped numbers one and two. This is an annual poll, but our assumption is that 10 Billion Days is going to feature in the top five or so every year, much the way there is a general consensus here on the “best” five or ten SFF novels. It’s also one of only a few in the top twenty that have been translated into English, other high ranking books including Japan Sinks and Yukikaze.
10 Billion Days defies easy description. It begins with the emergence of life on Earth and sprints in 250 pages to the end of the universe, with a cast consisting almost entirely of prophets and deities. Plato and Pilate are the main exceptions here, but mostly we’re dealing with Jesus, Siddhartha, Maitreya, and Asura. (The latter two are Buddhist and Hindu divinities, respectively.) One should not expect a strict historical reconstruction of any of these, nor any sort of reverence toward the religions they are associated with. I can’t say anything about Hindus or Buddhists, but I’m pretty sure a large number of Christians would be angry about Mitsuse’s Jesus. This is not to accuse Mitsuse of writing an atheist hatchet piece, because I don’t think that’s his purpose. His story requires giants striding across the landscape, so these are the characters he chooses. That they are also cyborgs is entirely beside the point.
To summarize the plot would basically spoil the book. Suffice it to say that it involves the above mentioned characters, something called The Planetary Development Committee, Atlantis, Andromeda and the Milky Way crashing into each other, extinct civilizations, warring Hindu gods, Jesus as a killer cyborg, and the end of the universe. After finishing the book, I had to just sit there for awhile, trying to make sense of it all. 10 Billion Days demands reflection and leisurely consumption, rather than frantic page turning. It reminds me somewhat of reading the Old Testament, with its cold and distant narrative voice, the sudden and jarring leaps through time and space, and the patchy sense of history and myth. Likewise it is dense prose, with each sentence crafted for maximum economy and impact, and multiple meanings packed into each phrase. I’m going to have to read this again someday, because I am certain that I missed plenty the first time through.
Reading early on, I thought that 10 Billion Days didn’t feel much like a Japanese book, or at least not compared to a lot of the contemporary stuff that Haikasoru publishes. It lacks the distinct character interaction that immediately identifies Japanese human relations and gives no nod to anime culture. (To be fair, there wasn’t anime culture as we know it when this was originally published.) By the end though, it was very clear that this is not a book that could have been written in the West. Without rampant spoilage (I hope), I want to point out the differences. I periodically refer here to the David Brin theory of SF and Fantasy, which is that they are basically extensions of the Enlightenment and the Romantic Movement, respectively. The first looks to a brighter future, brought about through Science, while the second looks toward an idealized past, which we must return to for redemption. (That’s a bit oversimplified.) The key to both of these is our effort, which brings about one or another form of salvation.
What we don’t see here in the West is a third way of looking at things, an idea that comes from, among others, Buddhism and the Yoga Sutra. These philosophies stress the lack of action, of finding peace through acceptance of things as they are. “Desire is the root of unhappiness” is the most often seen aphorism in these Eastern traditions, so the focus is not on improving things through one’s own efforts, but on sidestepping unhappiness through the elimination of the appetites that bring dissatisfaction. Max Weber’s striving Protestants would find this incomprehensible. 10 Billion Days is suffused with this ethic, especially as the book ends. [Some spoilers to follow, in as vague a way as I can.]
I don’t think that a Western author, especially an American, could write the end of 10 Billion Days. An American would most likely set up one side as Evil, or at least as a clear antagonist, and provide the viewpoint character some way to overcome that Evil. There would be a resolution, there would be an improvement of the character’s situation, and there would be effort expended in some way for people to help themselves. Mitsuse thinks not. There is a Japanese term, shikata ga nai, that poorly translates to “it can’t be helped.” We don’t have good words for it in English, because it is a mindset with which we are unfamiliar. To say shikata ga nai means to accept that something can’t be changed and to move forward by mutual agreement, with the understanding that whatever unchanging thing it is will be accepted as a given. This is not just things like gravity, or the Earth’s rotation, or other such inevitability, but it extends to places that we Americans might say, “Wait, let’s not accept that, let’s improve it!” The end of 10 Billion Days is an end-of-the-universe-sized shikata ga nai. It is the ultimate expression of acceptance and resignation, of denying desire in an attempt to find peace. I suspect that it would be wildly unsatisfying for a reader who can’t wrap his head around this way of seeing the world.
What about those of us who are somewhat accustomed to this worldview? I almost feel like I won’t be qualified to pass judgment on this one until I’ve read it a couple more times, pondered deeply its truths, and emerged a much older, wiser man. Still, there are a few things I can say. The book’s narrative tone is somewhat standoffish, as though Mitsuse is keeping us at bay while he recites his tale. He gives us hints of the characters and their worlds, occasional flashes of intense action or vivid description, and stretches of frigid mystery. The outlines are sharp, but scarce, leaving fleeting impressions of forces and personalities beyond our comprehension. Even the viewpoint characters are finally unknowable, to say nothing of grander forces manipulating them. With some authors, this would be a flaw, a mark of poorly thought out or executed writing, but with Mitsuse, this seems to be exactly what he intended. We are left at the end with a sense of mystery and wonder intact, knowing that something amazing is happening, but not grasping it completely.
This may be because Mitsuse understands that the payoff in these things rarely matches our expectations. This is a wise dodge, but the overall effect leaves 10 Billion Days similar to The Book of Judges, or perhaps 1st Samuel. For a final, pithy summation of the book, I’m torn between the mystery and philosophy on one hand, and the lack of engagement on the other. It was a haunting read, one that will no doubt hover in the darker corners of my mind, but it wasn’t very much fun while I read it. One can’t go wrong though, with a book that contains the line, “Siddhartha was acutely aware that as long as Jesus of Nazareth was alive, this could be a trap.”
Rating: This is a massive reach, but perhaps Leeds United? The universe ends in 10 Billion Days, Leeds taking their top ranked form and nosediving into League One was pretty much like the end of the universe for them. Not that 10 Billion Days has anything in common with a despicable club like Leeds.