Project Itoh (Ito Keikaku)

When I was in 5th grade, my best friend loaned me a book that may have been called The Alliance. I can’t remember the author, save that he was Mormon. I suppose it was science fiction, set somewhere in a near future that may have been post-apocalyptic. (Memories are, of course, hazy.) Some heroic guy stumbles on a city where a scientist has implanted somethingerother in people’s brains so they can’t think of or do bad things. The hero opposes this and ultimately triumphs because 1) the author is American and 2) the author is Mormon. The former are huge on individualism and personal rights and whatnot, to an alarming degree. The latter are big into “Works,” which is why a lot of other Christians hate them. The point if this review is not to introduce everyone to an obscure bit of Mormon fiction, but this book was on my mind while I read Harmony, a similar retelling of the utilitarian vs. free will story that is utterly Japanese.

Harmony is a big deal. It won the Japan SF and Seiun Awards, the Japanese equivalent of a Hugo-Nebula sweep. It also won a Special Citation Award from the Philip K. Dick people for the English translation. There has been talk of adding Harmony to the Top 10 Japanese SF list. The author was battling cancer as he wrote the book and died shortly after its publication. If I have called out (mildly) Haikasoru in the past for publishing lightweight Japanese SF, this and Mardock Scramble more than make up for it.

Back to Japan and why it matters. The utopia in Harmony was constructed after a global political meltdown and is built on the premise that humanity is its own greatest natural resource. Thus, since everyone is dependent on everyone else, everyone has the obligation to be the best natural resource they can. Our bodies are not ours alone. In practical terms, each person’s personal health is of paramount concern to society; human health is maximized through a combination of technology and social pressure. Nanotechnology and pervasive internet infrastructure allow constant, expert monitoring of all facets of health, as well as unlimited care and advice. In Harmony, even colds and headaches are things of the past. Further, data overlays and an utter lack of privacy allow anyone to see anyone else’s health status, psychological ratings, body fat percentage, etc. While mortifying to people raised in a privacy-conscious society like we are, this is an effective means of social control: healthy lives through social shame. The main characters in Harmony are people on the fringe, those that cannot or will not fit into society or renounce their claims on their own bodies.

I don’t think this particular utopia could have come out of the United States, and not just because we have disturbingly high obesity rates and comparatively low life expectancy. The very foundation of Ito’s construction, people are the greatest resource, is not an idea with much traction here. This claim might seem exaggerated, but I submit our health care and education systems as Exhibits A and B. No country that treasures its people above all else would let these degenerate into a morass in the latter case, and a dumpster fire in the former. America views Freedom as its greatest resource, I suppose, since that is apparently what all the Muslims hate us for and is the primary reason we see fit to deny insurance to poor people. No, Harmony would have to come from somewhere else, probably somewhere that lacks vast geography and prodigious natural resources.

But why does it have to be Japan? Since Japan modernized, its leaders have known that, as a “small, island nation,” (their words) Japan has little arable land, no fossil fuels, and negligible natural resources beyond perhaps seaweed. This is a nation that is very aware that its place at the global table depends on an educated, healthy, placated, middle class. Japan’s modern social constructions explain the foundations of Harmony’s harmony, but what about the rest? Japan is a health obsessed country. For example, anyone who paid attention during the swine flu hurrah will remember that Japan sold out of protective face masks. Japan also pays far less attention to privacy than we claim to, frequent Facebook indiscretions aside. Things that are public record in Japan strike us as bizarrely invasive, like family registries or the police keeping track of who lives where on a block. Finally, the idea of social control through public shame is in full effect in Japan. The “eyes all around” (mawari no me) have great power to influence behavior. (Unless, of course, one is a foreign barbarian who is either oblivious or calculating enough to make the most of this.)

The most telling moment comes when the main character, Tuan, ruminates on how advances in nutrition and social pressure are narrowing the range of acceptable body types, making everyone look more and more alike as calorie usage and intake are normalized. Acceptable body types are already limited in Japan for these very reasons, though the control is analog rather than through nanobots. Indeed, Harmony is Japan taken to its logical extreme; Tuan’s battles with her society are fought over the same fault lines that Japan’s post-Bubble generations are battling over now. Ito’s final ambivalence with both sides reflects Japan’s current paralysis, as no faction has stepped forward with a convincing vision of Japan’s future, or the answer to how individuals fit into a supposedly homogeneous and unified society. Harmony‘s power comes from the questions it asks of the reader: what is peace worth to us? What about health? How do these relate to and define happiness? But I think it resonates even more in Japan, as the Japanese grapple with their place in a world so different from the one their society was built to conquer.

But in talking about the story, I have to come to terms with the end of the book. For 230 pages, Harmony is incandescent perfection. But suddenly, when the antagonist finally reveals her plans and motives, everything went sour for me. After everything up to that point, the resolution just rang false. It was jarring – reading along on the bus thinking what a great story I had, and one sentence later saying, “Ito has to be kidding here.” I had a full workday in between that moment and the final page on my commute home, but things never felt any better. Several days later, I still can’t reconcile the last 20 pages of the book. I am only speculating here, but I think the end has something to do with Ito’s impending death. As best I can tell, he knew he was about to die and Harmony, especially the end, is his attempt to make sense of it. I can’t explain why I think this, or how strands of the plot connect themselves to Ito’s life, but that is how I see it.

With out without the last 20 pages, and independent of what the book may say about contemporary Japan, Harmony is a major SF landmark that should not be missed.

Rating: Johann Cruyff. Though he failed at the last hurdle and couldn’t bring Holland the World Cup, his philosophy and style have made lasting and profound changes on world football.