Why do Japan and cyberpunk go together like chocolate and peanut butter? It wasn’t random chance that the sky the color of a television tuned to a dead channel was first seen from a Tokyo suburb, though the magic of Neuromancer long obscured from me the fact that Chiba is basically Tokyo’s Connecticut. In spite of this natural affinity, Japan’ major contributions to the cyberpunk movement have primarily been visual. If anyone is writing novels in the subgenre, they aren’t being translated; this is why Mardock Scramble so groundbreaking. I’m sure that Ubukata isn’t the first to write cyberpunk in Japan, but if he gets even half of the recognition he deserves, 2011 will be a watershed.
If Bruce Sterling decided he needed to be even more outrageously grotesque and gave Iain Banks a call, who then recommended grabbing Neal Stephenson and his gratuitous infodumps, then the three of them decided to create a coming of age revenge anime, Mardock Scramble is what might result. This is not to imply that it is derivative, because nothing could be further from the truth, but one has to start somewhere in making sense of it all. Ubukata writes with remarkable confidence and self-assurance, enough that it is almost his undoing in Mardock. Still, he pulls it off. The premise of the story is simple enough: a young prostitute is almost killed by an unsavory character. She is rescued by two PI’s, who team up with her to track down and convict her would be killer. Along the way she grows up and learns Important Life Lessons. No surprises here.
Of course things are never this simple. The great thing about cyberpunk is that the author can pretty much take today, turn a dial labeled “Technology” up a couple notches, then turn a knob labeled “Weirdness” up several notches, and a setting magically appears. Mardock City is instantly recognizable as an archetypal future-noir metropolis, though Ubukata makes it his own. The characters too are staples of the noir/cyberpunk canon, but tweaked and refracted at all sorts of odd angles. Rune-Balot is a prostitute with an unenviable past but an incandescent future, who can sense electromagnetic currents. Her PI rescuers include a mad scientist with tie-dyed hair (Dr. Easter) and a small, cybernetic, shape-shifting golden mouse (Oeufcoque). The title of the book is taken from a law called “Scramble 09,” which empowers people like The Doctor and Oeufcoque to prove their usefulness to society by helping unfortunates like Rune-Balot. Balot’s killer is named Shell. He employs Oeufcoque’s former partner, Boiled, as a bodyguard and hitman. Yes, the egg analogy runs throughout the book, but I am far too impatient to sit down and analyze the whole thing.
Ubukata sets up the whole thing with great elan. He puts the plot in motion and practically dares the reader not to come along. Don’t like lengthy discussions of ethics? Too bad. Not interested in the intricacies of roulette? Tough. Prefer to avoid hard-boiled and grotesque characters? Wrong genre. He comes very close to losing his audience with a 300 page deconstruction and shakedown of a casino that I still can’t believe made it through editing. I will give the man credit: I kept reading, and it kept being interesting, but spending one third of the book on successive games of poker, roulette, and (mostly) blackjack is a quick way to reduce a book from “seminal” to “self-indulgent.” And yet, in spite of everything that should have derailed the story, Mardock hurtles ahead at unsafe speeds.
Changing course a bit, it is worth taking some time to compare Mardock with Western cyberpunk. The setting and plot are more or less standard for the genre. Mardock City is not readily identifiable as Earth, there is no indication that humanity has reached the stars or spread to other worlds. It is basically what one would expect from a cyberpunk city is almost every way – glossy, high tech cityscapes, desperate slums, political and corporate corruption, organized crime, glittering neon, wild future technology, and some really messed up people. Likewise, the plot is basically a hard boiled mystery and revenge tale, paired with strange cybertech and a young girl coming of age. Regular stuff, until Japan starts creeping in.
First off, things are infused with a pervasive anime vibe, offset with a delicate overlay of Goth-Loli aesthetic. (If the gentle reader is not acquainted with Goth-Loli, imagine a combination of pale faces, dark makeup, French maid costumes, brooding gloominess, and that wonderful Japanese Hello Kitty cuteness. Alternately, just stop while you’re ahead and don’t think about it at all, preventing a desire to scratch out eyes.) I’m having a hard time coming up with a good explanation of what exactly this vibe entails, but like pornography and a certain Supreme Court judge, I know it when I see it. The characters don’t have wild, blue hair, oversized eyes, or a habit of opening their mouths really wide when they talk, but something in the way Ubukata paints the scenes, moves the action, and conducts his dialogue suggests that everything should be animated. (And, of course, it is. A movie trailer for part one is here.) The author has been involved in a few anime series, so this comes as no surprise. Indeed, much like Western SFF is often tied into either gaming and fandom, or NASA, JPL & Co., Japanese SFF is deeply intertwined with the manga and anime industry.
The second aspect of Japanese influence is in the treatment of women. As a card carrying dude, the portrayal of women in SFF and other feminist topics are not things I’m normally comfortable talking about. Rather like the place of blacks in society, it’s just not something I have experienced first hand, so I don’t feel qualified to address it. That said, the women in Mardock are something that even usually oblivious me figured out. To be clear, Ubukata is not consciously misogynistic. Rune-Balot is a strong, competent, even heroic character. (Or at least she becomes so.) Men are overwhelmingly portrayed as barbarous, animalistic, and simplistic. Ubukata is very clear on how much, and in what ways, men hold women down. This is all to his credit, coming from a society as patriarchal and rigid as Japan is. But reading the book, I was reminded yet again of something. Women are degraded in one fashion or another in all societies, but Japan takes a special relish in all the myriad ways this occurs. We see Mardock City through eyes that condemn misogyny and brutality, but keep saying, “Wow! Look at all the terrible things that can happen to women! It’s awful, but wow!” I’m not necessarily criticizing the author for this, but I see a reflection of the culture that also produces the adult video series “Tremendous Incontinence.” (This actually exists. I haven’t seen it though and refuse to post links.)
Finally, and this is something I keep coming back to in my Japanese reviews, that strain of Japanese humanism pops up yet again. I will illustrate with a vague, and mostly spoiler-free, description of a pivotal scene. While reading this part, I was reminded of one of the most iconic set pieces in The Matrix (which no doubt influenced Mardock, but was itself influenced by Ghost in the Shell). When Neo and Trinity rescue Morpheus, they blow their way through a faceless horde of guards in spectacular, and oft-emulated, fashion. The guards and cops aren’t necessarily bad people, just doing their jobs, but they are mowed down quite mercilessly. Earlier in the movie, Morpheus explains things away in vague fashion, saying that it’s unavoidable to kill humans that are unknowingly helping the enemy. This was always troubling to me, when I wasn’t wrapped up in the special effects and awesomeness, as we would see this from the other side as a terrible calamity, complete with widows, fatherless children, caskets draped with flags, etc.
In Mardock, Rune-Balot is pursued by people who aren’t just unsavory or misguided, they are truly repulsive individuals. Even pacifist me would look on their deaths with a certain fondness. At one point, as some of them are hunting down our protagonist, she opens up a proverbial can. Rune-Balot is a child prostitute, she’s been blown up by a mobster, used in awful ways by countless men, raped on a number of occasions, is now hunted by disgusting people, and now is finally in a position of power. Her cybernetic skin lets her sense and control electromagnetic fields, enabling insane feats of self-defense. I don’t think anyone begrudges her a chance to vent her anger on people that plan to do some pretty unspeakable things; most readers are probably cheering as the bad guys get picked off in creative and hilarious fashion. However! Her partners take exception to the brutality and Rune-Balot learns an important lesson in not sinking to her enemy’s level. In fact, she ends up hurting people close to her when she lets fear and anger take control. This lesson is repeated throughout the book, rather like how Luke learns not to give in to his hate, thus preventing the completion of his journey to the Dark Side.
As the last comment implies, this sort of resistance to violence is not exclusive to Japan. I don’t claim that it is, nor do I claim that all Japanese books invoke it. On the other hand, most that I have read seem to resonate with the commitment to pacifism that one finds in nearly all aspects of contemporary Japan. This is a country where “Morals” is still a core class taught at school, where almost every teacher is on the left of the dove-hawk political spectrum, and the army isn’t called “The Army.” (It is “The Self Defense Force.”) Ubukata brilliantly, and perhaps unintentionally, highlights the contradictions in Japan between people’s natural tendency to, and enjoyment of violence, and the restraint and discipline required by a moral code that attempts to enable peace. Mardock is plenty violent, but there is an ambivalent tone toward the violence throughout, as though the characters are asking the reader if there isn’t a better way to handle the situation. Again, this sort of thing is not unheard of in Western SFF (think Terminator 2), but on the whole, we are pretty eager to blow away the bad guy.
Returning to the more review-oriented part of the review, I am tasked with summing up and passing judgment on Mardock Scramble. Yes, it slows down in the middle when Ubukata inexplicably takes the party on an all-night casino binge, there’s an awful lot of talking and pontificating for this sort of thing, and the characters spend more time in a courtroom than they, or the readers, might enjoy. But when the characters cut loose, Mardock delivers the goods. In particular, the first 250 pages or so are some of the best and most insane cyberpunk out there. Whatever its flaws, Mardock is a massive, important work. The images and characters are vivid, crazed, and impossible to evict once they have taken up residence in the mind. This is a must read for cyberpunk fans, anime junkies who want something heftier, and anyone who wants to see the state of the art in Japan.
Rating: Ono Shinji. One of the most sublime, joyful members of Japan’s Golden Generation, Ono could have been Japan’s Xavi. He was cut down from behind, however, during a meaningless qualifier in the Philippines and was never the same. Despite losing some of his transcendent brilliance to injury, he still had a Hall of Fame career.