by Project Itoh

Cover image

Translator: Alexander O. Smith
Publisher: Haikasoru
Copyright: 2008, 2010
Printing: July 2010
ISBN: 1-4215-3643-9
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 252

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This is my first review of a Haikasoru book, and most people are probably unfamiliar with the imprint, so a brief introduction. Haikasoru is an imprint of VIZ Media, a publisher best known for translating Japanese manga (graphic novels) and publishing them in the US. However, the Haikasoru line, including this book, is not manga. They're prose translations of original Japanese prose SFF novels. Unfortunately, this has horribly confused a lot of bookstores, resulting in Haikasoru books sometimes being shelved with manga. VIZ hasn't helped by putting, for some inexplicable reason, the standard manga labelling "(L to R)" in the publisher description of these books. So you may have to look in unconventional places for these books, but they're strong SFF novels, strong enough to have won the line editor (Nick Mamatas) a nomination for the Best Editor Hugo.

Harmony is a novel about a supposedly utopian world of perfect health care, perfection that's extended into every aspect of life. It's the extension and culmination of perfect holistic medicine. Everything that can cause hurt, anger, stress, and unhappiness has been measured and is adjusted for, through medication, counseling, and the ever-present careful monitoring of the embedded WatchMe systems given to essentially everyone. Except for a few remaining spots of ongoing warfare and conflict, the human world has been tamed and made healthy and safe by the ever-present and omni-benevolent Health Administration.

It's also a story about three girls and a suicide pact. The ringleader was Miach Mihie, a startling non-conformist in this utopian world. She was brilliant, determined, contemptuous, and charismatic in an odd way, finding rebellion against the Health Administration in the choice to refuse to participate in their world in the most extreme way possible. The narrator, Tuan, was one of her friends, or followers. All three attempted to kill themselves in high school, at the same time, but only Miach died. Tuan entered life as an adult feeling like a failure and traitor to Miach, becoming a Health Administration investigator who worked in the remaining war zones where she could drink, smoke, and otherwise injure her body in ways that the Health Administration otherwise wouldn't allow. She's deeply cynical and despairing, but not quite able to attempt suicide again. When a sudden dramatic incident poses a clear danger to the Health Administration and everyone protected by it, Tuan both sees clear echoes of Miach and is in the ideal place to start investigating it.

I can't beat James Nicoll's capsule summary of this book: "imagine Peter Watts wrote a book about public health". (Indirect spoilers at that link, and minor spoilers in the linked review.) For those familiar with Watts's work, you'll have an inkling of how dark and depressing this is. The darkness isn't on the surface; Tuan is a mostly calm and relatively happy-sounding narrator until one pays closer attention to what she's saying. Most of the people in this world seem entirely happy with it, and see Tuan as just a misfit. But Miach, in Tuan's flashbacks and stories, holds various mirrors up to the world and shows how horrific it actually is. Nor is this quite a story with an upbeat ending, although it does have a hell of a twist and exits in a way that I was not expecting at all. It's a story about profound alienation, stifling conformity, and what it means to be an individual, but told from a much different angle than that story is normally told in English language fiction. Itoh's dystopia is not 1984 or anything similar. The motives are all different, as are the resulting reactions.

Project Itoh (伊藤 計劃) is an individual, not a group (as I'd originally thought), who took that name as a pen name. He was ill for much of his life and died of cancer at the age of 34, about a year after Harmony (ハーモニー) was published. Knowing that, it's tempting to read into this book some commentary on, and questioning of, the nature of modern medical care. But I'm not sure that holds up. It's not really a book about medical care, even if that's the foundation of its dystopia. It's a book about death, seen from several angles, and one that questions the necessity and nature of pain. There's a deep tension in it between misery (and many characters in this book are quietly miserable) and release from misery in ways that the reader recoils from.

There's a lot of philosophical meat here to consider. Unfortunately, the book mostly stopped there for me. I wanted to like Tuan, and she is occasionally appealing, but I never could quite get inside her head. All the other characters are even more off-putting, and the world is so alien (and Tuan, the narrator, so alienated from it) that it couldn't fill that role of emotional connection. The result was that the book felt more like a logic puzzle and never emotionally engrossed me the way that I like to feel from a novel. The odd "emotion-in-text markup language" that it's written in, a pseudo-XML (that's more pseudo than XML) that tags many of the emotional passages, didn't help, although the way it became significant to the story was a deep and unexpected link. For most of the book, it minorly got in the way, making me rewrite in my head into more normal prose, which added to the alienation.

I can appreciate the skill that went into this book, and I did enjoy reading it. But my enjoyment stayed at an intellectual level, which makes it hard for me to recommend readily. It felt a bit sterile, a bit too removed, to engage with. However, if you like Watts, or if you're just interested in a take on common US themes of individualism written from an entirely different direction (and don't mind a grim dystopia that becomes more disturbing the more one reads about it), give this a try. It's certainly convinced me to try more Haikasoru translations.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-06-05

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