trenchkamen: (Sherlock - by smiley)
[personal profile] trenchkamen
[amazon]

I admit this book caught my eye at the store because I found the cover art intriguing, and the cover summary more so.

I found the book to suffer from an ailment endemic to high-concept science fiction--clumsy, amateurish prose. The plot and concepts are of paramount importance, and neither the author nor the editor pay much attention to redundancy. Many times the narrator tells us, absolutely needlessly, what has just been clearly illustrated with action and dialogue. It ruins the flow of the story and insults the intelligence of the reader. And, sometimes, when the characters' motivations are made clear by context, the narrator states them anyway. It is annoying, and poor form. Example:

"But Karina's spear had already found its target, plunging into the guard's eye. The monomolecular carbon tip pierce the skull and brain and emerged through the back of his head." (229)

And then, half a paragraph later:

"...the speargun... could be just as lethal as a bullet. Karina's spear was made of monomolecular carbon, capable of piercing flesh and bone..." (229-230)

Wow, I never would have deduced that given that she just plunged it through a guy's skull. And killed him in the process. Examples like this abound throughout the book. Cases in which motivation is needlessly stated are more difficult to give in succinct quotes, but I am sure the astute reader will notice them.

What's strange, and, at the risk of sounding glib, amazingly Japanese, is that Ueda leaves a description of a shared flashback the hell alone. The mono no aware and poignant nature of this scene, and the remembrance that later results as the characters meet at a rather dramatic moment, speaks for itself. No elaboration. No philosophical expounding, as I'd almost expect from a Western author. That's good. It's fine the way it is. If you talked more about it, you'd ruin the effect. I saw "the twist" coming the first time the flashback was introduced (rather, I guessed who the mystery person involved was), but it still worked, even just as the shorthand conferred by clich├ęs. It's left weighty, and heavy with complex thought, many things that can't be resolved verbally. It's meditative, and left for the reader (and the characters) to contemplate.

So, I ask, what was the author thinking the rest of the book?

I am thrilled that the translator opted to use gender-neutral pronouns in the English translation rather than defaulting to the masculine, as is often seen with sentient, non-gendered objects. This is a contributing factor to our societal assumption that male is default, and female is a sub-category. I understand that, with a greater tolerance for subject omission, Japanese lends itself far more fluidly to omission of pronouns. The translator uses the Spivak pronouns, something many activists and writers have been pushing for integration into mainstream language, but many editors and writers will argue that they are too cumbersome and interfere with the flow of language, and that we as a society have had our consciousness raised enough to understand that 'he' does not necessarily default to male. This is corollary to the argument that feminism is no longer relevant, something I vehemently protest, but I digress. I argue that with increased exposure they will not seem so alien, and it's far less cumbersome than the current he/she convention we see in official documents, or, even more irksome, the singular 'they'.

The gender politics in the book are covered in a refreshing way, though individual characters do hold disturbingly gender essentialist views (Harding, especially). Humans can fluidly move from one gender to the other throughout a lifetime with medical intervention, and alternate sexualities are largely accepted, but the concept of somebody being bigender (not androgynous, asexual, or neuter), with two functioning sets of sexual organs, is utterly alien, to the point of requiring these Rounds to be isolated from the rest of human society by law, out of fear of pollution. It's the 'containment' ideology one sees in politics today, and has seen, throughout all of human history. Individual humans are willing to be accepting, and are even intrigued, but the masses are still made uneasy by novel, paradigm-shifting concepts. But, slowly, the new things become standard, and humanity finds an entirely new thing to be apprehensive about. This is a trait humanity did not leave behind on Earth, and it is a concept explored time and again by science fiction--rightfully so, as it is so central to human nature. We're a tribal people. Part of the Jupiter-1 project is ridding humanity of these ancient apprehensions, which no longer benefit our survival in deep space (and, I argue, benefit it not now), but that would require reaching deep into our reptile brains. This book represents, of course, just a fraction of the social problems our ancient and unexplored biases cause, but it is a short narrative, and well enough to focus.

The most "alien" newcomers to humanity are, allegorically, exiled to the Jovian system, the furthest humanity has yet traveled. The Rounds distrust the Monurals (the name given to the single-gendered humans) as much as would be expected given their treatment, and the treatment of countless minority groups before them, and addressed is the displacement of characters stuck between the two worlds by circumstance or choice.

The book ends on an uncertain, open note--something few Western writers and editors would stomach. There are few conclusions, not even insofar as the immediate conflict is concerned. I admit it seemed abrupt and unfinished to me at first--to the point that I was annoyed--until I reminded myself that I bring my biases engrained by a lifetime of exposure to Western storytelling. The vast majority of the books I have read (discounting manga) are by Western authors. Had I read this book in manga format, I would not feel something was amiss. I think my brain has subconsciously learned to associate manga with a more Japanese storytelling aesthetic, but it did not yet make the link to prose. I would be interested to see this story told in a minimalist manga style. In eliminating all of the aforementioned prose redundancy (and it runs heavy), it would lend itself well.

That being said, this is definitely a concept piece, and the plot surrounding it is linear and somewhat dry. The simple story really serves as a backdrop for ideas, philosophies. The author is better at making abstract observations of human nature than in writing engaging characters, specifically, and in writing organic dialogue. The dialogue is as wooden as the narration. Occasionally characters show hints of complexity, but the effect is ruined by the author stating the bloody obvious immediately after. I personally found Dr. Tei the most enjoyable, though Shirosaki and Karina are also interesting at turns. But I can't say I came to care deeply for the characters, or for their welfare. As an abstract concept, yes, I came to care for the Rounds, but the individual Rounds did not stand out much to me.

Overall, I found The Cage of Zeus to be an enjoyable read, and an interesting look at gender and philosophy, though its space opera plot is pulpy and simple and the prose frequently drove me up the wall. Many of the plot 'twists' will not surprise anybody with any background in science fiction, and while it's true there aren't any 'new' ideas out there this book doesn't do much with those ideas in a way that hasn't already been done, but it's kind of cool the way Ueda plays with gender binaries. Who hasn't wondered what it would be like to experience sex with different genitals than those with which one was born? The Rounds get to experience both. At once. That's the part of this book that's going to stick with me the longest.
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July 2012

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