SF News & Views: Itō Project

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Itō Project: A Japanese Nova
by Ebihara Yutaka
© 2010 Ebihara Yutaka

When it was publicly announced that the 2009 Nihon SF Taishō had gone to Harmony (ハーモニー) by Itō Project (伊藤計劃), science-fiction fans across Japan must have been relieved to hear it and at the same time sad, because Itō had died of cancer only a few months earlier. Itō received the Seiun Award the same year, and by taking the SF Taishō as well joined a very select club limited to authors with double literary titles. The event also marked the first time the SF Taishō has been awarded to a dead author.

He died at the age of 34, but even after his death fans here are haunted by the thought of an alternate world where Itō is still alive, and still actively writing new stories to challenge Japanese science fiction. He only wrote two novels, Genocidal Organ (虐殺器官) and Harmony, and two short stories: "The Indifference Engine" (2007) and "From the Nothing, With Love" (2008), both of which are now included in the excellent "best of the year" anthologies from Tokyo Sōgensha, Imaginary Engines (虚構機関) and Puppets on Superstrings (超玄領域). He also wrote one novelization in the famous video game series Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. That's all he wrote, and he surely wanted to write so much more had he only lived longer.

He was already suffering from cancer when he became a published SF author by submitting Genocidal Organ to Hayakawa. He had originally submitted it to the Komatsu Sakyō Award (小松左京賞) for new SF authors, but it was cut in the very final stage of selection. As Enjoe Toh (円城塔) had gone the very same route to become a successful science fiction author, they became friends and rivals, providing their readers with a constant stream of food for the imagination. Itō continued to write SF even after he was forced to quit his job for treatment. Harmony, which sadly happened to be his last novel, was written by him in bed at the hospital, according an interview with his parents that appeared in the newspaper after he was awarded to SF Taishō. We must not only mourn his death, but also go one step further and experience the future that he will never have the chance to see.

Genocidal Organ (2008) attempts to describe the world of the future changed radically by terrorist attacks. The populace is constantly overseen and controlled by the government. Identity tags embedded in their bodies hold information on who they are and what they do, and must be revealed in daily life, such as even to purchase goods at the supermarket. In spite of these strict controls, terrorism, murder and genocide continue worldwide. In fact, contrary to initial expectations, the reported number of the genocide-related murders in developed countries is increasing.

Kravis Shepherd, the narrator, has been involved in many secret military operations for the humanitarian purposes to prevent genocide, usually by assassinating the person in command. Through the missions he and his force gradually realize that there is always someone hidden in the shadows, manipulating the situation.

One day, Kravis is summoned to Pentagon and told to find a man named John Paul. This seemingly ordinary man used to be an office worker at a public relations firm, hired to assist developing nations in obtaining financial and humanitarian aid from the industrialized countries. What he leaves behind him are not hospitals, commerce or peace, but thousands of bodies and raging hatred. Perhaps most important and curious is the fact that no one can explain why the genocide occurred, as nobody expected it. Nobody can even explain why they suddenly feel such hatred against another group of people. Trailing the most dangerous man the world has ever known, Kravis leaves the "rational" path.

Kravis meets John Paul three times, and the more he learns about the other, the stronger grows an unexplainable feeling. Something deep in Kravis changes gradually, leading him to a more sympathetic understanding of what John Paul has done, and what he is trying to accomplish. The man has discovered what he calls the "genocidal organ," found in all human beings, and he has found a way to activate it.

The genocidal organ can be understood by referring to the concepts of human language acquisition developed by Norm Chomsky, a linguist who founded the generative grammar branch of linguistics. While the genocidal organ is a creation of SF, it is clearly derived from Chomsky's theories on how human beings can acquire mother-tongue competency without the enormous effort needed to master a second language later in life. According to Chomsky, human beings have language acquisition organs in their brain, and can learn their mother tongue merely by exposing themselves to the target language; the organ "switches on" to allow them to understand utterances in that language. How and why John Paul is activating the genocidal organ remains a mystery until Kravis meets him third time, when Kravis notices that he has gone too far to return to places familiar and emotionally close.

Harmony (2009), Itō's last novel, also deals with the post-9-11 world in more Foucaudian way: the human body is regarded as the most important and precious resource of the whole community. A human disaster called The Maelstrom, triggered by nuclear wars between and within nations, has caused almost all human beings to suffer from biological problems such as cancer, or illness from mutated viruses. The world decided that the only way to preserve the human species was by making itself into a new form of government. The traditional capital-based society was converted to a "ViGoment" (Vital Government), a socio-political networking community that has made citizen health and wellness its top priority. Interestingly, the author uses the characters 生府 to represent this in Japanese, achieving the same pronunciation as the real word for government (政府, pronounced seifu) but with an added meaning of "life" or "biological." The ViGoment controls everyone in a way similar to that described in Genocidal Organ, but with a crucial difference. The ViGoment, instead of using a chip embedded in the body, uses the "WatchMe" software embedded in the human body, with sensing in the nanometer range, to monitor us.

WatchMe is security software, like the anti-virus software used today in our PCs today. It always watches "me" from inside our bodies, and if it detects an abnormality such as a sudden increase in a hormone level or inexplicable drop in some other vital sign, it attempts to correct the change. While people in the world of Genocidal Organ are ceaselessly watched from outside their bodies, Harmony instead links the inside of the body to the outside world though nanotechnology like WatchMe. What the world and ViGoment value the most is harmony among people, preventing them from harming each other and preserving the precious resource that is the human body. This harmony is defined to include social and the biological elements, and the story draws a persuasive image of what such a harmonious, peaceful utopia might be like.

As is often the case, however, no utopia is immutable, and this one as well begins the fall to dystopia. Narrator Kirie Toan (霧慧トァン) feels disoriented in this harmonious world. She is a WHO officer assigned to negotiate with people in developing nations who refuse to submit to the ViGoment. As a child, she once tried to commit suicide, an act that is physically prevented by WatchMe because it would cause serious damage in the harmonious world. With the help of her friend Mihie Miaha (御冷ミァハ), Toan successfully jumped over a physical barrier, but fortunately—or unfortunately—failed in her attempt to kill herself. Miaha, on the contrary, was able to kill herself, seemingly claiming victory over this life-oriented world. Since then, Toan has felt distanced from the world, unable to maintain harmony with it and the ViGoment.

This apparent harmony suddenly shatters when 6,582 people suddenly try to kill themselves at the same time, 2,798 of whom succeed. Nobody knows why. At that instant Toan was lunching with her old friend Reikado Kian (零下堂キアン), and witnesses Kian's suicide in front of her very eyes. Before dying, Kian says "Sorry, Miaha," and that dying message determined to ferret out what causes such mass suicide in this harmonious world.

As mentioned above, Itō wrote Harmony in his hospital bed, fighting not against terrorists, but rather against the dysfunctional cells called cancer inside his own body. From Genocidal Organ to Harmony, his writing shows a shift in focus from the outside world to the inside, but much remains unchanged. Itō always writes about—or against, more precisely—the system and its components, and their hegemonic conflicts. Vividly presenting us with future worlds and their technologies, Itō persuasively portrays the problems of our world, revealing how impossible it is to solve them. The im/possibility of the answer lies at the very core of his fiction.

There is no doubt that Itō Keikaku's problematic—or harmonious—future visions will continue to haunt us.

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