Sunday, 10 February 2013

Ryu Mitsuse - 10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights (1967)

Ryu Mitsuse's '10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights' is in it for the long haul. Starting off with the formation of our planet, and extending its narrative tendrils out to the heat death of the universe, this is a novel that redefines being truly epic in scope. In that sense, the only comparable works are Olaf Stapeldon's 'Last And First Men' and 'Starmaker', but Mitsuse's work is both stranger and more lyrical. In its mixture of hard science fiction and Eastern spirituality, it echoes the work of Roger Zelazny, in particular 'Lord Of Light'. However, at the end of the day it's very much its own beast. The cover of the Haikasoru translation has "The GREATEST Japanese science fiction novel of all time" enthusiastically emblazoned across the front, and while I've not (yet) read enough Japanese SF to comment on that, '10 Billion Days...' is certainly an engaging and thought-provoking read, that easily stands next to the best of Western SF from the same era.

Unsurprisingly, given the novel's massive scope and many narrative strands, it takes a while to set all of the story's moving pieces into motion. Mitsuse saves most of the explanation, such as it is, for right at the end, so you're kept guessing as to what's actually going on throughout most of the book. Fortunately the journey itself is a lot of fun, taking us reeling through ancient Atlantis to Jerusalem in the time of Christ and on to crumbling ruins on distant planets in the far future, and when you do figure out what's going on it's a doozy.

Basically, Plato, Siddhartha and the demigod Asura are rebuilt as cyborgs and sent to the far future, where they try to find out the reasons behind the collapse of human civilisation from the gods themselves. Unfortunately for them, they are pursued by Jesus of Nazareth, who has also been cyborgified and sent into the future, and is a blaster-wielding badass. Our three heroes are pursued by Jesus from the future ruins of Tokyo to collapsing metropolises on other planets where robots rise up against humans who have stored themselves as digital memories to another galaxies where the god-like aliens have preserved themselves in pocket dimensions to outlast the passage of time. These sequences are fantastic, and would be worth the price of entry alone. Mitsuse creates a decaying universe reminiscent of Gene Wolfe's 'The Book Of The New Sun', and as with Wolfe's masterpiece, the reader is left to puzzle out and interpret many of the details themselves, as characters are whisked through times and places they don't fully understand.

In a cruel inversion of 'Childhood's End' by Arthur C. Clarke, at the end of her journey Asura discovers that the so-called gods are giant aliens who, in order to stop humanity from ever reaching its full potential and competing with them, visited earth and planted the seeds of humanity's eventual destruction into the entire human race's psyche. These aliens were responsible for the destruction of Atlantis, and Jesus, mistakenly believing that one of these aliens is the true god, has been acting as their agent of destruction, spreading their influence across the planet. In a final act of callousness, the aliens have set themselves up as future redeemers who in times to come will save humanity, when in reality they are humanity's oppressors. Asura also discovers that she and Siddhartha are agents of a less malevolent god-like being, whose influence was simply not strong enough to prevent the destruction of the human race.

Ryu Mitsuse is asking pretty big questions here. His book is about the' nature of the universe that we live in, and the nature of god. '10 Billion Days...' asks the question, what kind of god would create a people so prone to violence and self-destructive tendencies? Mitsuse's protagonists are inspired to continue their journey against perilous odds simply because they feel they have to know, why would god doom humanity to extinction, and offer a false hope of redemption? There is an excellent scene where Asura confronts the god-like alien directly, and he responds by subjecting her to a violent psychic attack. It reminds me of the scene in Star Trek V when Spock asks the god-like alien, 'What would God want with a starship?' and gets zapped for his troubles. Both scenes show the god-like aliens as being petulant and cruel and act as the final tip-off to the audience that they are nothing like what they claim to be. (Needless to say Mitsuse handles this with far more elegance than Shatner does.) The image of Jesus as a deluded Knight Templar type is both powerful and disturbing, and the book gets a fair amount of mileage out of the fact that this is initially how Pontius Pilate and Judas see Jesus, but they cannot possibly guess how close they are to the truth because of how little of the bigger picture they are allowed to see.

The book ends tragically but beautifully. Asura's long struggle comes to an end, and she gets the answers to at least some of her questions, but she outlives the gods themselves, and is left alone on their planet, now crumbled to dust, waiting for the heat death of the universe. It is a fittingly bleak and vertigo-inducing finale.

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