Mardock Scramble

Author: Tow Ubukata
Translator: Edwin Hawkes
U.S. Publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421537641
Released: January 2011
Original release: 2003
Awards: Nihon SF Taisho Award

Mardock Scramble by Tow Ubukata was originally released in Japan in 2003 as a three volume series, granted with a month of one another. Also in 2003, Mardock Scramble won Ubukata the 24th annual Nihon SF Taisho Award. The three books—The First Compression, The Second Combustion, and The Third Exhaust—were published in an English translation by Viz Media’s Japanese speculative fiction imprint Haikasoru as a single, massive tome. Haikasoru’s edition of Mardock Scramble was released in 2011 with a translation by Edwin Hawkes. Mardock Scramble is the first of Ubukata’s novels to be made available in English although at least two of his manga series, the first three volumes of Pilgrim Jäger and the entirety of Le Chevalier d’Eon, have seen publication in English. The manga adaptation of Mardock Scramble is scheduled for English release in August 2011 from Kodansha Comics and an anime adaptation was released in 2010.

Rune-Balot was fifteen when she was murdered by her benefactor Shell-Septinos. Balot’s life was a difficult one; she was abused as a child and forced into prostitution. A part of her wanted to die, but another part wanted to live. Two PIs investigating Shell at the time of Balot’s death were able to rescue her. Eager to prove their usefulness to society, they initiated the life preservation program Mardock Scramble 09. Balot’s body is combined with highly advanced and normally illegal technology, giving her her life back along with super human abilities. She, who had been powerless for so long, could now fight back. Along with the support of the PIs, Dr. Easter and Oeufcoque, who have some interesting capabilities of their own, Balot is eager to get her revenge. But shell isn’t completely defenseless. His extremely powerful and brutal bodyguard Boiled, who also happens to be Oeufcoque’s old partner, is more than prepared to nullify Balot’s existence.

I find Mardock Scramble difficult to classify. It’s definitely speculative fiction, and most likely science fiction although it doesn’t always feel that way. I’ve also seen the series referred to as cyberpunk, which almost fits. But whatever it is, Mardock Scramble is a lot of fun. For the most part. The action sequences and gun fights are exciting and easy to follow; the characters are likeable and interesting, each with their own quirks and unique personalities. The frequent egg puns and references were a bit odd, but fit well with the vague strangeness of the story. The technology might not always be believable, but some of it is, and even if it’s not it’s still pretty cool. I didn’t quite understand some of the worldbuilding; the bizarre legal and law enforcement system is still a mystery to me, which is unfortunate since it’s fairly important to the story.

I am very glad the Haikasoru decided to publish Mardock Scramble as a single volume, otherwise I’m not sure I would have finished the series and that would have been a pity. I loved the first book, enjoyed much of the second, and thought the action packed ending of the third was great. But in the middle of the quickly paced story, there’s a lengthy scene that takes place in a casino that slows things down tremendously. I didn’t mind this at first, and even enjoyed it and found it interesting to some extent. But after one hundred eighty pages of Blackjack, I was getting impatient. Maybe if it was a gambling game that I actually cared about, like Mahjong, I would have been okay. But I don’t give a damn about Blackjack, even if it was necessary for the story. Overall though, I did enjoy Mardock Scramble: I liked the quirky characters, I liked their captivating backstories, I found the twisting plot to be entertaining. And Hawkes’ translation is fantastically smooth. With the creativity displayed by Ubukata in Mardock Scramble, I wouldn’t mind exploring some of his other works.


Author: Project Itoh
Translator: Alexander O. Smith
U.S. Publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421536439
Released: July 2010
Original release: 2008
Awards: Nihon SF Taisho Award, Seiun Award, Philip K. Dick Award Special Citation

Harmony, by Project Itoh, was originally published in Japan in 2008, winning both the 2009 Nihon SF Taisho Award and the 2009 Seiun Award. Although I was previously unfamiliar with Itoh’s work, I was very excited when the novel was picked up by Viz Media’s Haikasoru imprint and released in 2010 with a translation by Alexander O. Smith. Happily, Harmony has been very well received in English and was recently nominated for the 2010 Philip K. Dick Award. As far as I know, this is the first book in translation and the first Japanese novel to ever be nominated for this award. (The nomination is also particularly meaningful to Haikasoru as the imprint takes its name from Philip K. Dicks award-winning novel The Man in the High Castle.) Harmony is currently the only work by Itoh available in English although a fairly reliable rumor has it that Haikasoru has more Itoh plans in the works. I really hope that is true.

After an unprecedented, worldwide mass suicide, admedistrations across the globe are thrown into turmoil. In a society that views the human  body as a vital resource and a public good to be protected at all costs, suicide is an unthinkable crime. The Helix Inspection Agency, a part of the World Health Organization, is charged with the investigation into the incident. For Tuan Kirie, a Helix member playing an important role in the investigation, the event is very personal. She herself once attempted suicide in defiance of the admedistrative system of which she is now an integral part. She watched as one of her friends took her own life during the mass suicides. Her father was one of the original developers of the WatchMe nano- and biotechnologies that allow the admedistrations to function, but which may have also laid the groundwork that would make such a wide-spread tragedy possible.

The most unusual element of Itoh’s writing in Harmony is his use of EML, or Emotional-in-Text Markup Language (which looks very similar to other markup languages such as XML or HTML.) Even if a reader isn’t familiar with markup languages, it is soon obvious what is going on and the EML shouldn’t provide too much of a challenge. Some people might see it as a clever gimmick, but I found the use of EML to be quite effective and integral to the story. It emphasizes many aspects of admedistrative society in both subtle and direct ways: The EML is a constant reminder of the biotechnological advances that have been made; the perpetual recording and surveillance of individuals’ lives, health, and minds is made obvious; emotional states and human desire are shown to have been reduced to data points for clinical observation; the barrier between one person’s experiences and another’s is broken down. I believe EML is critical to Harmony and I doubt anyone will be able to convince me otherwise.

As with any fiction successfully exploring utopia and dystopia, Harmony is extremely thought-provoking in addition to being engaging. It is easy to see the obsessions and neuroses of today’s societies, particularly those regarding health, reflected and taken to the extreme in Harmony’s world. Occasionally, Itoh can be a bit heavy handed, but overall his world-building has taken a logical if not entirely realistic path. Even a near perfect world can’t make everyone happy and the methods used to get there can be terrible no matter how they are justified. The epilogue doesn’t mesh as nicely with the rest of the novel, but it does provide important information, clarifying specific plot elements while still leaving some ambiguity to the story. I enjoyed Harmony immensely—it’s smart, thought-provoking, and has stuck with me for quite some time after finishing it. I really hope to get a chance to read more of Itoh’s work in English.