Project Itoh (Trans. Alexander O. Smith)
Haikasoru/VIZ Media LLC
If I thought that more than half a dozen of you would get the reference, I’d say this reads like Peter Watts flipped through a copy of Caduceus Wild and thought to himself “I can do this a lot better. And I could make it a lot more depressing.“1 So instead let’s say that Watts and Greg Egan decided to collaborate on a medical dystopia/thriller.
1: Which he absolutely could and not just because CW is not one of Ward Moore’s better books.
On my scale, this was hardish, the exact opposite of optimistic, and there wasn’t much in the way of whimsy. Call it a +3, ‑4, 0. The writing and translation is more than competent.
Millions of people2 died in what later generations came to call the Maelstrom, a perfect storm of social chaos, nuclear war and disease. Unsurprisingly, the survivors vowed “Never again” and the means by which they planned to achieve this was an incredibly intrusive “lifeist” administration which dictates to its population strict health, employment and hobby regimes aimed at maximizing lifespans and the socially responsible productivity of its citizens.
OK, all you people who just made a squinchy face? It’s actually worse than you think.
The admedistrations are overtly non-democratic and top-down. Privacy is dead and seen in retrospect as foolish and immoral. Health-endangering habits like smoking or drinking are illegal and things are not looking bright for the coffee-drinkers. A combination of WatchMe software and medcare units allow individually tailored medical regimes but they also allow the admedistrations to keep a very close eye on what people are putting into their bodies. The system is also set up to provide everyone with information at a glance about those around them.
After the chaos and terror of the Maelstrom, the majority of the Earth’s population is very happy with the way things are: only about 20% of the planet’s population are not under admedistrations and within the regions that are, only a minority is unhappy with their regimented, coddled lives.
it’s never a good sign when someone in a position of power starts talking about not all of Hitler’s ideas were bad; After all, he was a vegetarian and tried to ban smoking, and the high ranking character in question seems to see the whole genocide issue3 as an unfortunate distraction from the Nazis’ more solid public health policies.
Among those who don’t fit in are three schoolgirls, Tuan, Cian and Miach, who dominates the other two. Miach realizes a canny person can hack medcare units to turn them into weapons; angry at the idea that she is an “irreplaceable resource”, she decides to commit suicide, using her knowledge of the medcare units and her ability to think outside the box. The other two girls agree to join her in death but their efforts do not produce the desired results.
More than a decade later, Tuan has become a trusted member of the World Health Organization purely to use her position intervening in conflicts in various non-admedistation hot spots to trade high tech goods for forbidden products like alcohol and cigarettes. She is very unhappy when events play out to send her back to conformist Japan. This puts her in the position to have lunch with her childhood friend Cian, which in turn means she is present when Cian commits bloody suicide.
But it gets worse! Cian was merely one of almost seven thousand people who tried to kill themselves at the very same moment in time, of whom almost three thousand succeeded. The implication is that someone orchestrated this by somehow compelling people to kill themselves and that these people almost certainly have something bigger in mind; Tuan (whose father was one of the people responsible for the current system) goes to some trouble to ensure that she will be part of the investigation despite Tuan being pretty clearly not a dispassionate investigator who may herself be tied in some way to what is going on.
No spoilers so all I will say is that investigations like this in settings like this by people like Tuan rarely take the investigators anywhere they wanted to go, although I think it’s safe to say Tuan is not left dissatisfied with the results she eventually sees.
A more spoilery discussion will follow when I get home tonight.
[James 2020: It is added below but there’s no way to put in a second cut to protect you from unwanted spoilers]
What’s going on in Harmony is that although it’s not supposed to be possible with the tools available to hack mental states — even though it is obviously trivial to do this given what else they can do, at least crudely — the devices/software used to monitor physical health can also be used to alter mental states; you can, for example, change the decision making processes to make killing oneself more attractive than any other option.
Something the core researchers were surprised to discover in one small, isolated population in Central Asia is that in a situation where the environment is stable, consciousness is a tool for survival can be done away with and in fact none of the people in this group are self-aware, although they mimic many of the behaviors of self-aware people. From the point of view of someone traumatized by the Maelstrom, there was a lot to be said in favour of these people; they were adept at conforming, they couldn’t be unhappy, and their society was largely nonviolent.
It was also — and this is where I think things will eventually come back to bite the people running the show — not very good at dealing with unusual stresses. The place got overrun during the aftermath of the Maelstrom and Miach developed an I because she was forced by the Russians into sex slavery as a child. Being aware of herself was unfamiliar and extremely unpleasant for her, even after she was rescued, thus the nihilism.
A small group of people have known how to trigger a mental state without an I for decades; the only reason they have not done this is because they fear the death of individuality somewhat more than they do chaos. Like the balance between choosing to live and choosing to die, which option is more attractive to the people in power can be changed, by e.g. using one’s skill with hacking medical devices to cause widespread fear and chaos.…
2: Ten million in North America alone and although the text is bit unclear it seems to me this was mostly during the process of the USA turning on itself, since nukes were part of the process and Canada has not officially had nuclear weapons in decades.
3: Which Tuan mentions is an increasingly obscure event as curricula evolve with time. WWII is described as a conflict between Japan and the two nations of America (which actually seems to mean the one nation America was before it split; America = USA in this case).