Masamune Shirow’s 1991 Ghost in the Shell, volume 1, collects the first eleven chapters of the serial post-cyberpunk manga. The 1995 English translation is courtesy of Frederik Schodt and Toren Smith.
The 2030s! A wonderful era of realistic robotic servants, cybernetic brain enhancement, and advanced prosthetic augmentation. All are valuable tools in the endless struggle between nation-states. As well as the battle to contain terrorists/freedom fighters/mafias. (Which label to apply depends on your POV.)
Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Section 9 recruits the elite from Japan’s police forces and military organizations. Their brief: serving Japan’s national interests without the bother of excessive red tape or obsessive focus on human rights. Major Kusanagi (a cyborg who is majority metal, with one squishy brain) is one of Section 9’s best. She never hesitates to remove impediments to the national interest as forcefully as she deems necessary.
Working against the Major: a chaotic constellation of criminals, terrorists, corrupt officials, and conniving foreign agents. If those were not challenge enough, the same technology that allows augmented humans to directly access the net allows malicious actors on the net to access aforesaid augmented humans, rewriting memories and motivations as needed. What one man sincerely believes is a custody battle with his estranged, ex-wife may be a criminal campaign carried out on behalf of an unseen puppetmaster. The divorce may never have happened. The wife and children may be fictions created to ensure that the puppet carries out his role.
One miscreant in particular catches Section 9’s eye. Not just a puppetmaster but the Puppetmaster, the player on the other side has an unparalleled ability to command software, whether purely digital or embodied in human brains. This is because unlike every other criminal of its kind, the Puppetmaster is unique, a being quite unlike any Section 9 has ever dealt with.
And it has a proposition for the Major.…
I need to stop thinking of Ghost in the Shell as the New Hot Thing. Versions of the material date back to the late 1980s, which is to say they’ve been in print in one form or another for most of my life. Readers coming to this collection unaware of its advanced age would soon notice that Shirow wrote and drew this in a different era. If the complete failure to reference Japan’s unending Ushinawareta Jūnen weren’t enough, the ever present landlines, payphones, and apparent absence of mobile phones — not to mention the continued existence of the Soviet Union — make it clear this is your grandfather’s tomorrow.
One of the elements that caught my eye on this rereading was the ubiquitous combination of hypersexualized gynoform robots and ugly male owners. The robots conform closely to particular physical ideals (ones that seem to have frozen in the late 1980s). They are dressed to show as much skin as possible while remaining clothed (minimally). But their owners look like the results of a hominid-manatee breeding program. I’d like to think this was social commentary from Shirow … but I suspect the eye-candy is simply pandering to a primarily male audience. The occasional gratuitous ass-shots of the women in the cast do not appear to be for the purposes of commentary.
The story itself exemplifies a particular flavour of police procedural cyberpunk, in which extreme measures are justified because the bad guys are very very bad and most of the officials (and many of the cops) are on the take. If conventional legal avenues have been corrupted, why not simply shoot the bad guys in the head or run them down with a car? It seems logical. It results in a world in which it really sucks to be a bystander.
Kusanagi is the ideal protagonists for such a time. As a co-worker jokes, human rights are an alien concept for her. She is a supreme pragmatist, little bothered by collateral damage or grand political principles. Those are outmoded ideas from a dead era and she is a very modern person.
The technology in this work is outmoded but Ghost in the Shell’s political and legal depravity would fit in nicely with the 21st century inflicted upon us. Alas.