nenena: (Default)
nenena ([personal profile] nenena) wrote2012-12-23 03:25 pm

Shin Sekai Yori is a really great YA dystopian fantasy novel (and a kind of terrible anime)

Let's be honest: I think that a lot of us are starting to get pretty tired of the glut of plucky-young-heroine-versus-unjust-dystopian-future novels currently flooding the YA market. Including me. Having said that, however, I have to confess that I am tremendously enjoying Yusuke Kishi's Shin Sekai Yori ("From the New World"). And I mostly enjoy it because it (for the most part) avoids a lot of the cliched narrative traps that so many English YA novels and Japanese light novels fall into.

First of all, Shin Sekai Yori is NOT, actually, a light novel. It clocks in at over 900 pages total, and to quote Gaston: "There are no pictures!" Nevertheless, it IS intended to be a young adult novel, which is probably why its second edition was split into three parts and marketed as three "light" novels in Japan.

And boy, does this one have a doozy of a high-concept premise. IN THE FUTURE: All human beings are born with incredible psychokinetic potential. And wow, does that fucking suck.

The key weakness of all too many dystopian fantasies is that we are mostly left to believe that the all-controlling government is all-controlling because... it's all-controlling. And freedom of thought and action is suppressed because the government is, er, controlling! Super-controlling! Because they're controlling! Maybe the evil all-controlling government has an ideological agenda (1984) or a religious agenda (The Handmaid's Tale) that explains their need to control all facets of human life right down to people's thoughts and desires. But more often that not, and especially in YA novels, there's no such reasoning ever given for why the evil all-controlling government does what it does. The government controls you because it's evil! Freedom is good! The government hates your freedom because it's evil and your freedom is good!

But in the future of Shin Sekai Yori? A child's stray thought can cause somebody else's head to explode. Exercising selfish desires can lead to psychotic breaks that cause teenagers to become mindless, unstoppable killing machines. And feeling self-doubt or a lack of self-confidence? That can lead to your PK forming a leak called a "bad spill" that can instantly mutate and painfully kill all organic life around you - including other humans.

In most dystopian fantasies, the evil all-controlling government justifies its absolute control over human thought and desire by saying that it's all for humanity's own good, to protect humanity from itself - and we are, of course, meant to understand that this is bullshit. In Shin Sekai Yori, however, the evil all-controlling government justifies its absolute control over human thought and desire by saying that it's all for humanity's own good, to protect humanity from itself - and we are shown over and over again that there IS a real (gruesome, terrifying, absofuckinglutely nightmarish) danger that the government's plans and policies actually protects its citizens from.

And how does Shin Sekai Yori's government achieve this absolute control over human thought and desire? By giving NEARLY TOTAL FREEDOM to kids. And then simply weeding out (read: discretely killing) any children that exhibit the personality flaws that can lead to psychotic breaks and/or loss of control over their PK.

It's an interesting premise for a YA dystopia because from the point of view of the kids in the novel, they're not living in a dystopia at all. In fact, they live in a lush green agricultural paradise (thanks to over one thousand years of human depopulation), they have the freedom to play as they wish, they do quite a bit of independent study in school, they choose their own friendships, and they love whomever they want to love: there is no taboo against homosexuality in this future. They notice that sometimes their classmates "disappear" but they're mostly not bothered by it. They are totally aware of the fact that the adults use hypnosis to control their PK, but again, this isn't something that bothers the kids. They accept that the hypnosis gives them control over their own PK that they might not otherwise have.

The kids in Shin Sekai Yori live lives of false freedom within a system of total control. For example, early in the novel, the heroine Saki and her friends compete in a fun sports tournament at their school, one which allows them to use their PK to move pieces on their playing field. This all seems like fun and good times... Until some mean kid uses his PK to cheat at the game. Saki is frustrated by the cheating, which causes her team to lose. Oh noes! And the next day Saki notices that the kid who cheated is for some reason absent from school. In fact, she never sees or hears from him again.

Even the happy fun times sports competition, like EVERYTHING in Saki's life, is a test of the kids' personalities. Any child who exhibits undesirable personality traits must be weeded out for the good of humanity. The government in this world has the legal right to eliminate any individual before they turn 17 years old. That's a terrifying thought.

But this is, of course, a dystopia, and as our heroine Saki begins to question how awesome her world is, so do we. Why is human-on-human violence an unthinkable anathema in this culture - and why is it seen as totally normal that even very young children are sexually active? Because humans have been reprogrammed with bonobo DNA to seek out sexual intimacy in times of stress and conflict, and have been further genetically programmed to become physically ill when they harm another human. Uh-oh. Very early in the novel Saki experiences first-hand the unintended consequences of both of these genetic tweakings. And why are none of these kids BOTHERED by the fact that their friends, classmates, even siblings are disappearing all the time? Because their memories are being tampered with. And what are the legal and ethical consequences when constant low-level "leakage" from human PK usage results in mutations in the natural world so dramatic that entirely new species of life begin to populate the earth? And that's just scratching the surface of the tangled web of scary, scary stuff that Saki begins to uncover as she grows into her PK abilities.

At the end of the day, however, one of the things that really makes Shin Sekai Yori unique is how deeply conflicted and sympathetic the representatives of our all-controlling government are. The adults in Saki's life - you know, the ones who hypnotize her and erase her memories and are constantly monitoring her for any outward sign of a personality trait that would necessitate her elimination before her PK goes out of control - those adults are, at the end of the day, NOT evil people. They're parents and teacher and priests, people who try their best to protect and nurture their children, even if that means having to make terrible choices for the sake of protecting them from the dangers posed by their own PK.

Shin Sekai Yori is gruesome and awful and sad in many ways. It's a story about good people making terrible choices because they think that they've created the best possible system to deal with a terrible, awful problem. It's an extremely uncomfortable book to read, especially when it gets to the sexual stuff - although, to the novel's credit, the whole children-being-programmed-to-have-sex-when-they-feel-bad thing is presented as deeply problematic, not as a utopian free-love-for-all solution as I can't help but fear it would have been presented as if Shin Sekai Yori were, say, written by CLAMP. Or an anime directed by Masashi Ishihama (*cough*cough*). But at the end of the day Shin Sekai Yori is also a really GOOD book, because it's about sympathetic people dealing with terrible problems in realistic ways, for better or for worse. It's unusual in terms of dystopian fantasies because we readers are able to sympathize so much with the "evil all-controlling government." Yet despite how terrifying the PK disasters are, however, at the end of the day we STILL aren't meant to be siding with the government and its system of control over human life, at least not entirely. Like the heroine Saki, we're left with a lot of questions and not a lot of answers. But it's an amazing journey through Saki's life and through Saki's story anyway. Or at least what I've read so far is an amazing journey through an amazing story. I have to confess that I'm not finished with the novel yet, but I'm reading it every day because it's one of those rare books that I just can't put down.

Okay, and now a few words about the anime adaptation of the novel, which is currently airing on TV Asahi. It's... well. Let me start with what I like about it. The music is lovely, especially the haunting opening theme that consists of a chorus of children worldlessly chanting. I love the character designs and especially the CLOTHING DESIGNS oh my god they are awesome. At least in the dystopian future we can all plan on being really, really well-dressed. Unfortunately, however, despite the beautiful character designs, the animation is wildly uneven - ranging from passably okay to just plain ugly off-model crap. The animation never actually gets good. And the lack of "pretty" is especially disappointing considering the beautiful settings that the novel describes. Overall I'm disappointed in the anime so far. The pacing between episodes is awful, and several key details are changed from the novel to the anime. What especially bothers me is the sexuality stuff, especially the way that the anime presents the Saki/Maria stuff as nearly pure fanservice.

But anywhoo, Shin Sekai Yori is a really great book and as soon as it's available in translation (which I assume will only be a matter of time) y'all should check it out.

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