Friday, August 19, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: ALL YOU NEED IS KILL (2009) by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka
Originally published in Japan in 2004
English translation by Alexander O. Smith
Published 2009 by Haikasoru Books

All You Need Is Kill is one of the most astute genre mash-ups I've experienced. Try this on: Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers, with echoes of classic Japanese anime shows such as Mobile Suit Gundam, Armored Trooper Votoms, and Macross.

How cool is that?

A young man named Keiji Kiriya dons a formidable suit of powered armor, called a Jacket, to battle four-legged alien invaders that resemble cow-sized squashed toads. Keiji's just a teenager, but he enlisted in the United Earth Defense Forces for a shot at the glory prophesied in all the cheeseball, no doubt Michael Bay directed, militaristic epics cranked out by the defense-entertainment complex of the future. Keiji ends up being a pretty good Jacket Jockey, but not for the usual reasons. Usually, in mecha anime, such as Mobile Suit Gundam or Armored Trooper Votoms, the young hero is some kind of a Chosen One, or a genetically engineered supersoldier, or a NewType, or maybe just unusually skilled with working with machines--but not Kiriya. No, Kiriya wasn't blessed by a prophecy, or DNA, or psionic powers. Keiji Kiriya is getting practice and lots of it.

Somehow, he has gotten trapped in a time loop on the day of a momentous and disastrous battle with the alien foemen. He replays the same doomed defense over and over again. Keiji Kiriya is condemned to fight to the last, and watch all his comrades get slaughtered over and over again, and there is no readily apparent way to break out of the loop, or communicate his condition to anybody else. Only Kiriya awakes each morning with the sure knowledge of eternal repetition. So Kiriya approaches it like some kind of video game. He maps out the possibilities, uncovers the right tactics and weapons to use against the Mimics, and elevates his game with each run through the loop.

But loops keep on loopin', and the implications are disturbing to say the least.

Has Keiji died and gone to some kind of twisted Valhalla? Is he trapped in some Matrix-style simulation? Maybe it's all but a dream-within-a-dream. Keiji's speculations on the nature of his reality don't go too far, but as a reader along for the ride one can't help but go for the extreme scenarios. One of the book's distinct pleasures is its unraveling of the mysteries of the time loop, how and why it works the way it does. Sakurazaka does a pretty good job of drawing the suspense out, and leaving the philosophical heavy-lifting to the reader. After all, Keiji's just another grunt--not dumb, but just much too practical minded and of the moment to go off on philosophical tangents. Sakurazaka somewhat indirectly plants the possibilities of what could be happening, and avoids putting too much overt philosophizing in the mouths of his characters.

The quadrupedal enemies are called Mimics. I think because they mimic living organisms in general, and not because they actually mimic any specific critter. The Mimics aren't actually living things, but some kind of sophisticated agglomeration of intelligent micro-machine swarms that have constructed their quadrupedal bodies from organic and inorganic materials. Overall, the strategic thinking behind the use of the Mimics is sharp. The alien overlords don't have to amass a clunky, Lensman-style space armada and expend massive amounts of resources to reach the Earth, no, they just launch a probe filled with self-replicating nanobots that touches down in the ocean, gestates, and emerges as an army of fully-formed killing machines. "WATCH THE SKIES!" they used to say. Humanity never saw it coming.

Emerging from the oceans, the Mimics attack en mass, are heavily armored, and can shoot scalpel sharp spines which easily pierce the humans' Jackets. The Mimics are totally ruthless, and are not interested in diplomacy. In addition to wiping out humanity's defenses with extreme prejudice, the Mimics are also the first wave of terraforming apparatus. They burrow through the soil, consuming everything, and excreting a rich gumbo of waste that's toxic for humans, but just about right for the alien overlords.

Unless, of course, it's all some kind of video game simulation. Or a drug or madness induced hallucination. Or a dream in the mind of an itinerant Star Child. One of the cool things about reading a book with such a strange set of premises is that it induces wild speculations in the mind of the reader about where it's all going, what's it all about, what's the punchline. Sakurazaka doesn't disappoint with his take on the how and why of the loop, but that's only one of the mysteries in this story.

Another mystery is the female Jacket Jockey known as the Full Metal Bitch. Who she is, how she came to be, and how her fate intertwines with Keiji Kiriya's is another aspect of the Groundhog Day aspect of the story. The FMB is Andie MacDowell to Keiji Kiriya's Bill Murray, I suppose. But the FMB isn't a journalist. She's the most highly decorated armored warrior on the planet. She's slaughtered thousands of Mimics using a giant ax. In a world of science fiction weaponry, why does she use a battleaxe? Another mystery. It would seem that the farther we journey into the future of warfare, the closer we get, paradoxically, to our primal, savage natures. Away fall all the Buck Rogers energy weapons, and out come the clubs and blades and hacking and impaling implements writ large. The FMB wields an ax that could cut through a tank. Sakurazaka comes up with some intriguing notions about the nature of warfare to justify this.

I said earlier that Sakurazaka doesn't overdo the philosophy in this book, but in a way the book is all philosophy. Philosophy in action. Like the best war stories, even ones with humans pitted against alien invaders, he uses it as a chance to put human behavior and history in a harsh light. What are we when faced with extinction? How do we endure the unendurable? Is it worth it? All too often pop culture simplifies war stories into us-vs.-them, good-vs.-evil, but in a story like this humanity is a united front. We're not fighting over flags and borders and ideologies and economic systems and non-renewable resources. This time it's a fight for survival of the species. In this sense, the Mimics are the ultimate enemy, a threat which must be totally eradicated. But that doesn't make them evil. After all, they're just killing machines, working at the behest of alien overlords on a distant planet. But the alien overlords aren't necessarily maniacal villains, just would-be colonists. Human groups have used superior technology, deception, cunning, and ruthlessness to exterminate other human groups and take their land for their own throughout history. Now, humanity as a whole is being subjected to such awful treatment. It's a rich vein in science fiction going back to H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, and Sakurazaka makes it his own.

Sakurazaka has a lot of insight into the intimate, everyday aspects of his story, too. Like the mystery novel Keiji is reading that he will seemingly never get to finish. The way macho posturing and signification works in an aggressive, testosterone drenched environment. Why is it that Jacket Jockeys from different divisions still punch each other out in one-to-one pissing contests when the real enemy is anything but their fellow man? And then there's the character of the Full Metal Bitch . . . but the less said about her the better. Discovering who she is is one of the pleasures of taking this journey with Keiji Kiriya.

This novel is Hiroshi Sakurazaka's first book to be published in English. His second was a wonderful novel called Slum Online, which I read, and blogged about, prior to reading All You Need Is Kill. Slum Online was such a mellow and funny novel, that I was kind of surprised by this one's intensity. But I'm impressed with how Sakurazaka crafts such compelling drama out of such worn-out materials as mecha anime, alien invasion sagas, and, in the case of Slum Online, MMORPGs and beat 'em up streetfighting arcade games. Sakurazaka, who has a background in IT and enjoys playing video games as per his author's bio and afterward, clearly loves the classic tropes of science fiction. He also is not content to just rehash the off-the-shelf components, but refurbish them, reverse engineer them, and implement them in strange and poignant new contexts. He's not afraid of injecting some mystery into the mix, as well, but mystery and science fiction have always worked well together. I'm looking forward to the next English translation of a novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.

But, hey, in the meantime there's the impending Hollywood movie adaption of All You Need Is Kill. If the Variety article is accurate, it sounds like the movie is at least trying to stick to the broad outline of the novel.

I hope it doesn't suck.

But even if it does, the pitch meeting for it must've been something like this:

"It's Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers!"

And that's pretty damn amusing no matter what the quality of the movie they end up making.

But a decent movie adaptation of a Sakurazaka novel suggests some new vigor which could be injected into mainstream cinema. Instead of another sub-moronic romantic comedy or unnecessary slasher movie reboot, a successful, and well-crafted, movie of All You Need Is Kill could pave the way for more international collaborations based on cool literary properties. The current movie version is being put together with Japanese producing partners, so maybe that's a sign that everyone involved wants to do right by the source material. One can hope.

But there will always be the book. Hollywood can't take that away.

Not yet, at least . . .

Click here for Haikasoru Books' All You Need Is Kill page.

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