Tuesday, September 13, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: THE CRIMSON LABYRINTH (2006)

The Crimson Labyrinth 
by Yusuke Kishi


Originally published in Japan in 1999.
English translation by Masami Isetani and Camellia Nieh
English edition published in 2006 by Vertical, Inc.


Fujiki wakes up in a canyon of red rock. He doesn't remember how he got there, but he remembers who he was: an unemployed salaryman who was down and out on the streets of Shinjuku, sleeping in a park, and dumpster diving meals from discarded bento boxes out behind a convenience store. Now, he's seemingly been transported to another world, or maybe another reality, by parties unknown.

Fujiki's abductors have left him with a box full of nutrition bars and a handheld gaming machine (think Game Boy) that tells Fujiki that he is trapped in the Mars Labyrinth and that the game has begun. What kind of game? The machine elaborates that Fujiki must survive in order to return to Earth and receive the prize money. Further, the machine states that the players of this game must make their way to various checkpoints and make decisions which could determine whether they live or die.

Is this some sort of elaborate prank? Is it a hallucination? Is Fujiki really on Mars? What kind of people would render you unconscious and toss you into the middle of an elaborately staged survival game? Reality television producers? Are these people even human? Or are they Martians?

Fujiki starts to find his way to the first checkpoint. But he's not alone. He encounters a woman named Ai Otomo, who has also been conscripted into this game. Back in Japan, she drew pornographic manga. Now, she stumbles around a maze of red rock, at just as much of a loss for explanations as Fujiki. Fujiki and Ai put their heads together and figure out how to count off their paces to find the first checkpoint as per the handheld gaming device's instructions, and they find the other Japanese citizens who've been conscripted to play this twisted game: all of them are people recently unemployed or forgotten in the wake of Japan's exploded bubble economy. Perhaps that's why they've been abducted. What's a few less jobless folks to worry about? No, these people will not be missed. And what else, if anything, does that say about the motivations of the unseen abductors?

Each player has been provided with a handheld gaming device. At the first checkpoint, where all the players are gathered, they are beamed more information about the nature of the game, including the following prohibitions: no climbing the canyon walls, no drawing large figures in the sand or on the rocks, no making multiple fires in close proximity, no making whistles to emit loud noises, and no signaling with mirror-like objects. Violators will be severely punished. The players are then presented with the following choice of initial paths:

"IF YOU CHOOSE TO SEEK SURVIVAL ITEMS, GO EAST. IF YOU CHOOSE TO SEEK SELF-DEFENSE ITEMS, GO WEST. IF YOU CHOOSE TO SEEK FOOD, GO SOUTH. IF YOU CHOOSE TO SEEK INFORMATION, GO NORTH."

Wouldn't you know it? Fujiki and Ai end up going north. Fujiki, who specialized in game theory at college, reasons that the abductors must have some reason for offering up such a seemingly impractical choice as an initial opening move of the game. Fujiki also reasons that if this is indeed a game, then the very first choice will probably have far-reaching ramifications, maybe even life and death consequences, and so that first choice had better be a damned good one. Of course, as Fujiki also realizes, game theory depends on the rather huge assumption that all the actors in question are rational, which is scarcely a given in real life. Therefore, game theory as applied to real life is, as Fujiki puts it, "worse than useless." But why would the people behind the Mars Labyrinth design a game that could not be rationally solved? Even if Fujiki is wrong, surely there must be some design, some underlying logic to be figured out that one might win? But such thinking assumes that the game has been designed in such a way that actual victory is possible, that it has been constructed to be fair.

Hey, real life ain't fair. Games exist as a part of real life. Therefore . . .

 . . . Fujiki and Ai set out along the northern path in search of information.

The Crimson Labyrinth is a lean but protein rich meal. It's one of those books you just about have to read in one sitting. It's all plot, and pacing, and suspense, with just enough precise characterization to keep you intrigued. The setting is rendered with enough detail to bring it to life, but not so much that it becomes a travelogue. It has one of those highly exploitative yet engaging premises that you just have to get to the bottom of, even if you suspect the conclusion might not be as satisfying as the journey. As it happens, author Yusuke Kishi knows how to parcel out the suspense even once he's tipped his hand. He's not just concerned with a big payoff, some out of left field shocker of an ending, but he also wants to ask some tough questions about human nature within the context of the survival game:

Are these players faced with a zero sum game, where only one can win? Or is there a possibility for a cooperative victory?

What are the penalties for violating any of the five prohibitions? Why have such prohibitions in the first place?

If you're faced with a zero sum game, where you have to compete with your fellow human beings for a single victory position, what are you willing to do to win? If it's a zero sum game, can Fujiki and Ai both win? Can Fujiki and Ai trust each other?

Who are the abductors? Are they human? Are they telling the truth? Why would they lie? Why would they be honest? Can the information provided by the handheld gaming units be trusted? Whoever the abductors are, they must be some sort of organization with considerable resources, perhaps even paranormal powers. What kind of an organization would put on a survival game of this nature? What are their ethics and/or morality, if any? Is there some larger agenda? Is it all just for kicks?

Maybe none of this is real. The point of view character is Fujiki. Can his perceptions be trusted?

How does one make an ethical choice within the context of a zero-sum game? Is it possible? Is ethical decision making entirely dependent upon context? That is to say, if we can only choose from the options that are known to us, and none of them are ethical, how do we decide what the most ethical of unethical choices is in a given situation?

What about good and evil? Are these things inherent in who we are? Or are they products of the choices we make? Are they woven into the fabric of reality, or are they just illusions we project onto our daily lives? We typically imagine ourselves to be good even when we do evil. Don't we typically let ourselves off the hook for transgressions large and small?

Does one have to play the game, or can you just walk away from it?

The Crimson Labyrinth is one of those books with such an over the top premise that it inspires all sorts of speculations as you read it.

Of course, I can't tell you what the Mars Labyrinth is. You have to read it for yourself . . .

----

Okay, digression time.

What is it about stories about sick games played with unwilling participants for life or death stakes?

The Crimson Labyrinth was published in 1999, the same year that saw the original publication of the notorious cult classic Battle Royale. BR was all about a group of young Japanese students who were pitted against each other in an elaborate death match for sinister purposes by the government.

I suppose it goes back to "The Most Dangerous Game," a short story by Richard Connell published in 1924 about a depraved aristocrat who sets up expeditions to go human hunting for fun and profit. This short story was knocked off in 1993 for  the Jean Claude Van Damme epic Hard Target which reset the action from a remote Caribbean island to New Orleans and tossed in motor cycles, martial arts, and assault weapons.

In 1987 you had the Schwarzenegger classic The Running Man which was about a futuristic televised gladiator spectacle involving condemned prisoners going up against high tech assassins in a bombed out dystopian landscape--all set up by evil, Reaganomic corporations which had overrun America by that time.

In 1997 there was The Game, directed by David Fincher, which was about a wealthy man, played by Michael Douglas, who is conned into participating in what starts out as some kind of alternate reality LARP which turns into a deadly, all out assault on his financial assets and his life.

I've heard some people compare The Game to John Fowles's 1965 novel The Magus about a man being manipulated by elaborate illusions that might threaten his life.

Then there are the Dream Park novels published throughout the 1980s and 1990s by Steven Barnes and Larry Niven which imagine a high tech theme park where the participants engage in LARPing scenarios writ large derived from world mythologies, sci-fi and sword and sorcery literature and gaming products. These novels intertwine murder mystery plots with unusual pastiches from sci-fi and fantasy literature and offer intriguing takes on the line between reality and fantasy. Unusually, the participants in these Dream Park games are willing participants. Do people like to have their reality toyed with from time to time?

Most all of these stories seemingly involve conspiracies of one kind or another. The players come to think of themselves as being persecuted, of being at the hands of heartless machinations by powerful evil forces. In the case of The Running Man and Battle Royale, the bloodsport is explicitly set up by the ruling classes for purposes of control and pacification of the general populace. In those works in particular the suspense doesn't derive so much from the unraveling of secret conspiracies as it does from the life and death struggles of who survives and who dies.

"The Most Dangerous Game" and Hard Target are about smaller scale operations. In the former, it's one Russian aristocrat, and in the latter it's a New Orleans based gang that hires itself out to wealthy degenerates who wish to hunt homeless people on the streets of the Big Easy. The cops don't exist on the crazy Russian's island, and in the New Orleans scenario they've been bought off, as per usual, by the criminal organization of interest. Depraved gamesmanship doesn't necessarily need the backing of oppressive governments or rapacious corporations. It just needs the desire and sadism within the human heart. Maybe a few bribes for the local gendarmes if the operation involves a couple dozen players or so.

Maybe these kinds of stories (if indeed they can be said to be of a kind, or kinds, I'm casting a wide net here), work on an author's and an audience's sense of fair play. Even when these stories seemingly cheat, it's within the context of the game. A betrayal of the rules within a game is that much more stinging. A gaming scenario is also a quick and dirty way of contriving drama, of manufacturing conflict.

Corruption of varying degrees figures into these sagas. Is a human life worth sacrificing for the sake of sport?  Are we all just pawns in the gamesmanship which goes on between nations and transnational corporations?

Where do our true loyalties lie as humans? To Team A or Team B? What about Team C? Why Teams? Should we try to reach out to our fellow humans as humans, and discard such childish pursuits?

Is it possible to say no to the game, whatever that may be? Do we have to play?

What if you want to play? If everybody quits, and you're the last gamer, how does that position differ from its opposite? The lone quitter and the last gamer . . . are they that far apart?

Maybe there are more subtle grades of distinction to be made, but most of these stories, excepting the Dream Park books, deal with the terrors of bloodsports, of zero-sum games at their most naked and savage--stripped of all economic, nationalistic, and ideological posturing and hand-waving. In the end, those that make the games want you to play. They won't let you quit. They want to put you on a team, dictate the rules, and set the terms of victory. At most, the player might be able to choose their team or what weapon they'll use to kill the other guy.

You can't win if you don't play. But what price victory? Sometimes you lose even if you win.


Vertical, Inc.'s The Crimson Labyrinth page:
http://www.vertical-inc.com/books/crimson.html


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