Saturday, September 15, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: THE CAGE OF ZEUS (2011) by Sayuri Ueda

Translated by Takami Nieda
First English Publication September 2011 by Haikasoru
Original Japanese Publication 2004 by Kadokawa Haruki Corporation

Check this: roundtrip gender. This is a term of the future, imagined by novelist Sayuri Ueda for her novel The Cage of Zeus, the author's first novel to be translated from Japanese to English. I can't help but wonder: was something lost in translation? Maybe, maybe not. But the term refers to someone who, with the help of advanced medical science, is able to switch back and forth between the two broadly defined categories of female and male biological gender. The term is kind of funky, but the idea is sublime.

In this future world, someone who explores a roundtrip gender identity can switch back and forth between male and female, female and male many times throughout their lifespan. It goes without saying that this imaginary human future, which has colonies on the Moon, Mars, and the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, has overcome most of the bigotry and hatred directed towards gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people that, as of this writing, still plagues humanity in the real world. Not only have these future humans overcome such things, but they are pushing into some interesting new territory with this roundtrip gender idea.

The one thing that humanity cannot seem to handle in this future, at least in Ueda's telling, is a truly bigender human, someone with fully functioning biological sex organs of both male and female. It's the very edge of human experience. And it's happening in the orbit of stormy Jupiter . . .

Science fiction stories about space adventures seem to feed on our desire for novelty, for adventure, for new frontiers, new worlds, and our ability to overcome any and all obstacles that might prevent us from creating a true intergalactic civilization. Yes, science fiction frequently deals with dystopian visions, but I'm talking here about the triumphant branch of science fiction literature. The science expert's and engineer's literature of the Golden Age of Science Ficition: John W. Campbell, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Stanley G. Weinbaum, E.E. "Doc" Smith, the writers and stories that inspired the people who made NASA, who articulated a grand future history of an ordered, rationalistic techno-conquest of human misery and the fulfillment, by that same process of techno-conquest, of every human desire.

 Humans, within science fiction and to some extent in real life, have dreamed up rockets and lunar excursion modules and shuttles and space stations and mythical star galleons powered by faster than light reactionless drives to colonize the moon and harvest its natural resources to establish orbital manufacturing complexes; terraform Mars; exploit the storm energy of gas giant Jupiter; and expand the human dominion into deep space. It's the stuff of dreams. Or maybe just silly paperback books with stern looking heroic types in militaristic uniforms--Master and Commander in Space. 

 Ueda's The Cage of Zeus is a classic sci-fi saga right out of the Golden Age but with a much more sophisticated take on sexuality and gender identity. Not only are the heroes not all square-jawed macho men (although they are included in the mix), but you have a lot of tough, competent women, and a whole community of bigender people who represent a new breakthrough in humanity's capacity to not just engineer technology, but to engineer human bodies into whatever shape you can imagine.

We fantasize about our technology taking on newer and more powerful forms, but we do not typically fantasize about our fundamental human forms changing too much in most of these space adventure fantasies. It's almost as if we are deluded by a kind of chauvinism when it comes to our human bodies and minds. We assume that we'll be able to keep our old human forms when we start making long term voyages to Mars and beyond. But  humans evolved across billions of years to life on earth with gravity and open spaces and wind and bodies of water.

Zero gravity, extreme isolation, communications lag, long travel times, cosmic radiation, threats of damage to spacecraft including the horror of  depressurization, and cramped environments are difficult for humans to adapt to, and can degrade the health of space explorers if not kill them outright. Psychological disturbances have been observed in long term space sojourns. Barring the development of more hospitable and durable spacecraft and space stations it is hard to conceive how even the most determined, courageous,naturally talented, and well-trained astronauts could survive a five-hundred day round trip to Mars and back.

 Assuming we can achieve the necessary technology to successfully travel to Mars and back, and then, in generations to come, establish working colonies on the Moon and Mars, maybe even construct some space-based mining facilities in the larger rocks of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, we might eventually find ourselves at a point where we must modify our bodies and minds to be able to go further into space. We could probably carve out living civilizations on the Moon and Mars and some semi-automated facilities in the asteroid belt that would allow humans to survive and thrive, but out past Mars we would find ourselves in unforgiving territory.

Yeah, at that point we'd be knocking on Jupiter's door, poking it in its big red eye. Jupiter is a planet without any true surface, a gas giant subject to massive storms that could swallow good ol' Terra whole, no big deal, a snack, really. Maybe two or three earths at a go--now that would be a meal fit for the King of Planets.

So, no, a colony on the non-existent surface of Jupiter wouldn't be possible. But you could maybe build a space station in orbit . . .

 Inside the space station Jupiter-I, humans experiment with transforming themselves into a new subspecies in order to survive in deep space within artificial environments. The transformations start out as modifications to existing adult humans, but then these modified humans, known as Rounds, are able to give birth to children who are the new subspecies from birth. The Rounds are only allowed to legally exist inside the Jupiter-I space station which orbits the King of Planets.

Why are the Rounds only allowed to exist on Jupiter-I? Because the unified human government which has dominion over Earth, the Moon, Mars, Asteroid City, and Jupiter-I has outlawed the Rounds because they are, by their very nature, unacceptable to the mainstream of human society.

What's unacceptable about the Rounds? The Rounds exist as both males and females simultaneously. They have been engineered as beings who, as a society, are entirely self-sufficient and without gender discrimination. They have fully functional sex organs of men and women, and they are capable of having sex as both genders simultaneously, each Round is capable of being impregnated and of impregnating another Round simultaneously. Rounds can also breed with the old stock of human beings. In fact, a Round, if they so desired, could impregnate themselves with their own seed. So, if a Round population in deep space met with catastrophe where only a few survived, it would still be possible to repopulate.

Mainstream humans are seriously freaked out and disturbed by all this. This future society has come to accept the full spectrum of known human sexuality--homosexuality, bisexuality, heterosexuality, transsexuality, asexuality--but there is still an aspect of human psychology that wants to pigeonhole people as being either male or female. A being which totally confounds that binary and offers up a new gender identity beyond the broad categories of male and female is still largely unknown in this future world. Occasionally, people are born with sex organs of both biological sexes, and a decision is made by the parents to surgically alter the child one way or another depending on the condition of the organs. The Rounds confound human prejudices on many levels.

The Rounds have some prejudices of their own, too. Their leader is a stern, but compassionate authoritarian named Fortia. Fortia believes that the Rounds should be totally devoted to the mission of space exploration, even willing to sacrifice their lives for the experimental data that could form the basis of human expansion beyond Jupiter's orbit. Some of the Rounds think that this is out of balance, that such an ideology makes them into living, breathing probes--robots, in effect.

Also, the Rounds have a name for the old stock humans: Monaurals. Rounds and Monaurals live mostly separate lives on Jupiter-I, although, as mentioned, it is biologically possible for Rounds and Monaurals to have sexual relations and to procreate. This, too, becomes a source of conflict . . .

Aside from their fully functioning, biologically bigender state as individuals, there is also the thorny issue that the Rounds have been created as the result of experimentation upon human volunteers. Yes, the first generation of Rounds consented to the experimental procedures, but some people, especially on Earth, are disturbed by certain implications: Are the Rounds meant to replace the old version of humanity? Will all humans be subjected to modification against their will? Are Rounds, not the old stock of humanity, to be the inheritors of the stars?

Some of these objections are rooted in reactionary attitudes and paranoia, maybe even some trace elements of religious fundamentalism, although religiously based intolerance is not emphasized in Ueda's novel. The main objections are rooted in financial arguments: tax dollars should be spent on projects on the Earth, the Moon, and Mars. Jupiter-I and related expeditions to the Jovian moons are perceived by some as epic boondoggles. The fear and hatred on the part of humans seems to stem from the basic fact of the Rounds' newness as a category of human being. Also, the Rounds are a tiny minority. Human history seems to suggest that any time you have a human community that is smaller than some other human community, the larger group will find some way to stigmatize, exploit, scapegoat, and maybe even eradicate the smaller group. The Rounds are, in a deeply unfortunate sense, in danger of becoming the cutting edge of human scapegoats.

You'd think that the Rounds living in Jupiter-I would be pretty safe from the forces of conservatism based primarily on Earth, but such is not the case. A well-funded anti-government organization called the Vessel of Life has made it known that its constituency does not approve of the Rounds. The Vessel of Life has been linked to terrorist actions and groups, but they are apparently so well-heeled, and possibly supported by powerful political factions, that they have avoided being wiped out by the official united human government. The Vessel engages in legitimate scientific research projects, humanitarian endeavors, think tanks, and has a great deal of cover for its illegal activities. The Rounds have seemingly become a wedge issue for the Vessel of Life to de-legitimize the current human government and seize power for themselves.

But the Vessel of Life isn't content to just play politics and try to de-fund the Jupiter-I operation through legislative means. Government security forces have been tipped off that the Vessel has recruited a professional mercenary on Mars to spearhead an all-out assault on Jupiter-I and the Round community living there. How does a terrorist gang successfully attack a space station in Jupiter's orbit? Good question . . .

When I first read Ueda's novel, I was dissatisfied with how much of the book dwelt on the details of the terrorist operation against Jupiter-I. The early chapters dealt with the Round society on the space base in such a compelling fashion, that the terrorist assault just seemed contrived to add momentum and melodrama to the narrative. I read the book a second time and realized that what Ueda was really interested in was exploring value systems in conflict within the context of a larger political/dynastic struggle.

Yes, it does seem monumentally stupid and destructive for a terrorist group to try to strike an installation near Jupiter (for that matter, I wonder how wise it would be to put a space station so close to a planet as volatile as Jupiter, but I'm not a planetologist, so what do I know?), but the idea behind the terrorist assault has less to do with morality and more to do with the politics of the conflicting factions on Earth. Even if the Vessel of Life's operation were a total failure, just the fact that they were able to get operatives near or even inside Jupiter-I could possibly put the scare into legislators controlling the budget for the whole experiment. So, is the Vessel's goal destruction or just intimidation, or both?

That's the deep game that the powers that be are, perhaps, playing. But Ueda doesn't neglect the complexities of the Round society. Even within a small, near-Utopian group such as the Rounds there is discontent. Not all of the Rounds agree that their lives should be totally devoted to the project of existence within artificial environments in deep space. The younger generation of Rounds have read stories by Monaural humans that depict the lives of Earthians. Some of these Rounds want to know more about the Monaurals and their "ancient" culture.

Some Rounds are born with psychological gender identities that don't fit within their biological sex as bigenders, but it can be difficult to leave the Round society for the Monaural society of Jupiter-I. Monaurals serve long tours of duty on the space station, so even if a Round underwent surgery to bring their biological sex in line with their psychological sexual identity, they would still have a long ways to go before they would be able to rotate back to the human settlements on Mars. Due to the legal barrier, a Round can either reside within the Round colony as a Round, or undergo sexual reassignment to become a Monaural, but a Round can never leave the Jupiter-I station. It's a stark choice for a Round wrestling with their sexual identity.

Ueda also addresses value conflicts among the Monaural characters. Jupiter-I's armed security contingent is led by a tough guy named Harding who is seemingly bigoted towards the Rounds, and has physically assaulted a round named Veritas. He's also a shoot first, torture later kind of guy who sees no moral conflict with using the harshest methods possible against enemy combatants and prisoners. But his bigotry and affinity for violence are not quite what they seem . . .

Harding is opposed on some issues by a male Monaural named Shirosaki who is the leader of an auxiliary security contingent from the human settlement on Mars. Shirosaki and his soldiers are sent to back up Harding. Shirosaki is not quite sure what to make of the Rounds or their society but he is open minded and level-headed, where Harding is temperamental, impulsive, and stubborn. Shirosaki is a kind of everyman character representative of the vast middle of this future human/Monaural society. He does not have any personal feelings at stake in the operation, but neither is he neglectful in executing his duties.

There is also the science staff on Jupiter-I led by a female Monaural named Kline, and the Round representative who communicates directly with the Monaurals, Tei, and other assorted Rounds and Monaurals.

Systemic and cultural conflicts exist between the scientists and the soldiers as well. Ueda addresses how value systems of those from military subcultures and those from scientific/academic subcultures can be opposed.

I'm not going to say too much about the terrorists themselves as that would spoil some important twists and turns in Ueda's plot. The main thing with all the characters in the book is that they embody various positions within the complex value systems at play within The Cage of Zeus. Each character occupies a particular perspective within the conflict, and they are forced to struggle with their values as individuals and how their values conflict with the value systems of other individuals and which society they belong to, Round or Monaural. The book is kind of schematic in this sense, and there are times when it seems more like an analytic simulation of a speculative scenario rather than a flowing fictional narrative, but it is compelling all the same. Some of the stiffness of the language may be a a by-product of translation from Japanese into English, but in my experience science fiction narratives are often more concerned with mapping out theoretical situations using unadorned language than they are in stylistic extravagance. The Cage of Zeus is definitely within the tradition of literary hard science fiction in that all of its speculations are based on credible extrapolations from the fields of astrophysics, nanotechnology, biology, sexology, sociology, engineering, and psychology, among other fields. If the language is a little dry, the ideas are still compelling. In fact, a plain style is perhaps an advantage in telling a story as complicated as this as it allows the ideas and conflicts to come across directly, and not be obscured by convoluted language.

Ueda does something else which is rather commendable. While her characters are somewhat schematic, she does justice to the complexity of their thoughts and feelings. She is especially insightful about delineating the different aspects of sexuality, biological gender, and gender identity, and how all of these things interact. Many of the characters, including the terrorists, are full of conflicts and find themselves at the mercy of larger community concerns if they are not being manipulated outright to further the aims of powerful interests behind the scenes. Without giving too much away, I think it is fair to say that nothing is resolved easily within The Cage of Zeus. Humankind's struggle to attain the stars continues to be a struggle of factions against factions, humans against humans, soldiers against scientists, Rounds versus Monaurals, individuals against societies, individuals divided against themselves, humanity in all its stunning variety versus the pitiless void of space . . .

The Cage of Zeus also got me thinking about how there are new frontiers to human identity and sexuality just waiting to be created. In real life, I'm not sure that humanity is going to ever make it off this planet and create a truly intergalactic society. I'm a pessimist. I do not think the human race has "the Right Stuff." We're too hung up on greed, ideology, religious fundamentalism, and we seem to put the basis for our technological advancement in the hands of the warmongers and the weapons makers. I don't think there's any intelligent life out there in the universe. We're the only game in town when it comes to intelligence, so it's up to us to spread intelligence to the stars, but that's not going to happen. As a species, we're more interested in trying to kill and/or control each other on this world. If we wanted to extend ourselves to other planets, we'd have to have a radical shift in our priorities to a more cooperative mode, as one united species, later for all these factions and nation states, and I just don't see that happening. But maybe there is still hope, in communities here and there, on the frontier of human identity and how we relate to each other on this planet.

But it's nice to fantasize about a human future out there in space. Even if it is as dark and conflicted as the future Sayuri Ueda conjures up in The Cage of Zeus.
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