Shinsekai Yori (From the New World)

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This is a story where the antagonists are the main characters. Either that, or it flips up the romanticized notion of revolution. Wouldn’t it be awesome to just go guns ablazing into Washington DC? Wouldn’t it be fun to kill all the powerful people that dehumanize us, make us work in low wages and study in their jails called schools? Only we forget powerful people also bleed. Beautiful people suffer from rape, and famous actors develop anorexia.

If only we could change.

Our relationship with beauty is odd. Although political bands make money off hating rich people, beautiful people may have more power. That’s thanks to the Halo Effect. If we perceive a good quality in a person, it makes all other qualities look better and the bad qualities look a little worse. Throughout the anime, we see a bunch of pretty kids/teenagers do their stuff. They fall in love, they have a lot of sex and they have fun out in nature.

Compare them to the queerats. It’s not that they don’t look human. They look ugly. They’re desexualized, have rough voices and do manual work. Surely, such stupid and ugly creatures deserve their place. When hundreds of people die, we can’t help but despise them. It’s not like the people of the villages are evil. They’re perfect, stick-thin intelligent people who care for the order of society.

“but they all forget somebody’s gotta scrub the toilets” – BioShock.

The anime is, at its heart, about power imbalance. Its way of exploring this idea is by deliberately making the powerful people sympathetic and appealing. There are two reasons for this. Evil people don’t really exist. There’s a coherent theory behind the oppression of the queerats. Also that often we won’t rise up against powerful people because we love them. It’s easy to hate the rich fat dude, but what if it was a beautiful women who enslaved people or send them to the gas chambers?

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The faction you side with tells a lot about your preferences. The story is the basic old tale of the oppressed rising against their oppressors. If you’re siding with the villages, then maybe justice isn’t in your priorities. The villages are more appealing, more like how we want to be. If you side with them, you just might be a victim of the Halo Effect.

If you hate the humans and relish all the death and destruction, then you also missed another point. There’s no difference between dehumanizing people for being powerful and dehumanizing them for being ugly. The anime makes the villains appealing both to reveal how the Halo Effect can make forgive terrible things, but also how people who do terrible things have their reasons for doing so.

Underneath all these philosophies of power there’s also an emotionally engrossing sci-fi story. Shinsekai Yori is a great argument for how sci-fi can be about human relationships and drama, not just showing off about possible technologies. Sci-Fi isn’t about predicting possible technologies – how a car works isn’t a story. It’s about how our society might look like if a certain technology emerges.

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It’s about what would happen if we’d become too powerful for our own good. If I were an expert in Japanese culture, I’d say there are parallels to the atomic bomb. The Cantus is a genetic mutation that gives human beings ridiculous amounts of power, but you can replace it with any possible mutations – super-strength, super-intelligence – that will cause a power imbalance.

Every human in the villages is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. Despite the peaceful exterior, danger is ever-present. It can coming from inside – one of us loses their mind and goes berserk. It can also come from above. The masters can take you away because they consider you a danger.

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We humans have a hard time building an honest society. We feed our children a lot of things they later have to unlearn – there’s no tooth fairy, the people in TV aren’t your friends and schools don’t teach you anything. The ‘growing up’ the kids do is realizing that the world isn’t peaceful and cannot be. The Cantus is part of human nature. Reality is hostile from every direction – your servants can rise up, one of you can go berserk and someone from above can erase you from reality. You learn similar lessons when you grow up – the job market is cruel and being a programmer isn’t enough, rapists can be sexy and you might get sent off to war.

Like any other organism, we’re constantly trying to remake the environment in our own image. By constructing a peaceful environment, we could ensure our survival. Utopian fiction often portrays these environments as a jungle of machinery and wires. So the main lesson we learn is that technology is evil, savages are noble and we all should be one with nature. The villages are ‘one with nature’. Technology hardly exists there yet the world is still hostile. Cantus isn’t just a genetic mutations. It’s a physical manifestation of the power we hold over each other. Organisms by nature are dangerous. No amount of sex or being one with nature or creating a class of ugly people can solve it.

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Shinsekai Yori is so good that talking about the technical side is pointless. It’s fantastic in how it explores its themes and anime like this are why I put so much effort into writing reviews in the first place. Every year a thousand works of fiction come out, and books or live-action movies may seem more mature but I doubt many come close to the lows of this anime. It’s at once simple, emotionally engrossing and explores its themes to the fullest. There isn’t a reason for anyone to skip this.

If only we could change.

4.5 Queerats out of 5

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Veronica Roth – Allegiant

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You were so close, Veronica Roth! Allegiant doesn’t live up to the hidden brilliance of the beginning of the trilogy. It’s a step forward, though. Everything that was wrong with its predecessor is gone. The flaws stem from the author’s original limitations, but she’s always on the brink of doing something interesting.

The book quickly settles down after one or two shootouts. The main problem with Insurgent was how heavily it relied on action scenes. That novel barely had a plot and barely progressed the story. It could’ve easily been summed up and turned into 1-3 chapters in the beginning of this novel. This time Roth slows down and lets the characters and the world do the talking.

She’s still attached to exposition. One character primarily exists for spitting exposition and vanishes in the third quarter of the novel. Roth’s world is meaningful, though. What drives it are concepts relevant to everyday life. Even if she relies on info dumps, the information is often interesting to ponder.

The book contains a big twist that rips Roth’s world. Many will find it insulting. I find that it draws a big line between this book and the first one. Sequels shouldn’t just show what happens next. If that’s all they show then they’re useless. They should take the characters to a new direction, to try new structures and themes. The twist doesn’t turn the original themes in Divergent irrelevant. That one explored one subject, and this one explores new ones.

Roth’s new theme is interesting, but disastrously shallow. The question of genetics, nurture vs. nature is interesting. How do you explore scientific ideas in fiction? You actually don’t. Fiction is the opposite of science. It’s fictive, not real whereas science is concerned mainly with facts.

Any other dealing with scientific concepts must remember this. You never ask where a scientific fact is true or not, but how it would affect us if it were true. That’s a big, important distinction. If we find a way to mine the asteroids, how would it affect our consumption of resources? If we find we can travel faster than light or even teleport, how would it affect our perception of distances?

Roth asks this question about genetics. She asks how a society where people’s personalities are shaped by genes is like. Her society doesn’t actually answer this question, though. In fact, the scientific fact doesn’t come into play at all. If Roth wanted to ask this question, she first needed to create a world in which the ‘genetically ruined’ are truly different than the ‘genetically pure’.

Her world isn’t different than ours. It’s just racism all over again, only instead of having crackers and niggers it’s about ‘genetically pure’ and ‘genetically damaged’. The shallowness runs so deep that the differences don’t even exist. Now, I’m the first person who supports chucking away the idea of ‘race’. The idea of dividing humans into races is pseudoscientific, but every pseuodoscientific idea has some basis. People do have different colors. The ‘genetic damage’ in the book might as well not exist. Roth dismisses it as a bunch of charts and equations on a screen. This isn’t exploring an idea but denying it outright.

The whole conflict ends up as meaningless. It’s a bizarre type of meaninglessness. The villain has a system of facts and ideologies to work from, but since Roth erases these facts the poor thing ends up as delusional. He’s not senseless or understandable, but completely out of touch. He evokes more pity because Roth couldn’t give him anything to do.

She’s more successful exploring her other themes. The novel includes the 3rd time or so that everything turned out to be a lie and she addresses that. Characters don’t only react to new information, but react to the fact they’ve been told so many lies. Tobias’ point of view emphasizes this. He’s in constant doubts, never completely sure he’s doing the right thing. His confusion is refreshing, especially as a romantic lead. In the predecessors he was a bit of a mysterious bad boy and man of steel. Here, he’s the one who’s weaker emotionally. He’s the one who needs love, not the opposite. It’s nice to see male vulnerability in a romance.

Speaking of relationships, the romance doesn’t really develop but doesn’t get in the way. For a trilogy that obviously comes from the same school of Hunger Games and Twilight, it’s bizarre. There are kissing scenes and some fighting, but the romance is smoothly integrated to the story. In fact, it was actually necessary. Such an action-heavy story needs moments of tenderness. The relationship does suffer from blandness. Beyond the fact both Tris and Tobias are a warring type, there’s nothing to connect them. Still, the relationship is fairly balanced and healthy while having emotional ups and downs. It may be bland, but it’s more realistic than common dreck.

Roth is at her best when she’s addressing violence. She never took violence for granted despite relying on explosions to drive her story. The few action scenes in Allegiant leave an emotional impact. Sometimes characters do die so others will react, but it’s interesting. Tris and Tobias aren’t traditional in how they’re never completely desensitized to the violence. By the end of the novel they’re sick of it. They give up the explosive heroics for the low-key route. It’s not a complete subversion of our gore-obsessed heroic stories, but it’s something.

The main things all the good points have in common is that they’re not enough. Roth has these good ideas. She rejects some traditions and paves a way of her own, but she doesn’t progress. Her most glaring flaw is how empty her characters are. Her plot is a set of obstacles to overcome and she leaves little choices or opportunities for her characters to react. Even a linear role-playing game lets the player react differently, even if they only have one option. There’s no difference in tone or manner of speak between Tris’ chapters and Tobias’ chapters. No matter how many good ideas Roth has, her characters are so empty that it affects the final product. I can respect it from a distance, but I can’t get involved in it.

Allegiant is a good conclusion for the trilogy overall. It shifts the focus back to exploring ideas rather than explosive heroics, but Roth never goes full retard. The characters might as well not exist and the ideas are there without being developed or played with. It’s decent, more enjoyable than annoying but often it feels like a big tease.

2.5 genetically pure humans out of 5