Project Itoh, Harmony (2008/10)
Translated by Alexander O. Smith

I couldn’t take part in a theme month like January in Japan and not investigate some speculative fiction. The book I’m looking at today comes from Haikasoru, an imprint specialising in English translations of Japanese science fiction and fantasy.

First, in case the author is unfamiliar, some background: Project Itoh (real name Satoshi Ito) was a web designer and writer who died from cancer in 2009 at the age of 34, after many years of battling the diseade. He was working on Harmony whilst being treated in hospital, and questions about health and medical treatment are central to the novel.

After a cataclysmic event that devastated the world’s population, human life has come to be seen as the ultimate resource – so much so that traditonal governmental structures have largely been replaced by ‘admedistrations’, and most adults are injected with WatchMe, a nanotechnology which monitors the body and repairs all damage and illness. To abuse one’s health is, in effect, to vandalise public property.

But children don’t yet have WatchMe, and Tuan Kirie, its inventor’s daughter, has a friend who’s keen to take advantage of that. Miach Mihie wants to rebel, to retain soverignty over her own body – and the ultimate expression of that wish for Miach is to take her own life. She persuades Tuan and another friend to enter into a suicide pact – but only Miach succeeds.

As an adult, Tuan works for the Helix Inspection Agency (“the elite soldiers of lifeism,” p. 41), policing the good health of the world. But she’s partial to the odd cigar or other indulgence, and has a fake WatchMe that lets her get away with it. She can’t remain in glorious isolation forever, though, and invstigating a mass suicide leads Tuan to confront realities that cut uncomfortably close to home.

The great strength of Harmony is its capacity to dramatise questions of personal responsibility versus the common good (and who gets to decide what those terms mean), authoritarian intervention versus individual choice – and ultimately, perhaps, the question of what a life’s purpose should be. Every ‘side’ in the novel has a point, but each view also has its limitations – and the charachters’ actions may subtly turn them into the opposite of what they profess to want.

In some ways, the plot of Harmony may come across as overly simplistic, serving mainly as a vehicle for characters to meet and discuss the novel’s key issues. But it could also be seen as a sign of how deeply Itoh’s characters are enmeshed in a wider system, that what they do runs along these broadly generic lines that they can’t perceive. There’s also an equivalent of HTML for emotions peppered throughout the text (a chunk of narration might be bookended with and , for example. This is a further indication that, however much they may talk of determining their own destinies, Harmony‘s characters are trapped in even deeper ways than they can imagine.

More than any other book I’ve read since… New Model Army, actually, Harmony gave me the grand thrill of contemplating challenging ideas. It has stayed with me since I finished it, and I’m sure I will return to it in future. I’m also sure that I’ll want to read more by Project Itoh.

See also:
Adam Roberts’s review of Harmony for Strange Horizons, which also reflects on the place of medicine in modern science fiction.
The index of my January in Japan posts.