While I spend much of my hobby time reading Japanese novels and doing translations, I still make an effort to read novels in English once in awhile––partially because I enjoy them, but partially to keep my English translations fresh. For this time I generally acknowledge I will be taking a break from Japan and Japanese-related stuff. But I recently stumbled across an intriguing novel that manages to integrate various aspects of Japan, and a little Japanese as well.
The novel is “Cash Crash Jubilee” by Eli K.P. William, a dystopian science fiction book released in 2015 by publisher Talos. It’s William’s debut work and the first part of the three-book “Jubilee Cycle” series.
Because of the limited time I spend on reading in English I’m pretty particular about what I read, and besides the usual back-of-the-book summary I often try to read at least a few pages from the intro before making a purchase. When judging a book, of course characters and story are important, but to be honest I really enjoy fiction build usning unique ideas and creative settings. (To give you an idea, China Mieville’s “The City & The City” is one of my favorite books)
“Cash Crash Jubilee” begins with the main character training himself to reduce blinking, an odd endeavor that can only be understood in the context of the world he lives in: a place where every action taken has an associated cost, from walking and sitting to sleeping, not to mention more intimate actions like hugging, kissing, and the like. While such a world can be easily classified as a Dystopia, like many negative elements there is something good that comes along as part of the package. The tradeoff of this action-economy is that there is little punishment for unlawful behavior, because almost all actions have their own monetary price. One of the only true crimes is––you guessed it––running out of money, leading to the dreaded “bankdeath” that carries an unspeakable punishment.
This well-crafted economy is a core part of the novel and also one of the unique ideas that drew me into William’s world, gripping me tightly until the last page. This economy leads to other interesting side effects (like ultra-persistent, ultra-annoying advertisements), and is also the axis along with the story revolves. Some of the technical details about how the system works were pretty impressive, like those involving anonymization and encryption. William also makes excellent use of a relatively new technology to supplement this intriguing economy: augmented reality. Like the setting of many good dystopian works the result is an eerily-realistic world, and it’s no exaggeration to say that nature vs. technology is a key theme of this work.
Taking a cue from Gibson’s classic cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, “Cash Crash Jubilee” is set in Tokyo, Japan. For decades Japan has been popular in the west, and as a result there are many forms of entertainment that try and leverage Japan’s culture for dramatic effect, often in a half-assed or inaccurate way. While I wouldn’t call this book necessarily “representative” of Japan, its treatment of various aspects of Japan are clearly well-researched, so I wasn’t surprised to find that the author was living in Japan, at least when this book was published. Romping through well-known, well-loved places like Akihabara and Ginza, at times his novel reads like a tour guide of a crazy Japan of the future. William takes some of the modern trends of these cities and pushes them to extremes, at times unexpected or mind-blowing.
This book isn’t going to help your Japanese study much, but there are a handful of Japanese words sprinkled throughout and knowing their meanings will give you some extra insight that the average reader misses out on. There are a few references to linguistic matters like loanwords in Japanese, and some of the main characters have unique ways to communicate (one of them seems to be a parody of how indirect the Japanese language can be); with such a focus on language I wasn’t surprised to see that William works as a translator.
Due to the references to Japan and Japanese culture, at several places in this book I had the odd sensation that I was reading something translated from Japanese, even though the book was clearly originally written in English (nor does their appear to be a Japanese version at this time). But I don’t mean this in a negative way. On the contrary, the prose was fluently penned.
As a translator and (yet-to-be-published) fiction writer, I’m generally pretty picky about the prose of whatever I read. Not only was this book edited well, but I really appreciated a few things about the author’s writing style. First, I liked how frequent use of active verbs helped keep the prose tight, for example “the restaurant edged the station” instead of “the restaurant was next to the station”. (This isn’t an exact quote, but you get the idea.) Second, the author did an excellent job engaging the senses––going beyond visual into smell, taste, etc. Finally, employing creatively sculpted metaphors and descriptions helped convey things with a minimum of words. This doesn’t mean the sentences are short, but I did feel they were, for the most part, efficient. I’ll admit that these points are considered by some as fundamentals of good writing, but nevertheless the result was tight prose that was easy for me to visualize. I’d even go so far as to say that the many dramatic scenes and environments of “Cash Crash Jubilee” would make a great movie (albeit one requiring a massive budget).
As for the story, as usual I won’t go much into details, but I will say that my interest was maintained the entire way through, with only one or two places where I felt a minor wrinkle. For sure there is a lot of description, but since I consider the setting itself as the main character I didn’t mind this, and heavy description naturally aids with visualization. There were also a few places that summarized past events in the form of a character’s thought process to solve a mystery, but as someone who easily forgets such details I found these valuable reminders. Perhaps in places the author breaks the often-quoted writing-circle rule “show don’t tell”, but the details about the main character’s thoughts helped me associate better with him.
I don’t read enough books to be able to make any grandiose claims, but with a superb mix of visionary topics, skillful delivery, and compelling storytelling, this book was one of the most entertaining reads in a long time, perhaps a decade. In recent years I’ve found I often end up at a point where I am just reading a book to get to the end, but that “chore” mindset never happened with “Cash Crash Jubilee”. My enjoyment in this book was heightened by the fact I just happened to be reading it on a trip where I visited a certain place related to events in the book.
The only issue I have (if you can even call it that) is that the third book doesn’t seem to be released yet, giving me the dilemma of reading the second now and waiting until the third comes out, or waiting for the third and then reading the last two (with the option of re-reading the first if enough time has passed). Ironically, I had this same problem with one of my other favorite Sci-Fi series, Hannu Rajaniemi’s groundbreaking trilogy beginning with “The Fractal Prince”.
For all you Japanese learners out there, I generally suggest dedicating a big portion of your time to Japan and Japanese-related studies. But this book gets my high recommendation for a great way to take a break while still staying in touch with (some crazy future) Japan.
In closing, I’d like to wish the best of luck and success to Eli K.P. William; let’s hope this book is only the first of a long career of mind-blowing, thought-provoking novels.
(Note: Check this out for a Dystopian SF novel written by a Japanese author. Disclosure: I’m the translator and publisher.)