In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.
Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World begins in Murakami’s “hard-boiled wonderland.” This wonderland is postmodern territory: our disaffected hero is in an elevator that is moving so slowly that “all sense of direction simply vanished.” Murakami finds a nexus between the detective story, postmodern literature, and cyberpunk. Faced with the dilemma of the elevator, the narrator, almost predictably deadpan, reflects that
“it could have been going down for all I knew, or maybe it wasn’t moving at all. But let’s just assume it was going up. Merely a guess. Maybe I’d gone up twelve stories, then down three. Maybe I’d circled the globe. How would I know?”
Here we see the voice of the detective novel and a familiar helplessness of the postmodern hero. We’re given a nice dose of cyberpunk when the narrator passes time in his elevator by simultaneously counting the change in his right and left pocket. He explains that “it’s hard for those who’ve never attempted the procedure to grasp what it is to calculate this way, and admittedly it is tricky at first. The right brain and the left brain each keep separate tabs, which are then brought together like two halves of a split water melon. No easy task until you get the hang of it.”
This is Murakami’s way of explaining that our hard-boiled narrator is a “Calcutec.” Briefly, a “Calcutec” has a job that recalls William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic – he stores code in his mind. Although the narrator explains that most Calcutecs cannot do this work for long, he’s been doing it for years.
Calcultecs can divide their minds in two and Murakami has divided his novel in two. In addition to the “Hard-Boiled Wonderland,” we are treated to a seemingly separate narrative set in “The End of the World.”
In The End of the World, we read about a hero that has been separated from his shadow and finds himself in a fantasy world (it even comes with a map). This is a town that is set in its ways, where the Gatekeeper to the end of the world explains that “we do it that way and that is how it is.” Here, our hero takes on the role of a dream reader. Adjusting to life at the end of the world is a bit gruesome. Our hero’s eyes are pierced, and he works with unicorn skulls in search of dreams. However, his shadow may have the harder job. In fact, it seems that the shadow is being deliberately worked to death. Will the hero’s shadow survive the coming winter?
Of the two narratives, I thought the “hard-boiled wonderland” had more potential. Powerful corporate intrigues are hinted at, there are subterranean monsters called “INKlings,” and we even get to meet an eclectic scientist. He explains that he’s “a biologist. But the word biology doesn’t begin t’cover all that I do. Everythin’ from neurophysiology to acoustics, linguistics to comparative religion. Not your usual bag of tricks, if I do say so myself.” Like Murakami, this scientist is a man with ambitions of assembling disparate ingredients into a provocative work.
Unfortunately, I felt that Murakami may have lost control of this novel. Yes, there are many interesting ideas to entice readers, but there are so many ideas that I found myself disappointed that none of them were given a more prominent place on stage. I quite readily admit that this may be my own bias. When I read about corporate plots, the end of the world, and cyberpunk detectives, I find it difficult to put aside certain expectations. Just because Murakami opens with familiar ingredients does not mean that he has to take them in expected directions. Regardless, I found Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World a calculated but unmoving experiment from Haruki Murakami.