Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone is a fascinating short novel by Ian McDonald. At the beginning of the story we meet Ethan Ring, who’s feeling conspicuously tall and red-headed as he chants in a Buddhist temple. Ethan and his friend, a famous Japanese manga artist, are on a bicycle pilgrimage in Japan. Neither of them knows what kind of demons the other is struggling with, and neither does the reader at first, but as they journey on, their stories come out and even though each man’s tale is different, they realize that both of them are searching for redemption and peace.
Many stories deal with a hero’s search for redemption, but Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone is unique. The setting is a neo-feudal Japan where tech corporations are the fiefdoms and gangs of armed vigilantes threaten citizens’ peace and security. This is jarringly juxtaposed (to excellent effect) with the peaceful contemplativeness of a Buddhist pilgrimage. Like other works of McDonald’s that I’ve read, Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone reminded me of William Gibson’s stories. Both writers like to explore the effects of large impersonal mega-corporations and high technology on familiar settings.
Another fascinating juxtaposition stems from the reason that Ethan is seeking redemption. He and one of his college buddies have created something beautiful that has been perverted and made into something horrible. His girlfriend, an artist, warned Ethan of the dangers, but he ignored her. That ended their relationship and it turned out that she was right. Now Ethan suffers from both the loss of that relationship and the guilt he feels about the destruction he has inadvertently caused. While he tries to use his discovery for good, he knows that it has too much potential for evil and, therefore, it’s better for the world if he keeps it secret. This is a difficult moral quandary for Ethan.
I loved the slow discovery, via flashbacks, of Ethan’s powers — how they work and how they were perverted. In my opinion, the publisher’s blurb gives too much away about this and I would have preferred to have known nothing going into the story. However, even if you’ve read the blurb, there’s plenty of mystery left. I’ll just say that it’s a really cool idea.
A major theme in Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone is how the mind can be unconsciously manipulated by a symbol (such as a manga hero), art, or even the typography that a message is written in. The novel also explores heroism, idealism, creativity, perception, religiosity, lawlessness, friendship, guilt, and redemption. As always, McDonald’s prose is rich and vibrant and his dialog is excellent.
There’s a lot to get out of this short book and it’s one I’ll likely read again. I listened to Audible Studio’s version which is 4.5 hours long and excellently read by Matt Addis. I highly recommend this version.