The social science-fiction and futuristic dystopia themes have been covered by some very well-known works of fiction: two that stick out clearest in my mind are those of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. As with other novels in the Haikasoru line I’ve read so far, the novel Harmony borrows a lot from the old SF but is no worse for that.
To his credit, Project Itoh has given these subgenres a thoroughly modern kick up the backside by updating the tech to reflect recent advances and drawing inspiration from contemporary issues that weren’t around back then. Some are of course still relevant but there are other, more recent, ones that are worth addressing and Itoh goes out of his way to bring these new ideas to the table.
As is often the case in stories like this, the worldview of Harmony is one in which humanity is controlled by an authoritative body and in state of fear. The monitoring of our health and social status are outsourced to centralised databases, making the concept of personal privacy so alien it’s become a dirty word; because of the diminished population it has been decided that life is too precious to be left in the hands of individuals. Instead, responsibility is held by everyone and no one at the same time, by ‘admedistrations’ that transcend national borders.
The near-apocalypse, or Maelstrom, that precedes the events of the novel was society’s brush with death and the after-effects extrapolate our contemporary cynicism and nanny-state policies to such a degree that humanity has lost faith in even itself. Simply put, we don’t trust ourselves with ourselves any more. Towards the end Brave New World is even mentioned by name, so perhaps the people of this world have made a conscious decision to neither repeat the mistakes of history nor fulfil the prophecies of literature? Interestingly, this dystopia sees humanity being ironically suffocated by love, not greed or desire for power by a political elite.
The Huxley connection is an interesting one. In a marked reversal of concepts, there is no physical drug like Huxley’s soma; recreational chemicals are actually discouraged in favour of nanotech medical treatments, and congnitive therapy helps individuals conform. A gradual shift in public opinion concerning an unhealthy practice precedes it becoming law, reflecting current examples such as the UK’s recent ban on tobacco smoking in public places. Using the more innocuous example of caffeine Harmony asks, where does health awareness end and government meddling begin?
Itoh seems to be suggesting that, although the methods are so much more deliberately gentle and compassionate than those employed in the dystopian fiction of yore, the end result of control over the populace and the loss of personal freedom are the same. The threat that appears late on in the novel is not caused by terrorists or anarchists; Harmony itself was thought up because certain people had a genuine concern for our welfare. As the old saying goes, the way to Hell is paved with good intentions. By which I mean certain things about life we cherish, such as privacy and free will, are in this novel threatened by those who mean us the opposite of harm and who believe the greater good is worth the cost.
Tragically Itoh was on his deathbed while finalising the manuscript to Harmony, creating another grim parallel with Orwell’s infamous view of the future. I find it hard to believe that Itoh’s imminent passing, and the thoughts that such a situation must have created, hadn’t bled into the novel (as I felt they did in 1984 with its sense of utter hopelessness). Whether the ending is happy is a matter for some interesting discussion, but it’s not necessarily morbid and obsessed with death either. The narrative does seem to have a broader interest in mortality than most but there are some subtle bits of dry satirical humour I really appreciated too.
A bit of speculation on my part while I was reading this novel centred on the fact that the chapters are named (or, in the case of the first one, paraphrased) after Nine Inch Nails song titles. The Year Zero LP is a concept album of sorts based around a near-future political dystopia but Itoh draws from earlier albums too. Taking the chapters in order, they are: Miss Self-Destruct (from The Downward Spiral), A Warm Place (ditto), Me, I’m Not (Year Zero), The Day The World Went Away (The Fragile) and In This Twilight (Year Zero again).
Trent Reznor’s lyrics do feature a lot of personal angst and nihilism but there’s no common theme running through all these albums that I could see Itoh picking up on. I suppose he was just a fan picking titles that were appropriate names for the chapters, but as a fellow NIN listener I thought it was a nice touch.
Thematically I’m not saying Harmony is truly original; in general concept it isn’t, but in execution it certainly has enough of its own ideas (rendering segments of text in the style of some futuristic HTML is in fact more than a gimmick, for instance). There are a lot of similarly-themed films and books out there such as 1984, BNW, Minority Report, Gattaca and Equilibrium but dismissing it as just another pessimistic future by a cynical writer faced with his own death would be selling Harmony short.
There are small stumbles, of course: the background to one of the characters stretches its credibility a bit, I hoped the political ramifications would’ve been explored more fully and the mechanics of how some of this new technology *works* in practice were glossed over. Part of the fun of SF for me is the opportunity to actually make use of my scientific education for entertainment purposes, but sometimes I’m fine with scientific ideas used to merely make a pertinent point, as opposed to recreating concepts and theories to the smallest detail.
Itoh’s masterstroke for me is in the way Harmony takes things in the real world, then makes leaps into fiction that are unsettlingly small. Even though I’ve been exposed to many similar tales in the past this one still managed to do the trick of conveying the fact that the reader is afraid to admit: it could actually happen. Once again, this is SF done right…an admirable epitaph for a writer I wish I’d discovered sooner.