BOOK CLUB

Craig DiLouie cel­e­brates the big ideas of this biop­unk col­lec­tion

SFX - - Contents - By Dem­pow Tor­ishima, 2013

Biop­unk’s not dead! Craig DiLouie looks back at Sisyphean.

Ja­panese au­thor Dem­pow Tor­ishima’s biop­unk novella col­lec­tion Sisyphean of­fers a Kafkaesque and tit­il­lat­ing vi­sion of ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing and post-hu­man­ism. Trans­lated into English by Daniel Hud­dle­ston, this work stands out for big ideas, amaz­ingly im­mer­sive world-build­ing, and grotesque body hor­ror. It may or may not be des­tined to be a clas­sic, but it has the el­e­ments of a cult clas­sic.

Sisyphean imag­ines a fu­ture far be­yond our raw be­gin­nings, re­sult­ing in ex­treme di­ver­sity in hu­man­ity as well as cus­tomised life forms har­vested for labour, food, fur­ni­ture, tools, hous­ing and even space coloni­sa­tion. In this uni­verse, life is both tech­nol­ogy and econ­omy, and hu­man­ity is lit­er­ally what you make of it. Tor­ishima’s imag­i­na­tion gives us con­trolled evo­lu­tion with­out end, pro­duc­ing a fu­ture hu­man­ity we’d find re­pul­sively alien to­day, though one we might still recog­nise as all too hu­man. Grotesque but fa­mil­iar.

In the ti­tle story, a pur­pose-built ge­netic tech­ni­cian is con­tin­u­ally re­born in a fa­cil­ity to man­u­fac­ture flesh and bone for rich clients seek­ing form. This work is per­formed un­der the op­pres­sive su­per­vi­sion of the Pres­i­dent, an amor­phous be­ing called an ad­vanced hu­man. The worker ques­tions who he is and where he came from with hor­ri­ble con­se­quences, as orig­i­nal thought trig­gers bi­o­log­i­cal fail-safes de­signed to en­sure sub­ju­ga­tion.

In the next story, “Cavumville,” a stu­dent lives in a town un­der a biodome on a moon, where the cul­ture and econ­omy is based on har­vest­ing vast menageries of an­i­mals that pe­ri­od­i­cally rain from the sky. Ev­ery­thing is fash­ioned from the an­i­mals, such as teach­ing boards con­structed of skin. And ev­ery­body in the town is re­born into a new mu­tated form af­ter death. The stu­dent hopes to learn why the towns­folk are re­born.

The rest of these sto­ries con­tinue in the same vein, in­ter­linked while be­ing tied to­gether by sev­eral sig­nif­i­cant themes. In each story, tran­shu­mans ex­press de­sires such as love and power and sur­vival and mean­ing, try to re­dis­cover their so­ci­ety’s for­got­ten ori­gins, and chal­lenge ac­cepted truths and so­ci­etal equi­lib­rium at the risk of pun­ish­ment for heresy. All against a back­drop of seething flesh, com­pet­ing life and the dis­tinctly alien.

With its strange cul­tural prac­tices, vis­ceral body hor­ror, and un­fa­mil­iar terms both real and imag­ined, Sisyphean can be a chal­leng­ing read even for the ded­i­cated. Some­thing strange (and of­ten dis­turb­ing) is al­ways hap­pen­ing, and it’s de­scribed in dense ver­nac­u­lar na­tive to the uni­verse, kind of like a biop­unk A Clock­work Orange or Ulysses. At times, the story can be quite opaque, and the reader ends up sens­ing rather than com­pre­hend­ing mean­ing, as if read­ing through os­mo­sis. Tor­ishima’s world asks read­ers to ac­cept it on its own terms.

Sisyphean is de­mand­ing but re­ward­ing. It shows us a fu­ture in which ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing has changed hu­man­ity while keep­ing what it means to be hu­man. Where flesh is ma­chine, and the soul re­sides on a ma­chine buried in­side chang­ing forms. Strange, im­mer­sive, and thought-pro­vok­ing, it shows what sci-fi can and ar­guably should do, which is dream big, break bound­aries, imag­ine new worlds, and plant read­ers in a pow­er­ful ex­pe­ri­ence.

One of Us by Craig DiLouie is out now.

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