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Mardock Scramble Review

Well, I just got through reading Haikasoru’s wonderful translation of Tow Ubukata’s Mardock Scramble.

I should probably start out with a warning that the book isn’t something to pick up for a casual read. At 700+ pages, it has all the portability of a brick.

Rune-Balot was a child prostitute until a man by the name of Shell-Septinos took her in. Shell is rapidly climbing the social ranks in the noirish city of Mardock. He’s given her money, attention, and most importantly, a life. That is, until he attempts to kill her by setting her ablaze. Rescued from the brink of death by a brilliant doctor and a mouse-like superweapon known as Oeufcoque, Rune is outfitted with the Scramble 09, a technology giving her the ability to sense and manipulate electronics of all sorts. Given the chance to investigate her own attempted murder, she’ll need all the help she can get, as Shell has sent the nearly unstoppable assassin Dimsdale-Boiled after her to finish the job. And getting the dirt on Shell won’t be easy either, as he offloads his memories to stay ahead of the law.

The story starts off with a bang, literally, and the immediate aftereffects of the attempt on Rune-Balot’s life easily fill the first hundred pages of the book. It does a good job in fleshing out the technology of Scramble 09, which Rune will rely on so heavily for the duration of the book. It’s so well described that even the sudden, somewhat asspullish extensions of the Scramble 09‘s powers during critical plot events follow logically from the basic description. The first third of Mardock Scramble is also a great character study of Rune, as she pieces a sense of normalcy back together after a traumatic childhood capped off by an explosion that’s left her mute and half-machine. Her character is sympathetic (although a little Mary Sue-ish at times), and you can’t help but cheer for her as she struggles to bring Shell to justice.

Aside from Rune, there’s a suite of interesting characters throughout the book. Oeufcoque is one of these, a super-intelligent mouse made omniweapon. Oeufcoque’s struggle to prove himself useful (not easy in a world where weapons have been outlawed) to both himself and Rune is a vital plot point in the story, and it’s great to see the relationship between him and Rune develop and evolve as the story runs its course. The gang that is first hired to kill Rune is hard to top in terms of sheer brutality and perversion, while Dimsdale-Boiled makes a great antagonist through sheer physical presence. Shell doesn’t make much of an appearance until the last third of the book, but when he does, it becomes quite clear what he’s trying to accomplish and the means he’ll take to get it done. The gambling scenes that make up the middle third of the book are probably the most thrilling you’ll see this side of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, and the final showdown with Dimsdale-Boiled isn’t to be forgotten easily. It’s well written from start to finish, definitely worth the time needed to read it. (I consider myself a fast reader, and it still took me about 7 hours to read it all the way through.)

It’s one of the best sci-fi stories I’ve read all year, and easily ranks in my top-10 favorites. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

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The Students’ Ternary Diagram

The student of today is a person on the go: going to school, going to study, going to class.  For the ease of classifying the attitude a student must have going into a test, a group of student-scientists have created the “Students’ Ternary Diagram”.  This diagram has been created for ease of use and maximum display of information at a glance.

For those of you unfamiliar with ternary diagrams, please allow me to explain, using the geology standard “QAP diagram”, as this served as the primary basis of the “Students’ Ternary Diagram”.

The QAP diagram is a common sight in petrology classes around the country. Its pyramidal form has been the object of worship by aging igneous petrologists (probably a little loopy from staring at polarized light for so long) since time immemorial. For generations, geology students have become familiar with the divisions within the diagram. Before the 1960s, this task was exceedingly difficult due to the diagram’s numerous divisions. However, familiarity soon breeds contempt, and in 1962, the diagram was simplified for the sole reason of creating unfamiliarity. A bylaw of the agreement for the new diagram was a mandate to update the graph in the 1980s, but modern professionals being the 60s burnouts they are, decided to retain the graph.

The "simplified" QAP diagram.

Now for the breakdown. Each corner of the diagram represents 100% pure composition of the three most common igneous minerals: quartz (Q), alkaline feldspar (A), and plagioclase feldspar (P).  As one moves away from the corners, the composition decreases to 0% at the base (as seen from the respective mineral’s corner) of the pyramid. Divisions within the diagram are determined by percentages quartz and plagioclase feldspar. For example, the stock (no pun intended) term for “granite” actually refers to an igneous rock that is more than 20% but less than 60% quartz, and more than 10% but less than 65% plagioclase feldspar, with the remaining amount consisting of alkaline feldspars. (See graph at right as visual aid for poor, wordy textual description.)

There’s an added dimension to the QAP diagram, one of the few carry-overs from the pre-1960s diagram: while the more common igneous rocks are represented on this graph, rocks that would fall near the “100% plagioclase” end of the diagram also contain abundant minerals (sometimes a greater amount than the plagioclase) that aren’t represented on the QAP diagram, such as olivine and hornblende. These graphs were retained by the 1962 convention by necessity, but they were simplified to the point of extreme simplicity. The reason for this is that by the time the committee got around to working on this end of the diagram, convention-goers were already anxious to get a head start on the counterculture. (Geologists are a bit hypocritical when it comes to time. They always like to be early to things, but if they do end up late, they excuse the matter that they weren’t that late geologically speaking.)

It really *is* simple.

Using the QAP diagram as a guide, our group of experts/bored geology students set about creating a diagram for classifying the different tests and courses that the average student may take. The corners of the diagram are “Easy Shit”, “Total Crap”, and “I Don’t Care”. (Note: we called it the Students’ Ternary Diagram”  because ESTCIDC is a mouthful and you can’t spell anything with it.) The “I Don’t Care” corner is subdivided into “Drunk”, “Bored” and “Tripping”.

As I have already explained the mechanics of the ternary diagram, I believe I will just let our creation speak for itself. Back to partying.

Self explanatory, really. *Click for full size*

A Wind Called Amnesia // Invader Summer

I should have done an update on this earlier, seeing as I write very little on this blog, but here goes.

A couple of months ago, I had a bit of spare money to spend, and found a copy of “A Wind Called Amnesia/Invader Summer”, two short novels by Hideyuki Kikuchi of Vampire Hunter D fame, and illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano. “A Wind Called Amnesia” written in 1983 and turned into a animated movie in 1990. “Invader Summer” was also written in 1983, although nothing has been done with it as far as anime or manga adaptions go, as far as I know.

A bit about the book. It was issued by Dark Horse Comics, with a list price of $14.99, although I got my copy on sale for $10. It’s a little pricey as books go these days, but considering it’s been translated and such, it’s not really surprising. I would assume the price also has something to do with Dark Horse’s book constructon: this was a rather sturdy paperback. It survived riding around inside my backpack for a couple of weeks, and in very good shape, a test that some modern paperbacks unfortunately do not survive.

Now to the content. I have not had the pleasure of seeing the movie of “A Wind Called Amnesia”, so I came into both stories almost completely unfamiliar with them. I’ll leave as much of the detail out in the plot of the book as I can, as I wouldn’t want anyone to be completely spoiled as to what happens.

A Wind Called Amnesia is a fairly straightforward science-fiction novel, albeit blended with a road story or travelogue.   A mysterious event instantaneously affected the whole world, in which the whole of the human race lost its memories and knowledge. As the chaos that inevitably follows such an event begins to settle, and the human race attempts to restart civilization from scratch. It follows the continuing stories of a young man as he wanders across the western U.S. Shortly after the “amnesia wind”, he stumbles across a government test facility, encountering a boy who has somehow kept his memories. Through this kid, the protagonist relearns some basic skills, and heads off to San Francisco, where he meets a strange girl with seemingly magical powers. After saving each others’ skins, the girl asks the protagonist if he can get her to New Orleans within a week. He agrees, and the two start their adventure across the Western U.S. They encounter serial killers, cultlike organizations, and a force intent on holding the two up on their journey.

It’s an interesting look at a journey through a world gone to hell. I’ve always been enamored with the American West, and the book, in my opinion, seemed to capture the desolation of the region. The use of Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowing in the Wind” is also a nice touch to the story. In all, the story came across as a bit melancholic, but tinged with hope. My only complaint is that the story seems a bit episodic, especially in the middle, and the story bogs down a little bit. This is nowhere near enough to ruin the overall novel, but a couple parts are a bit of a long grind. Be prepared.

“Invader Summer” is a different kind of story entirely. It’s less heavily science-fiction and lies more along the lines of a Harlan Ellison story. It starts off as a relatively normal description of rural high-school life, but the plot slowly transforms into a mind-bending and surrealistic by the end of the story.

One day, a beautiful girl shows up in the town. The boys of the town are immediately entranced by her, with the exception of the school’s kendo prodigy, who is notoriously distant. As old girlfriend/boyfriend relationships begin to fall apart as a result, the girls of the school turn to the protagonist to help figure out what is going on. Other bizarre events begin to unfold around the town, such as drawings turning to oddly colored images, monsters turning people into glass, and so on. The protagonist, with the help of a reporter friend, digs to the bottom of the mystery.

I liked “Invader Summer”, maybe a bit more than “Amnesia”, as it seems more tightly focused on the overall story instead of bogging down in side-quests like “Amnesia”. I’m also a fan of more surrealistic stories, as well, so I really liked the way the story ended. The idea of what was going on in the town towards the end of the story became a bit confusing, and it’s hard to grasp some of the little details. However, it was probably meant to be this way, slightly confusing, a flawed version of the real truth. Such is reality.

Both were good reads, and they’re worth checking out from a library if it’s not within your means to buy.

“The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” Review

About a month ago, I raided the bookstore for some of Haruki Murakami’s books on a tip by an aquaintance. Having about $30, I was able to afford two books, and figuring I’d be needing reading material for a while, picked out the two largest books of his that were in stock. These two books were “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” and “Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”. I decided to read through “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” first for no special reason. I’d been reading it on and off for a few weeks, not really finding that special hook in the story that keeps me reading on, but also not finding it so uninteresting as to put it down. Then last night, I made that all-important connection to the book, that connection that turns it into a page-turner that you just can’t seem to read fast enough. Where it took me nearly 4 weeks to cover the first 200 pages, I found myself burning through the final 400 less than 12 hours.

The basic plot is as follows: Toru and Kumiko Okada have been seemingly happily married for 6 years, despite Toru’s loss of employment at a law firm. The story begins with Toru looking for their cat, who they call Noboru Wataya because it looks like Kumiko’s older brother. From there, the story begins to pack in some oddball characters: a psychic dectective Kumiko has hired to help find the cat, the psychic detective’s sister, a mysterious prostitute who works over the phone, a teenage girl who is fascinated with the concept of death, Kumiko’s aforementioned older brother, who is a rising star in the world of economics and politics, and a soldier who fought in Manchuria during WWII

What begins as a search for the cat quickly quickly changes into a search for Kumiko herself, who went to work one morning and never returned. What Toru had thought was a happy, normal life derails into a realm of the fantastic as the odd people who have surrounded him tangle him in a web of misunderstanding surrounding the events his marriage. From the point of Kumiko’s disappearance onwards, he struggles to understand what has been churned up around him. “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” turns into a riddle with multiple clues (sometimes nonsensical until placed into more context later in the story) that Toru must piece together in order to find his wife. It is the story of a man who’s love for his wife outweighs his ability to give up on her, despite a couple of letters from her that tell him she doesn’t want to see him again.

Throughout the book, there is a very real sense of the loss that Toru has been inflicted, and in many places, it really carries the story well. The clues that Toru gains glimpses of are also what helped turn the book into a page-turner; some clues make sense immediately, while others take some time to make sense. I think this is really what helped turned the book into a page-turner, because it became a rush to see what the clues meant when placed together. And by the end, the clues all fit somewhat neatly together to reach a satisfying conclusion to the book.

What was hard to place into context, though, were the dream sequences, which seemed to have an uneven quality to them. Sometimes they were hazy with the writing making the events of the sequence confusing, while others were extremely lucid and easy to understand. Despite this uneven quality, even these come together near the end of the book to provide insight into the puzzle confronting Toru.

I normally like long books, but in some places, I felt the writing could have been trimmed a little to make the book a little more snappy, because in places, it really seemed to bog down. I’d say that’s really my only major concern with the book. Otherwise, it was a well-written story that I had a fun time reading once I hooked onto it. I’d definitely recommend it to friends, if I had any.

Clarity of Vision

Clarity of vision, writers know, is a very important factor in the successful completion of a story. For example, compare these two variations on the same basic idea.

“The girl was drowning.”

“The girl flailed about in the water. I’m not sure whether she had a cramp or was simply starting to panic. However, the fact was apparent that she was drowning.”

The difference between these two groupings of words is astounding. One is nothing more than the bare facts; impersonal, like a news story or newspaper article. The second, however, is like an 8mm home movie beginning in the reader’s mind: grainy, out-of-context, but already giving the reader a clear grasp of the scene beginning to unfold.

Consider, if we were to continue:

“The girl was drowning. She gave up. She died.”

The whole scene is laid bare in three sentences, delivering nothing more than wanted, no superfluous details. We have our information, matter-of-factly. A girl was drowning. She gave up. She died. Nothing more.

Compare to:

“The girl flailed about in the water. I’m not sure whether she had a cramp or was simply starting to panic. However, the fact was apparent that she was drowning. Slowly, her thrashing slowed, and her head began to bobble under the water. Her head then slipped beneath the surface and she disappeared. Her lifeless body then floated to the surface and bobbled there for a few minutes before anyone ventured out onto the lake to recover her body.”

This is the difference in clarity of vision, and it makes all the difference in the reader’s understanding of the story. With clarity of vision, it is possible to grasp an understanding of the scene. No detail is overlooked, and the events are understood clearly, leaving only one question to be posed: Did anyone have the clarity of vision to act?

“Blue Bamboo”/”No Longer Human” Review

I’ll admit I screwed up a little. After ordering two of Osamu Dazai’s books, a collection of short stories called “Blue Bamboo” and his famous “No Longer Human”, I couldn’t decide which to read first. I chose “Blue Bamboo”. Most of the tales in this book are somewhat upbeat, if a little sorrowful at times, in keeping with their gothic romantic roots.  The stories were insanely readable, and although the stories themselves are maybe a little on the forgettable side, the ones that stick with me most are two of the longer stories in the collection, “Blue Bamboo” and “Lanterns of Romance”. “Blue Bamboo” is a retelling of a traditional Chinese folk story from a Japanese point of view, and is an interesting study in character. “Lanterns of Romance” involves a group of three brothers and two sisters as they chain write a story, based on Rapunzel. Each segment of the story gives a little bit of insight into the personalities of one of the siblings, and by the end, what comes out is an interesting piecemeal story.

“Blue Bamboo” is good if you want a window into the Japan of the 1920’s, when the traditional culture was still present in Japanese society despite the moderation. The stories seem somewhat old-fashioned and modern at the same time, and the result of this mixute makes a very readable collection.

Unfortunately, the romantic views in the first book really made “No Longer Human” a little bit more bleak. The story, from the narrator’s point of view, starts: “Mine has been a life of much shame. I can’t even guess myself what it must be to live the life of a human being.” This was a short book, 180 pages in a large, 1950’s serif font that was only written on about 2/3 of the page, and using modern typesetting, would probably come in at about 120 pages. Despite its brevity, it’s a powerful book that condenses one man’s thoughts and feelings of alienation into a short two or three hours of reading.

It follows a man as he remembers the life behind him. It documents how from the very beginning, he felt congenitally different from the rest of humanity.  Through it, he discusses how he feels congenially different from the rest of humanity, and what effect it has on his life and emotions. I can’t really say a whole lot about the novel before going into spoilers territory, but Dazai did a great job at balancing the writer’s self-uncertainty without going to excessive lengths.

This story is a lot more modernist than the stories in “Blue Bamboo”, and would have parallels in Kafka’s work that was being written in 1920’s Germany. “No Longer Human” takes a look at a painful time in Japan, as modernisation occurred and the country militarized for war, and the narrator is a seeming cauality of the times. It’s a powerful work, and a great read.

Blog Neglect

I’m sorry. I’m sorry for neglecting this place, and I’m sorry for using the scanlation blog for stuff that should have gone here, like the rant about Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei volume 5. I suppose I just wanted it to be read, and no one’s gonna read here because I’m not posting scanlations of Aki Sora. I mean, no one even reads our main blog when we’re not posting scanlations of Aki Sora. I suppose that’s to be expected, though.

I figure I’ll do a few things in the coming months. The first is to post my thoughts on what I’ve been reading recently. I’ve been trying to track down some of the same material that Kumeta uses for inspiration for Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei and his other work, such as No Longer Human, and I’ll try to post my thoughts about it (like anyone gives a damn what I think). Secondly, I’ll post some news relevant to our scanlation operations that isn’t fit to print on the Suimasen blog. Finally, I’ll keep posting my horrid writing projects here. Feel free to read them if you like.

Anyway, I should start off with a quick, behind-the-scenes story from Suimasen. I’m taking my first tentative steps towards translation. While it took me a few hours to translate three pages of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, I think the experience was somewhat valuable, and although the translation quality was probably on the “piss-poor” end of the spectrum, I gotta start somewhere. Maybe Hika or Meki will take a look at it and stifle a laugh or something. At any rate, I think I should be able to handle translating a bit of manga by the end of this semester in May. I’ll keep trying to hone my skills before then, and maybe, just maybe, I can manage to get something translated before then.

tl;dr: Look for more activity on this blog. Subscribe to it if you think listening to me drone on is interesting.