Jim Hubbert (Translator)
Haikasoru/VIZ Media, 240 pages
Review by Iain Maloney
In Japan Taiyo Fujii is a respected and highly-successful science fiction writer and commentator. Gene Mapper—Core sold ten thousand copies as a self-published e-book before being snapped up by major league publisher Hayakawa Shobo. Since then he has expanded Gene Mapper into a full novel, published another novel (Orbital Cloud) and numerous short stories. He has also won some of the biggest awards in Japanese SF, news that he was finally being translated into English was met with excitement.
Gene Mapper is a high-tech thriller set in East Asia in 2036. It is a world of augmented realities in which the characters more often than not interact through virtual spaces. Chips implanted throughout their bodies allow them to control avatars; behavioural software masks their emotions. It is also a world in which GM crops have eradicated hunger around the globe. Mamoru Hayashida is a gene mapper, a designer responsible for programming the DNA of rice crops. He freelances, something of an artist living in symbiosis with corporate Japan. He’s a laid-back guy, proud of his work but content with his lot. Not the kind of man who may hold the future direction of human society in his hand.
When mutations appear in a plantation Mamoru programmed, he is called on to investigate. He travels first to Vietnam where he enlists the services of Yagodo, a legendary hacker, before moving on to the rice fields of Cambodia. As Mamoru digs into the mutating genes it becomes clear their changes are the result of ecological terrorism. Mamoru and Yagodo are in a race against time to unmask the mastermind behind the anti-GM protestors.
The book is a thrilling page-turner packed with action and cliff-hangers but it is the ideas behind the world that most fascinates. On paper, people hiding behind technology and DNA manipulation on demand in the marketplace sound like the building blocks for a dystopian nightmare but Fujii does something fascinating with it: he builds a potential utopia.
Utopianism has a long and distinguished history in science fiction but is often shunned by writers, and with good reason: it’s very hard to do well. Dystopia is easy. We are daily surrounded by people arguing that we are all off to hell in some kind of wheeled contraption or up a certain creek with a shortage of watersports equipment. A writer can take that on, run with it, show us every possible dimension ending in every possible agony. But a perfect world? We can never quite believe it: happy endings are great, but they always come at a price.
Fujii doesn’t show us the realisation of his utopianism, rather he takes us to the moment when its foundations are laid. At the heart of Gene Mapper is the Open Source ideal: keeping information from the public is wrong. Put all information out there and let humanity decide what to do with it. It’s the scientific ideal writ large across the planet and Gene Mapper is essentially a test case, a thought experiment into Open Source with enough explosions, chases, double-crosses and dramatic denouements to keep even the darkest pessimist entertained. This is science fiction post-Snowden and post-WikiLeaks.
In all Fujii’s work there is a positivity about technology, that it provides humanity with unheralded opportunities if we are far-sighted enough to grasp them. Human history, for Fujii, is the process by which technology has made the average life better, be it medicine or social networking. His speculation is that the future will be more of the same. There’s some comfort in that.
This review was first published in Shoreline of Infinity 2.