May 14, 2019

«Last and First Idol»

Bye-bye, Earth. Bye-bye, solar system. I don’t know if I’ll come back. My idol activities here were so much fun!

The world is ending, and the only being capable of changing the fate of the universe is a carnivorous twin-tailed yuri-powered Flying Spaghetti Monster from a failed music agency in Japan.

*Record scratch*. You're probably wondering how we got into this situation. It all began 13.8 billion years ago, when during the first picosecond of time fundamental concepts of physics began to emerge. Flash forward a few billion years, life emerged on a rocky planet in the backwoods of your average spiral galaxy, and one of many species covered its habitat with a near light-speed communication network.

That allowed a member of that species to experience a fictional story about girls who inspire others with their performances, an anime called "Love Live!", and he saw that there could be more to it than meets the eye. That man was Gengen Kusano, the author of what he himself describes as Existential Widescreen Yuri Baroque Proletariat Hard Sci-Fi, the novel anthology "Last and First Idol".

The cover might fool you into thinking that it's a bottom feeder light novel cashing in on the idol craze, but that's as far from the truth as it could possibly be. The paragraphs above don't even begin to compare to the scale of events that all three stories in the collection, all dealing with the origins of the universe, encompass.

It's common for anime fans to combine their fondness of adorable 2D characters with their love for something else, be it animals, military vehicles, or even chemical elements. A diehard reader of science fiction, Gengen Kusano took some of the most prominent otaku trends of the 2010s, such as idols and social games, and threw them into a pot with western hard sci-fi of the 20th century.

Amazingly, the result got him a prestigious Seiun Award, the first time in nearly half a century when this prize for the best science fiction of the year was given to a debut work, turning many heads among readers and writers of classic sci-fi utterly puzzled by the results of the vote — after all, the winning story was "Love Live!" fanfiction, with the names modified not to infringe on any copyrights.

If the above text was enough to convince you to check out the book, don't read any further and delve into it straight away. The following text avoids major spoilers, but it may be best to experience these mind-bending stories going blind.

The anthology is available in English, so it's easy to pick it up.

"Last and First Idol", the titular award-winning story, tells of the energetic Mika and the aloof Maori, polar opposites attracted to each other in high school through their love of idol activities. A string of incidents, caused in no small part by the shadiness of the real life corporations, result in Mika's untimely passing, and Maori, now a doctor, revives her in a brand new world. Although what she created hardly resembled the original, the "new-generation idol" sought to continue performing and finding new fans, even if that involved evolving herself and fighting her way to survive.

Inspired by Olaf Stapledon's "Last and First Men" and "Star Maker", the novel is written in a dry, detached manner, chronicling a long span of history. It's full of crazy ideas, concepts from past sci-fi works, apocalyptic scenarios, all backed by scientific rationale — yet it follows through on its theme, making idols central to resolving the cosmic mystery. And despite all of the insanity and grotesque scenes that mercilessly gouge letters from the very idea of "moe" (not that monstrous space tentacles aren't adorable), the story wraps up in a way that I found to be surprisingly life-affirming. But the novel allows for many interpretations, including the nagging idea that the author is a glorious madman.

The second novel, "Evolution Girls", centers around Youko, an office worker addicted to an exploitative mobile game, the kind where you trade your life earnings for JPEGs, largely based on the cult hit anime "Kemono Friends" (some of the references to which had me in stitches). The addiction proves to be fatal — by means of a common hero delivery vehicle Youko is reincarnated as an amoeba in a world eerily reminiscent of the game. Acquiring new friends and body parts, she moves up the ranks in a girl-eat-girl world on a quest to help her weak-bodied partner, Vayu, find the legendary gacha.

Where "Last and First Idol" can be cruel in a history textbook way, "Evolution Girls" is that on a personal level. The isekai adventure shares many elements with the first novel, but approaches the ideas of free will from a different angle, yet again changing the scale of the playing field page after page. Instead of cosmic experiments Kusano focuses on increasingly bizarre organisms that the heroines encounter (how about a formerly human eldritch horror bullet train with bone-filled cluster bombs audibly going "choo-choo"?), and of course by the end of it the novel goes places.

The last story, "Dark Seiyuu", focuses on humans who actually look the part, except for their external laryngeal sacs. In a universe where Aristotelian physics proved to be correct, they developed an ability to manipulate the aether around them with their voice — yet these new "seiyuu" were merely spare parts to enable space flight. In an attempt to overthrow the status quo one of them, Akane, hijacks a spaceship with her younger colleage Sachii to chase down the renegade "dark seiyuu" in a galactic game of cat-and-mouse.

Calling "Dark Seiyuu" the most sane novel in the book only serves to highlight how wild the other ones really are. The only story without massive timeskips, it takes cues from space operas and battle manga, as the seiyuu powers feel like something out of Dragon Ball. Despite the trademark body horror and cannibalism that you get used to by this point, it's much lighter in mood thanks to comedic interactions between the two heroines and feels like Bonnie and Clyde in space. A solid adventure that doesn't actually focus on criticizing the seiyuu industry, and you can feel that Kusano revels in yet another opportunity to describe a doomsday scenario in excruciating detail, constructing a sound foundation for this universe.

◆ Cover of the English edition by J-Novel Club.

All three standalone stories fall under the very specific genre Gengen Kusano established, so it's only natural that they are birds of a feather. And the genre name, Existential Widescreen Yuri Baroque Proletariat Hard Sci-fi, really says it all.

It may all sound like a combination of words as wild as the actual contents, but "wide-screen baroque" is actually a term coined by a famous English writer Brian Aldiss to describe science fiction works like "The Paradox Men" by Charles L. Harness. A novel that, as Aldiss himself describes it, "plays high, wide, and handsome with space and time, buzzes around the solar system like a demented hornet, and is witty, profound, and trivial all in one breath". "Last and First Idol" seems to be playing off some ideas from Aldiss' own novel "Hothouse", too.

The status of the heroines as working class cogs in a capitalistic machine plays a role in the their respective backgrounds, hence proletariat. Struggling with work and society drives them into a corner, leading to measures so desperate that the characters themselves stop being likable.

Existentialism and hard sci-fi are fairly self-explanatory, with walls of scientific text and a fixation on the nature of consciousness being at the core of the novels and the main dish of the anthology. Getting through that could be tough if you're not a huge fan of science.

Which brings me, finally, to what I love more than anything. And while yuri is certainly there, as one of the many elements it's secondary to epic narratives and scientific simulations. Kusano takes satisfaction in depicting extremely unhealthy relationships, a trend that continues in his later works, as all of the stories feature one-sided devotion to the point of ignoring your own humanity — if you want fluffy sismance, these are not the novels you're looking for. But that keeps you wondering to what lengths can these strong emotional attachments take the heroes — and knowing the scale at which the author's works operate, those lengths are literally astronomical.

Though I have to say that Evolution Girls satisfied my craving for a touching, but ultimately positive ending that I wished for in stories it reminded me of — such as Madoka Magica or Kannazuki no Miko, where the characters went through many cycles of despair to find their happy ending, yet by the end of it things weren't rosy for the principal couples.

The "Yuri made me human" interview with Iori Miyazawa, who is also a sci-fi yuri writer published by Hayakawa, mentioned that sci-fi readers expect characters to be perfectly rational actors, and in a sequel to that interview, where Kusano joined the discussion, the authors delved deeper into the question of how can yuri and classic sci-fi successfully interact. You can tell that Kusano is an adept of the hard sci-fi way of things — besides the long-winded scientific explanations, for some reason all of the main characters, reasonably average women by the standards of their respective settings, know how to D.I.Y. nuclear fusion wherever they find themselves.

Especially notable is the concept of "radical weak yuri", Kusano's storytelling method that he presented in contrast to Miyazawa's "strong yuri" — it brings real life relationships to the level of fiction, taking us, the readers, along. It plays well into the existentialist sci-fi that Kusano is writing, making our world a part of the story — the story that constantly switches between being brutally serious and farcical, the kind of prose Japanese readers might call "stupidly absurd sci-fi" ("baka sci-fi").

One of the stories sneaked in a small reference to a 2009 show Kamen Rider Decade, and its catchphrase suits every story in the book — "Destroy everything, connect everything".

Whether you like yuri or not (though I'm certain you do, since you're reading this), if you're a fan of science fiction and you're not put off by grotesque violence, then the anthology "Last and First Idol" is a must-read, and I'm sure it will be remembered as a symbol of its time, bringing together modern subcultures and classic genre tropes.

Also check out theinterview with Andrew Cunningham, the translator of Last and First Idol.