Through an accident of history two sub-genres of science fiction have achieved unquestioned literary respectability: post-apocalypse novels and dystopias. They are both forms that are essentially about the struggle for survival; in post-apocalypse works the struggle is primarily physical and in dystopias it is primarily mental. Isao Dazai, the narrator of Ben Peek's Black Sheep, is in a dystopia . He has food, water and shelter but—to use Marx's appropriately science fictional turn of phrase—he is alienated from his species being. He is utterly alone in the world.
Just as most post-apocalypse novels boil down to someone wandering around looking for tinned provisions and dodging cannibals so dystopias often follow a basic pattern: a growing awareness of the protagonist's status as a square peg in a round hole, the inevitable confrontation with authority, a desire to escape from the cloying embrace of the state, contact with the rebel underground, a final taste of freedom cruelly withdrawn. (Like post-apocalpyse novels it is inevitable that a dystopia can have only the most tentative "happy ending.") This is the path Black Sheep takes but, rather interestingly, Peek short circuits it in the middle. Dazai's crime is the same as always—dissent—but his punishment is cruel and unusual in the extreme. Subjugated by the state within a hundred pages of the novel, Assimilation strips him of his skin, his face and his personality. Time passes. Fifteen years disappear before Dazai's awareness return. It is a brave move for a writer to skip forward so far in just a handful of pages and one that is successful here. Unfortunately it only throws into stark relief that this boldness is not present elsewhere.
This steers us nicely towards a topic I haven't mentioned so far: race. If you've seen a copy of the book you might be surprised it's taken me so long to get around to this topic, because one of the first things you are likely to think when you read the back cover is that this is a book inextricably linked to the subject. Actually though, it turns out to be little more than window dressing.
Black Sheep is told in the first person and the fact that both the quotes above reference Kumiko is not coincidental. She is the only thing that sustains him but, is barely enough to sustain the narrative. Obviously, protagonists need not be sympathetic and it is only the tyranny of the reading group that suggest characters need to be people we can relate to. However, Dazai is very unappealing and he is unappealing in a specific way: he is pathetic. Reading the novel I was put in mind of the bears at London Zoo. Fed and cared for they have nonetheless degenerated once estranged from their natural environment. Like these animals Dazai is listless, apathetic, and fatalistic. There is a thin line between pity and contempt and, like the materially destitute, Dazai initially engenders the former but, through familiarity, it gives way to the latter. Black Sheep offers a portrait that is by turns fascinating and frustrating; for all Peek's skill in delineating Dazai's character there is a weakness to him that makes him and his story unappetising.
Early on in the process of collecting my thoughts for this review one of the words I kept coming back to was "thoughtful." The more I examined it, though, the more I realised it wasn't quite the right word. It captures the tone of the novel but suggests a more active, probing intelligence than that which is apparent here. No, meditative is the right word. In its studied ambiguity Black Sheep shades from subtlety into blandness. In principle you could applaud Peek for drawing no moral and seeking no conclusions but in practice it means that, like his protagonist's skin, his words have been bleached of all colour.
It's an interesting review, I think, and one that's engaging in the content of the book, which I like. In fact, I don't ask for much more in a review.
Lewis' comment where he notes that the three 'pure race' cities is problematic is right, of course. The flaw is what he points out: "What does it mean, for example, to be Asian? Asian here seems to mean broadly South East Asian rather than Subcontinental Asian so someone from Japan is Asian but someone from Pakistan is not. Have over a billion people been simply wiped off the map? What about the Middle East? How does Peek's many-years-hence Race War relate to the current putative Religious War?" It was one of those things that I had problem with while writing, and eventually decided that, if you got caught up on that--in trying to see how it would really work in real life--then the book was never going to function, because it's impossible. Likewise, having any kind of racial purity is ridiculous, too, but that was always kind of the point. The way I dealt with that was to simply tell myself that it was either going to work for you, or it wouldn't, and maybe eight years after having written it, I'd maybe find a different way of that now, but I still think it's the best to just let it go and wait for the reaction.
Other than that, the bit I found most interesting was his comment that race was window dressing, and not terribly important to the book. I've seen the comment before, so obviously it's one that people are getting, and it's been strange to see. I suppose I just never thought people would say it--as an author you sit round and map what you think are the weak points of your work, and you wait for reviewers to identify it, or at least, that's what I do. But that wasn't one I thought of, and maybe it's a cultural thing--the Australian responses to it seem to have gelled with the racial content a lot easier, but maybe it's something else entirely. Either way, it has made for something to enjoy while reading the responses to the work, and what else can you say, huh?
Buy one, I suppose.