According to its cover, this book is “the greatest Japanese science fiction novel of all time.” They didn’t attribute that quote to a source, but it’s impressive sounding nonetheless.
Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights by Ryu Mitsuse is a bizarre book. It covers a huge amount of ground in just under 300 pages. Starting from the origins of the universe and the formation of our planet, the novel takes us through major philosophical and religious milestones of our species: after describing the evolution of life, we’re introduced to Plato, then Siddhartha, then Jesus. The book continues well beyond that, ending up near the heat death of the universe.
Mitsuse isn’t content with simply blasting through history. The main hook of this novel is the mixture of religion with razor-sharp hard science fiction. Without giving too much of the plot away, the novel tells a story of an alien influence on the growth and development of humanity, and how it has manifested itself in different religions and philosophies throughout history. These are the parts of the novel in which Mitsuse is at his best. The writing for each time period resembles the religious and philosophical texts of the time, and the reactions of the characters to the science fiction elements of the plot are interesting and revealing. It brings to mind one a famous quote from Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Perhaps we could substitute out “magic” for “divine intervention.”
Such breakneck pacing is hard to pull off without feeling forced or rushed, but if anything the problem of Mitsuse’s novel is that it is, at times, far too deliberate. I’m willing to grant that most of the awkward writing is likely due to the translation — I’ve heard that a translation can be either beautiful or true, never both — but the science-heavy portions of the book are sometimes convoluted. It doesn’t help that the science is noticeably outdated (the novel was originally published in the 1960s). It’s the rapid pace and gigantic scope of this book that save it from being occasionally boring and painful to follow.
As an example, one of the few action-heavy scenes in the novel is a laser gun fight with Plato, and Siddartha, and the goddess Asura on one side, and Jesus on the other. As inherently ridiculous (and awesome) as this sounds, it’s a testament to Mitsuse’s storytelling ability that it fit well into the story and didn’t cause me to lose my suspension of disbelief. Actually, the real complaint I had was the focus on unnecessary detail in the description of the scene on things like robotic sensory mechanisms. Paragraphs and paragraphs were spent detailing the robot’s re-routing of power to different operations and extending or retracting different types sensors (yes, one of the characters in the scene is a robot).
These problems end up being relatively minor, and a couple of absolutely brilliant passages more than make up for it. In one scene, Siddartha visits a city divided into upper and lower classes. He enters the tower where the upper class citizens supposedly live, and sees only rows and rows of metal cabinets, with a crab-like robot suspended above. He talks to the robot, which identifies itself as a god. In each cabinet, the robot explains, there is a single chip which contains all the necessary information to create an individual human (while that human’s body has long since died and rotted away). The robot runs a network that connects all these chips together in a vast simulation, allowing them to live forever. Siddartha objects, arguing that the citizens are no longer alive. The crab responds by asking Siddartha how sure he is that the planet on which he was born, the objects in his life, and the events he has witnessed have all been objectively real and not aspects of some grand illusion.
“Physical phenomena are not an emergent property of reality. No technology or means of observation can prove that they are.”
“Strange to hear an agnostic argument from a god,” Siddartha said.
“To call something unknowable is to assume that anything can be known,” the crab replied.
Siddartha smiled. “What happens to the self when you’re on one of those cards?”
“What happens to the self when you’re asleep?” the crab rejoined.
I very much enjoyed this book. It’s ambitious and earnest, in ways that many novels these days aren’t. It assumes quite a lot of prior knowledge about both physics and metaphysics, and it moves so quickly it can sometimes be confusing, but in my opinion it was well worth the effort to read.