Groundhog War

All You Need Is Kill was a lightning fast read – three days start to finish. During that brief spell I found myself enjoying it, enough to put off other things, safe in the knowledge (as my Kindle’s completion percentage rapidly rose) that I’d soon be free to do them. And soon enough I was. This is pulpy sci-fi action fun, and in general I’m a supporter of pulpy fun of all persuasions.

Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel has a clever concept behind it: taking the replay-to-perfection tendency of gamers, a tendency I have fallen into myself from time to time, and applying it to a “real” fantastical battle, against a “real” unstoppable, infinitely re-spawning army of homicidal monsters – in this case artificially evolved adversaries relentlessly set on terraforming the earth into an alien biosphere. When our hero, Keiji Kiriya, is brutally slaughtered on the battlefield, he awakens beck into the day before, unchanged but for the knowledge of his fate to come. He is able to alter that fate, though he swiftly falls again to the swarming Mimics – then wakes again, dies again, wakes again… ad infinitum. Not the first war novel to rely on repetition to make its point, and while this is no Catch-22 overall I was entertained. But…

I’ve read only a few pulp novels by Japanese authors, as I was more often put off by what seemed to me to be a kind of simplistic quality to the prose (contrast this to Japanese literary fiction, like Kafka on the Shore, which felt like wading through glue; I was told afterwards by a reliable source that I really shouldn’t have started reading Haruki Murakami with that one). I wondered whether this might be a symptom of their translation into English – I felt similarly about the one Andrea Camilleri novel I’ve read, The Wings of the Sphinx, whereas I’ve enjoyed other pieces of Italian fiction of a more literary bent.

For me, All You Need Is Kill certainly fell into what I shall charitably call the “light prose” category. We are in the head of the protagonist throughout (aside from one section’s divergence into the perspective of the super-warrior he aspires to emulate), but despite the first-person point-of-view I felt little direct impact of what should have been a visceral experience. Rather than undergo Keiji’s trails with him, the experience was always at one remove, a perfect example of telling over showing.

At times this telling breaks the logic of the novel itself. In one aside we are explicitly told of the motivations of the aliens: their origin, what drives their expansionist policies, debates their more liberal members used in a failed attempt to block such future atrocities as that now plaguing the earth; but any question of how Keiji comes to know this is left untold. It is almost as though he caught a glimpse of the game’s opening cut-scene… I mean, the novel’s, of course.

Ultimately, the story comes to hang on what struck me as a rather arbitrary twist, hyper-emotive in the way that the trial-by-fire heroism stories popular to Manga and Anime tend to be. I don’t think it works particularly well; the film lacks a personified adversary, but then lots of “disaster” stories do. The Mimic swarm could be considered a force of nature, and overcoming such a challenge is just as much a test of a hero’s mettle as confronting an enemy with a face. I think it’s a misstep, but not a cataclysmic one.

All You Need Is Kill was a readable diversion for a couple of days and, while Tom Cruise playing the lead in the movie adaptation seems absurd to me, it may well be that this book is the perfect source for a summer sc-fi blockbuster: fast and easy, not too deep, with its emotions on the surface. Popcorny fun.

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