Failed the Voight-Kampff test, resitting it next week…
A dystopia with a difference, Project Itoh’s Harmony is a politically complex novel that neatly avoids the right-wing propagandising its premise might support, and instead presents a nuanced and challenging discussion on free will and the role of the state. Set in a world where medicalised political bodies – admedistrations – control all but fringe areas, and vices such as nicotine and alcohol are illegal, the novel is yet more reminiscent of Brave New World than 1984; although it lacks the hedonism of Huxley’s novel, and the moralising government reflects Orwellian elements like the Junior Anti-Sex League, the characters in Harmony are more involved in their governments than they would like to admit.
In the world of Harmony, humanity finds itself in a post-cataclymic time where humans themselves are one of the most important resources, and nanotechnology is used to provide AI oversight into personal health. Everything from weight and muscle tone to blood diseases can be monitored, and most trouble can be stopped before it even starts. As a mirror of contemporary paranoia about health, and children’s health in particular, Itoh’s novel is effective, if lacking a certain depth. The ideas are presented, thankfully apolitically, and the question is framed as a case for individuality, rather than the ‘Nanny state’ schtick you might expect from the blurb. Unfortunately, Harmony does little more than present the bare bones in this regard, as it quickly becomes apparent that rather than construct a politically complex and troubling world, Itoh is more involved in turning Harmony into a conspiracy thriller, which is where the novel fails.
Our heroine, Tuan, one of a group of Japanese girls who originally tried to starve themselves to death in protest against the admedistrations, where death is unusual, is largely unlikable, lacking any real personality beyond slight resentments that only seem to surface when they are confronted with the characters responsible for them. As an outsider who yet enjoys the benefits of the admedistrative society, who is in fact an official in the WHO, Tuan should be a difficult and conflicted character, but comes across as incomplete, and lazily written. She lurks around the edges of admedistrative society, indulging in illicit substances, but lacks either the pathetic tragedy that marks out Winston in 1984, or the noble ideals of John in Brave New World. Instead, she comes across as whiny and needling, like Bernard Marx, with equally poor and contradictory characterisation. Rather than driving the plot, she seems caught up in it, which worked fine in the Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net, a similar novel in many respects, but falls flat here; where Sterling’s work seems a parody of the centrality of characters to a conspiracy, Itoh’s is much more orthodox, and Tuan’s lack of agency feels clumsy. Likewise, the characters she meets along the way seem tailored to advance the plot, resulting in an awkward and churning narrative that feels more like a video game than a novel, where every chapter ends with a Tuan finding out that Bowser has taken the princess to another castle.
If the narrative is clumsy, however, it must be said that Itoh has a knack for choosing interesting backdrops, and that these elements are some of the most interesting parts of the novel. Baghdad reimagined as a ‘medical Dubai’ after picking itself up after American withdrawal, or the conclusion in Eastern Europe; Harmony is filled with imaginative takes on the world we know, that feel neither too crashingly obvious, or so alien as to be outside possibility. Nor do the locations feel chosen to add spice, as so many post-cyberpunk novels do.
Although it is a flawed novel, it would be unfair to dismiss Harmony; where it breaks new ground, it suceeds, and its only major failing is a lack of confidence, and a willingness to fall back on standard ideas. Itoh’s writing makes it an easy page turner, and though the questions it raises are probably more interesting than the story itself, Harmony is definitely worth a read.