Harmony’s a sci-fi thriller with a pace and brevity comparable to Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, albeit with less extreme violence, and less of an instilled need to prove its main character’s sexual prowess (and to prove the sexual deviancy of practically everyone else in the world). Post-World War III Japan, and most of the rest of the “developed” world, has become an extreme nanny state. Humanity is now the world’s most precious resource, one which the state has claimed de facto ownership of in service of the common good. Citizens are regulated not only by medical implants that survey weight gain and manage diseases, but also by an extreme social pressure to conform and function. Tuan is a former teenage revolutionary—her crime, suicide (attempted)—turned agent of the state. Parental intervention cut short her suicide pact, though it didn’t save her friend and lead conspirator, Miach. Now, grown up and still ringing with unconscious guilt, Tuan is tasked with solving the mystery of why several thousand suicides all occurred at the same time in a society where violence, and even extreme emotion, is largely abolished.
The popular Japanese media we’re exposed to (light novels, anime, games) willfully break one of storytelling’s cardinal rules, show don’t tell, so often it’s routine. “As you know, I am your brother,” is shorthand for the sort of emotionless fact detailing that pervades across genres and media. Harmony takes this dispassionate information dumping and makes it the core of the story. During flashbacks Miach speaks in the information gluts we’ve become used to: “did you know…? “have you heard of…?” “do you remember when…?” The difference here being that people literally do not know these things. A great deal of the world’s history has been deemed unfit for teaching, so students are raised without perspective, and become adults without context. Sections of the text are literally done in Markup. ETML, Emotional-Textual Markup Language, denotes moments when the character is <angry> or <shocked>.
Far from feeling like a gimmick, ETML gave perfect insight into a completely neutered world. These labels are applied to Tuan’s feelings, yet you wondering if the person applying them even understands their definitions. ETML is diegetic, it is the way people have come to process feelings. Where everyone is completely placid—seemingly content, but without any weight behind their happiness—that Tuan cares at all makes her a hyper-emotional temper tantrum by comparison, even if her pushback against the system barely registers above impassive.
don’t do that, mom
Even grown up, Tuan reads like a teenage revolutionary. Society has trapped itself in a permanent adolescence, and Tuan seems to be the only person who realizes it. Yet, her rebellion is adolescent by definition, concerned not with social change but alcohol and cigars. Not by coincidence, physical adolescence is the final freedom in Harmony’s world, after which people receive the medical implants that monitor and manage their lives. Adolescence is the only window for Tuan’s suicide pact. It’s the last time where people definitively own their bodies.
In America, the concept of “personal responsibility” has been so poisoned by conservative rhetoric it’s hard to decouple it from fear-mongering about welfare queens and universal healthcare, the idea that a safety net will somehow make people lazy, unable to perform, or uncaring. The first few pages left me with a sour taste (Bioshock 2’s facile takedown of socialism: “gosh, all extremes are bad, aren’t they?”), but I don’t really know if there’s a similar overwhelming fear of governmental control in Japan as there is among certain groups in America.
But an in-depth reading, even from a Western perspective, doesn’t really scan as a screed against accessible medical care or government overreach. Harmony is about societal control and shame, peer pressure; the pressure to conform, fit in, not rock the boat. People exude control here, not the government. There’s no Ayn Rand in this book’s criticism. There’s no invectives, there’s no praise for the individual above all else, at the expense of all else.
However, Harmony does ruminate on the value of individual choice. It’s something I think about a lot with regards to Gamefication: do we value the end good more than we value the process of creating people capable of deliberately accomplishing that good? Are we solely trying to accomplish positive ends, or are we trying to build people capable of making good choices that will effect positive ends? Is teaching a person the value of exercise and instilling in them a desire to exercise “better” than doling out 10 point achievements when they do a set of sit-ups? Is it really any different?
And I’m imbuing it with my biases, at least a little. Harmony is a thriller through and through. It’s not a dense book, it’s a really quick read. And you can read this like you would Altered Carbon, or Snow Cash, or an old-timey detective story. Its characters are more interesting than its plot, whose mystery kind of peters out most of the way through, and their construction of language is more interesting than the characters themselves. But it’s the first time I’ve really felt drawn into a world in a while. While its characters blab on in the usual expository fashion—excessive detail about food, visual novel-style references to “that cool scientific thing I heard about once” (Martha’s Vineyard’s deaf population, in this case?)—the world itself gives you only just enough details to keep going, and it’s filled with enough quirks to make it feel just different enough, just weird enough. The World Health Organization troops and their pink uniforms, the little mechanized goat thing, the health dispensaries that mind your every need, with cutesy names like WatchMe.
Where so much sci-fi, especially thrillers (often cyberpunk in nature, if not name), present a world of grime and grit, Harmony’s setting is obsessively clean and functional, focused around pastel colors and floral scents. I guess you can say Harmony is asking that age old question “but is this a dystopia??” There’s some anxiety, in the Brave New World vein, about the medical establishment, sure. But even though there’s a lot of thought about, and words given, to the process of medical treatment, that doesn’t feel like the core of the book.
More than anything, I felt like Harmony wasn’t trying to convince me how “cool” it was. So much of what you read, and play, and watch is so terrified that you won’t like it that all it does is stumble over itself to make you think it’s smart, insightful, or interesting. Though it’s got a globe-trotting plot, Harmony is light on the gunplay and doesn’t do a lot of “bang-zoom” antics to draw you in. At its core, it’s about a woman who convinced herself she was the only adult left in the world, and the reader’s knowledge that she is anything but (relevant to my interests, you might say). It’s about survivor’s guilt. It’s a smaller story than its international conspiracy premise would suggest.