Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Self-Reference Engine, by Toh Enjoe

Giant corpora of knowledge break the many-worlds hypothesis in this surrealistic Japanese sci-fi "novel."

Self-Reference Engine

Haikasoru, 2007, 352 pages

This is not a novel.
This is not a short story collection.
This is Self-Reference ENGINE.

Instructions for Use: Read chapters in order. Contemplate the dreams of twenty-two dead Freuds. Note your position in spacetime at all times (and spaces). Keep an eye out for a talking bobby sock named Bobby Socks. Beware the star-man Alpha Centauri. Remember that the chapter entitled "Japanese" is translated from the Japanese, but should be read in Japanese. Warning: if reading this book on the back of a catfish statue, the text may vanish at any moment, and you may forget that it ever existed.

From the mind of Toh EnJoe comes Self-Reference ENGINE, a textual machine that combines the rigor of Stanislaw Lem with the imagination of Jorge Luis Borges. Do not operate heavy machinery for one hour after reading.

Self-Reference Engine is the bastard, deformed offspring of Haruki Murakami, Raymond Roussel, and Douglas Adams. And those three authors literally producing a deformed progeny who is a book is the sort of thing that could possibly happen in this one.

It might be appropriate here to explain a bit just who I am.

Like most things, I was built as a space-time construct. I am not one of those things whose construction is so impossibly complicated that it couldn't really exist. I can see you, and I can talk to you, just as I am doing now.

The reasons why I was built should be pretty clear.

The only task assigned to me is to tell stories and at some point to opt not to tell stories.

As for who built me, that is not for me to say. There is no way for me to answer such a simple question. Simple questions do not necessarily have simple answers. The reason why I do not exist as an “I” is that I have no memory of my existence. Most probably, I did not abruptly burst forth from the ether, as something that did not previously exist. Therefore, anyone might have made me. I may even have made myself. I may even be something like the exact opposite of Laplace’s Demon. Because I did not exist in a certain specific instant, I cannot exist in all the eternity before and after that instant.

I have no need of sympathy. I am greatly enjoying my own nonexistence, and I am making maximum use of it. I am looking at you, being seen by you, and I am telling you this story.

The giant corpora of knowledge and the hypergiant corpora of knowledge are my enemies, of this there is no question in my mind. They are constantly searching for me, intent on destroying me should they find me. While I can only imagine what it is about my nonexistence that gets on their nerves so badly, the thought darkens my nonexistent heart. I try not to think too hard about it.

This book may just break your brain.

Self-Reference Engine is less a novel than a collection of speculative ideas loosely tied together by a narrative that, even in the somewhat more organized second half, is hard to follow. Toh Enjoe (a pseudonym) is an award-winning SF author in Japan, and in real life, a theoretical physicist. The book is overflowing with weird, surreal, yet maybe plausible ideas in every chapter. The chapters do not flow in any kind of linear order, but they are self-referential — see the diagram in the table of contents!

There is a crazy girl named Rita, born with a bullet in her brain, who is always firing bullets at men's testicles, trying to shoot the man in the future who will shoot her. There is a house with twenty-two Sigmund Freuds under the floorboards. There is a first contact story with the star-man named Alpha Centauri. There are giant corpora of knowledge who trigger something called the Event, which splits the universe into multiple realities, each giant corpora of knowledge in charge of one and trying to fix the universe by destroying all the others. And there is a race of sentient bobby socks.

That is what Bobby Socks spends his time talking about.

Bobby socks. Cute little white socks. Stop just above the ankles, where they get turned down. They’re a bit small for my legs. They were popular in the fifties. Some have lace frills, or even red ribbons. Girls like them. And of course, I am not a girl.

“Hey, Bobby!”

“Yuck. Lower form of life.”

Despite his cute appearance, Bobby has a brusque manner of speaking. A big voice. When he talks about lower forms of life, he doesn't mean my position in the hierarchy of living beings, he means the position of living things in the hierarchy of physical things.

I mean, this is socks we’re talking about, and I’m not so sure anybody pays any attention to anything they say.

To look at Bobby, you would think he was just a sock. The proof of the contrary, however, is that he walked up to my room under his own steam. This raises a lot of questions.

When I ask Bobby how this all came about, he shakes his lace and answers casually, “I am a police inspector, and you are suspected of sock abuse!” From his voice, it is hard to imagine him strong-arming me.

Self-Reference Engine is absurd, mind-bending, and frequently funny, but I found the disjointed circling around the (lack of) central story and the uneven translation hard to plow through. Japanese is a very different language from English and I think there is a lot of wordplay and clever dialog here that just doesn't translate well. (Maybe Haikasoru should have hired Jay Rubin or Philip Gabriel.)

The giant corpora of knowledge are the central figures - not exactly villains, but certainly nemeses of sorts. Sometimes indistinguishable from people, like Matrix constructs going through the motions of pretending to be characters in various settings, they are "computers" who find they are threatened by recursively greater corpora of knowledge, while humans are mostly hapless bystanders.

This is what the giant corpora of knowledge thought: We have seriously overreacted to this other universe, which is simply different. If we think we’re smart guys, good, we are, but it seems that elsewhere in the multiverse there are tons of entities that are way smarter than we are. And if that’s the case, the only way to fight back is with comedy. For whatever reason, that is the conclusion the giant corpora of knowledge arrived at. If knowledge was not going to be enough for the win, laughter would have to do. It’s an old trick among humans, but for the giant corpora of knowledge it was a novel concept.

Self-Reference Engine is split into two parts: NEARSIDE and FARSIDE. The NEARSIDE is more a collection of...I wouldn't even call them short stories, more like extended flash fictions. FARSIDE is where the saga of the giant corpora of knowledge waging their war across the multiverse starts to congeal somewhat into a plot. But only somewhat. The digressions and out-scenes and recurring characters never really come together in a way that was coherent to me.

I don't want to recommend against this book, because I think it's very much a different cup of tea for different tastes kind of thing. Also, maybe people more educated in theoretical physics find it makes more sense. For me, however, I didn't find it to be "hard SF" as it's been billed, or even much of a story, just a bemusing collection of ideas stitched together in the outward form of a novel.

Verdict: I wanted to like this book more, because it's funky and mind-bending and decidedly different science fiction. But I didn't like it. I found it confusing and annoying — I just didn't Get It. Maybe that's my fault, but I'd balk at reading another Toh Enjoe book unless it's something very different from this one. 4/10.

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Tags: books, reviews, science fiction

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