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Black Sheep cover

Through an accident of history two sub-genres of science fiction have achieved unquestioned literary respectability: post-apocalypse novels and dystopias. They are both forms that are essentially about the struggle for survival; in post-apocalypse works the struggle is primarily physical and in dystopias it is primarily mental. Isao Dazai, the narrator of Ben Peek's Black Sheep, is in a dystopia [1]. He has food, water and shelter but—to use Marx's appropriately science fictional turn of phrase—he is alienated from his species being. He is utterly alone in the world. At the beginning of the novel he moves with his wife, Kumiko, and their daughter from Tokyo to Sydney but it makes no difference. As with all dystopias strength can only be found through unity and one city is the same as any other:

It is just a city, Kumiko, built without any cultural heritage that would underlie its design, or influence its form. It was built on a foundation of simple purity, but that purity was forced, maintained through strict controls and an ever present parenting eye. (p. 210)

Dazai is a black sheep. He loves his family but he is not the same as them and has become painfully aware of this:

Kumiko didn't worry about cameras before she met me, she had said. She'd never thought it had been odd that every moment of our lives had the potential to be recorded. After all, she never did anything wrong and when she did think about it, she rather doubted that anyone would be watching her. I had been shocked when she had told me that. (p. 70)

Dazai is so alone that he allows himself to be trivially entrapped by the secret police as soon as the opportunity arises. At the first sign that he has met someone who feels the same way as him about the world he allows his carefully cultivated paranoia to fall away. He is arrested, tried, and sentenced to Assimilation, a horrific process which turns him into a chalk-white flesh automaton.

Just as most post-apocalypse novels boil down to someone wandering around looking for tinned provisions and dodging cannibals so dystopias often follow a basic pattern: a growing awareness of the protagonist's status as a square peg in a round hole, the inevitable confrontation with authority, a desire to escape from the cloying embrace of the state, contact with the rebel underground, a final taste of freedom cruelly withdrawn. (Like post-apocalpyse novels it is inevitable that a dystopia can have only the most tentative "happy ending.") This is the path Black Sheep takes but, rather interestingly, Peek short circuits it in the middle. Dazai's crime is the same as always—dissent—but his punishment is cruel and unusual in the extreme. Subjugated by the state within a hundred pages of the novel, Assimilation strips him of his skin, his face and his personality. Time passes. Fifteen years disappear before Dazai's awareness return. It is a brave move for a writer to skip forward so far in just a handful of pages and one that is successful here. Unfortunately it only throws into stark relief that this boldness is not present elsewhere.

This steers us nicely towards a topic I haven't mentioned so far: race. If you've seen a copy of the book you might be surprised it's taken me so long to get around to this topic, because one of the first things you are likely to think when you read the back cover is that this is a book inextricably linked to the subject. Actually though, it turns out to be little more than window dressing.

Inevitably the genesis of Peek's dystopia is a devastating war. The memory of the Race War is so fearsome that, under the auspices of the United Nations, the cities of the world have all been divided up into three component parts: Asian, African, and Caucasian. Segregation is total. A native of Asian-Tokyo such as Dazai will go his whole life without ever seeing inside African-Tokyo, although he can emigrate to Asian-Sydney.

And this is a bit of a problem. Firstly, there is the vexed question of racial purity—or rather, there isn't. You're left wondering how many people of mixed racial heritage the UN had to liquidate to ensure these neat racial groups. Not to mention that the groups they chose aren't exactly homogenous. What does it mean, for example, to be Asian? Asian here seems to mean broadly South East Asian rather than Subcontinental Asian so someone from Japan is Asian but someone from Pakistan is not. Have over a billion people been simply wiped off the map? What about the Middle East? How does Peek's many-years-hence Race War relate to the current putative Religious War? It is all very murky.

In the real world shifting demographics and a single, breathtaking act of terrorism have combined to bring us to a global tipping point. Peek is from Australia, a country that—like all Western nations—is currently involved in a debate on immigration; a debate that is often characterised by misinformation and rancour. Politicians compete to be the most callous on issues like asylum, while "clash of civilisations" rhetoric and editorials proclaiming the failure of multiculturalism are everywhere. In Black Sheep, Dazai is a story of refugee of the soul, a member of the dispossessed, but strangely his status as such isn't explored in depth. If a commentary on current world events is intended (and surely it must be) then it too nebulous to be intelligible.

Black Sheep is told in the first person and the fact that both the quotes above reference Kumiko is not coincidental. She is the only thing that sustains him but, is barely enough to sustain the narrative. Obviously, protagonists need not be sympathetic and it is only the tyranny of the reading group that suggest characters need to be people we can relate to. However, Dazai is very unappealing and he is unappealing in a specific way: he is pathetic. Reading the novel I was put in mind of the bears at London Zoo. Fed and cared for they have nonetheless degenerated once estranged from their natural environment. Like these animals Dazai is listless, apathetic, and fatalistic. There is a thin line between pity and contempt and, like the materially destitute, Dazai initially engenders the former but, through familiarity, it gives way to the latter. Black Sheep offers a portrait that is by turns fascinating and frustrating; for all Peek's skill in delineating Dazai's character there is a weakness to him that makes him and his story unappetising.

Early on in the process of collecting my thoughts for this review one of the words I kept coming back to was "thoughtful." The more I examined it, though, the more I realised it wasn't quite the right word. It captures the tone of the novel but suggests a more active, probing intelligence than that which is apparent here. No, meditative is the right word. In its studied ambiguity Black Sheep shades from subtlety into blandness. In principle you could applaud Peek for drawing no moral and seeking no conclusions but in practice it means that, like his protagonist's skin, his words have been bleached of all colour.

[1] Indeed, the book trumpets this respectability in an unnecessary subtitle that is a misstep on the part of the publisher and detracts from the beautiful cover design by Stephen H Segal. (On another production note, it must also be reported that the inside of the book is unfortunately riddled with typos.)

Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in venues including Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of SF.



Martin Petto has also reviewed for Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He blogs at Everything Is Nice, and generally goes about his business.
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