Picture this: in an enclosed building known as Paradise, home to people who have undergone various kinds of cybernetic enhancement, there is a forest lit by artificial light and kept at a constant temperature. In the forest, beside a pool that also serves as a computer terminal, a bioengineered supersoldier has a lengthy conversation about the value of human life with a disembodied head in a metal cage; a conversation which is brought to an end when a rain of blood and viscera falls on them both, and flying sharks swoop in to attack.
That gives you an idea of the kind of book Mardock Scramble is: packed full of dazzling ideas and swinging frequently between the contemplative and the violent, the grotesque and the sentimental, the swift-moving and the soporifically dull. It's a frustratingly uneven novel—entertaining and bizarre, and occasionally touching and thought-provoking (though never exactly profound), but with so many shifts of tone and pace and such inconsistent development of its themes that it's hard to figure out what Ubukata is driving at.
The story begins when a man named Shell-Septinos tries to murder a child prostitute named Rune-Balot who knows of his crimes; she is rescued at the last minute by two private investigators, Oeufcoque and Dr Easter, who persuade her to cooperate in retrieving the records needed to prove her murderer's guilt. So far so simple—but Dr Easter and Oeufcoque don't just rescue Balot; they enhance her body cybernetically, giving her the ability to control machines and her own bodily functions. Oeufcoque is not even human—he's a mouse who's been raised to human levels of intelligence and transformed into something called an All Purpose Tool, which in effect grants him shapeshifting powers so extensive that they border on the magical (though there are occasional hand-waving "scientific" explanations for how it's possible for him to, e.g., turn into a gun with an infinite ammo clip). And the records needed to prove Shell's guilt are not documents but a backup recording of his memories, needed because Shell has a condition that selectively wipes his memories when he's put under extreme stress—a side effect of an experimental surgery performed on him as a child by the sinister OctoberCorp.
But that doesn't begin to convey the sheer balls-to-the-wall weirdness of Mardock Scramble. The sequence with the flying sharks, for instance, comes after Balot has met a young man who doesn't need to eat, sleep, or breathe, and an intelligent cybernetically-enhanced dolphin. The two claim to be lovers. The reason why Balot and the others come to Paradise in the first place is to seek refuge from a gang of assassins who specialize in removing their victims' body parts and implanting them in their own bodies. And so on.
Unfortunately, Ubukata can't sustain this level of inventive grotesquerie over the novel's 775 pages. Shortly after leaving Paradise, we get about 370 pages of card-counting, as Balot, Oeufcoque, and Dr Easter go to a casino to retrieve the special poker chips that house Shell's memories. In the original three volume Japanese edition, this sequence was a novel in itself (slightly more, in fact, since the casino sequence extends to the opening chapters of what was originally the third volume) and thus could have been easily skipped. As it is, wedged between the fast-moving, action-heavy first third of the single volume edition and the slower but still eventful final third, it feels not only interminable but unnecessary, considering that almost nothing of significance happens for most of it. To judge from the length of time he spends describing the rules, Ubukata seems to be fascinated by the ins and outs of roulette, blackjack, and Texas Hold 'Em, and the psychological games they allow people to play. A little more emphasis on the latter might have made this sequence less dull; far too much of it is simply a play-by-play of a series of card game moves: "The dealer's upcard was a 6. The hidden card was a 2. He drew three cards, bringing his total to nineteen, meaning that the Doctor lost and Balot drew, and her chips returned to her" (p. 560). Although this section has some glorious moments (Balot's interactions with the croupier Bell Wing are delightful), on the whole it drags along at a snail’s pace, on and on and on, never justifying its existence with entertainment value. At 75 pages it would have been fine; at 150 pages it might have been acceptable; at 370 pages it is inexcusable.
The casino sequence lays bare the fundamental problem with Mardock Scramble: it is undisciplined. Even the better parts of the novel, such as Balot's destruction of the gang of assassins (which is gloriously well-paced and immensely satisfying, not least because the assassins are so cartoonishly villainous that it's a pleasure to see them die), are characterized by excess. Sometimes the excess is entertaining, as when Balot fights an enemy by taking control of nearby cars and using them to run him over repeatedly, but too often it is simply ludicrous.
Worse, this lack of discipline undermines the novel's more thoughtful strands and stymies the development of its themes. The central dilemma the characters ponder is whether the technology that created Oeufcoque and saved Balot's life is something that should be banned outright, or allowed to persist only where those benefiting it can prove their "usefulness," or even spread widely and used to reshape society and eliminate human frailties. Thus a significant portion of Mardock Scramble is a reflection on the classic science fiction theme of the ethics of technology. The Paradise sequence exemplifies this. The inhabitants of Paradise are a little disturbing in their slug-like passivity, and yet there's something attractive about the notion of engineering away the need for exterior things, living "sunny side up, a life without trouble, without consequence." This by contrast with the life chosen by Oeufcoque, in which he must constantly justify his existence by proving his "usefulness" to the citizens of Mardock, or that chosen by the supersoldier Dimsdale-Boiled, who has decided that the technology is monstrous, and therefore, as a victim of it, he must become a monster. As mentioned above, he discusses this issue at length with Faceman, the aforementioned disembodied head in a cage, who is the leader of Paradise and an advocate of spreading the technology to all. But just as the conversation is getting interesting, the flying sharks appear, and the characters (understandably) get distracted. The swing between ponderous philosophizing and gory action is perhaps intended to be meaningful, but in effect it is merely odd, as if Ubukata suddenly got bored, or decided to unleash monsters on his characters because he didn't know which of them should win the argument.
The lack of discipline extends to Ubukata's prose, which is breathless and emphatic, involving a heavy use of italics and short, punchy paragraphs that enhance the novel's action scenes but make the quieter, more emotional moments seem overwrought and melodramatic—as does his fondness for taking a metaphor and running it into the ground. Take this relatively reflective passage:
They had spun themselves around, so that each stared at his own past even though it was supposed to have been long dead.
The past was just a skeleton, and you could do what you liked with it.
That is, provided that you had come to terms with it, given it a proper burial. So Balot thought.
But even if the past were firmly buried in its grave, it was still looking back up at you, and all it took was a small crack to emerge in the sod and the past could thrust a half-rotten arm right up toward you. And when the hand of the past grabbed hold of your leg and tried to drag you down, you could end up losing sight of where you were even heading in the first place. (p. 370)
There's something oddly apt about that last line, because by the time I reached it, I had lost sight of where Ubukata was heading with this macabre metaphor. Which sums up my reaction to Mardock Scramble quite neatly: I am reasonably sure that Ubukata has a point, buried somewhere under the gunfights and the superpowers and the wild inventions, but it's often difficult to see what it might be, and when he does make explicit what his themes and ideas are, they are often disappointingly muddled or weak.
One of Ubukata's favorite motifs is the egg, which comes up again and again throughout Mardock Scramble. Many of his characters have egg-themed names that somehow relate to their personalities or functions: Dr Easter brings Balot back from the dead, Oeufcoque (as in oeuf à la coque, a soft-boiled egg) is soft-hearted, Shell is empty without his lost memories. The egg that comes to mind when I think of Mardock Scramble is the curate's egg in the old cartoon: I want to defend it by saying that parts of it are excellent, and yet I can't actually deny that it's bad. There is a lot to enjoy here for a reader with a taste for action and a willingness to skip the boring parts, but on the whole Mardock Scramble is too messy and inconsistent to recommend.
Katherine Farmar is a writer based in Dublin, Ireland. She blogs about the arts at Pansies and Nettles.