Ueda, Sayuri. The Cage of Zeus. Trans. Takami Nieda. San Francisco: Haikasoru (2011). Originally Zeusu no Ori. Tokyo: Kadokawa Haruki Corporation (2004).
We talk about work-life balance in academia a lot, but sometimes I think what I really need help with is work-work balance. I’m teaching this quarter, and as is often the case when I teach, I put tons of energy into that class, then promptly burn out and spend my nights vegged out in front of a video game or something similar. As a result, my posts (and research) have been slow recently. The end of the quarter, however, means I’m starting to be able to break out time for myself, though, so I finally, finally finished the novel I’d started over the summer, The Cage of Zeus. I was really interested in this book for my research due to its head-on treatment of issues of gender and sexuality in an SF context. I’m still processing it to a certain extent, but read on to see what I think so far. (Perhaps it goes without saying, but spoilers below!)
Ueda’s second novel after her 2003 debut with the Komatsu Sakyo Award-winner Mars Dark Ballade, The Cage of Zeus revolves around a research station orbiting Jupiter where experiments in genetic modification have resulted in the creation of a new subspecies of humans, the Rounds. The Rounds are true hermaphrodites and true bigenders, with the idea being that they could thus reproduce twice as efficiently as “Monoaural” (i.e. single-sex) humans, making them ideal for deep-space exploration and colonization efforts. The novel’s plot involves a terrorist attack on the research station aimed at exterminating the Rounds, and the Monoaural security team’s attempts to stop it. Along the way, of course, interpersonal drama among the security team, station staff, and the Round community add some emotional depth and serve as the vehicle through which we get lengthy ruminations on the nature of sex, gender, and scientific ethics.
The book’s thematic attention to gender against the backdrop of a worldview defined by terrorism and state security apparatuses feels quite timely for 2004, but it’s hard to pin down any kind of critical or political stance on the text’s part beyond a generic humanism. Repeatedly, we’re given caricatured versions of bias and discrimination, each time balanced by an image of the noble pioneers of liberal-minded thinking with regards to gender. The meathead American (?) security chief Harding embodies the former, his Japanese counterpart Shirosaki the latter. Each viewpoint is perfectly mirrored throughout the entire book, making it feel almost like a formal debate with opposing teams. There’s no secret that the narrator – and presumably Ueda – views the liberal viewpoint more favorably. Bigots are described in unflattering language, and they themselves are often self-conscious about their discriminatory views (an early scene comes to mind in which a bureaucrat voices his opposition to his daughter marrying a transgender woman while essentially calling out the PC police as the reason he can’t air these opinions openly).
There’s a lot of Monoaural repression surrounding the Rounds, both disgust and (its necessary counterpart) desire. Hints are dropped repeatedly about a “certain incident” between Harding and a Round named Veritas (no joke, all the rounds have Latin words for names), an event that precipitated the partition of the Round community from the Monoaural station staff and serves as Harding’s justification for open disgust toward the Rounds. Big shocker, it was an affair Harding had with Veritas, ending in a “no homo” confrontation. The apartheid state of affairs drives a lot of curiosity and occasional border crossings that cause much consternation among the higher ups on both sides who are wary of a recurrence.
We don’t get to the actual terrorist attack until at least halfway through the book; in the meantime, each of the characters has plenty of space to expound on their views of gender and the future of the human race, and they all speak in uncannily similar terms. Everyone uses clinical, scientific language in discussing their thoughts on the Rounds, in a narrative strategy that’s either brilliant or lazy. On the one hand, the entire cast is made up of professionals: special-ops security teams, cutting-edge scientists, etc, so maybe it makes sense for them to speak so formally. On the other hand, their individual voices lose most of their distinction, and collectively they sound nearly identical to the narrator’s voice. The Rounds themselves have been raised by scientists, so again, perhaps it’s logical that they would speak stiffly, but it doesn’t give Round society much breadth in their characterization. In contrast to the intimate, bodily issues of bigenderism and true hermaphroditism that make up the book’s core concern, the narrative style and tone of dialogue feel rather bloodless.
When the attack does come, these lectures become interspersed with a fairly conventional action-adventure story. Karina Majella is a former child soldier and super-terrorist trying to reform who is introduced in the book’s prologue. She works together with Wolfram, a former Round who had a genetic mutation that rendered him incapable of procreating with other Rounds and so surgically altered himself to be only male and exiled himself from the Round community to work on the station as a technician. A mysterious bio-weapon is dispersed among the Rounds, rendering them ill, and Shirosaki et al must work quickly to save them and stop the terrorists.
Given the book’s vanilla liberalism, one feels like the ending will play out predictably: Karina will be halted and find a way to complete her transition to living a virtuous life by double-crossing her employer, simultaneously saving the Rounds and whatever it is her employer is holding hostage to ensure her cooperation on the job. Shirosaki and Karina will somehow realize that they shared a happy afternoon as children, a memory they both still cherish (this detail is introduced weirdly late). Harding will reconcile with Veritas, the Rounds will be affirmed as a valid mode of subjectivity, and we’ll all go home happy. What Ueda gives us, however, is much more ambiguous in ways that don’t seem to yield an easy reading. Harding kills Karina in a vengeful rage after she kills his second-in-command, with whom he shares a totally-no-homo close relationship, before Shirosaki can get her to give them the information they need to counteract the bio-weapon affecting the Rounds. Karina and Shirosaki’s childhood connection goes unrecognized. While the doctors on the station discover that the bio-weapon is a parasite that shuts down half of the Rounds’ sexual organs – rendering them bigender but monosexual – the possibility of finding a cure remains only a vague hope. The mole Wolfram is kept in lifelong solitary confinement as punishment for his deeds, where he will apparently live bitter and disappointed, feeling like an outcast from both Round and Monoaural society. There is even the possibility that Karina’s employer will wipe out the entire biological community of microorganisms living under the ice of Jupiter’s moon Europa; these were Karina’s research subject as she tried to live a clean life as a microbiologist and so beloved by her that they served as the leverage the terrorists had over her.
Wherefore this late-game ambiguity? There are a number of loose ends that I haven’t yet resolved. On the one hand, Karina’s esteem for Europa’s microorganisms, which she saw as tenacious survivalists akin to herself as a child, recalls for me some of the mad scientist types from Cold War era SF. I’m reminded, for instance, of the femme fatale from the delightfully campy B-movie Genocide (Konchuu Daisensou, 1968, Nihonmatsu Kazui dir.) produced by Shochiku. Feeling that nuclear-armed humans were unfit to be masters of the world and mourning for the millions of insects and other life forms nuclear war would annihilate, she bio-engineers killer bugs to exterminate the human race. Funny that both antagonists should be women with a disdain for the species stemming from wartime trauma.
On another note, I wonder whether Ueda’s decision to render the Rounds as single-sex bigender subjects at the end of the book is meant to make them feel closer to our own subject positions. Rounds were previously only uncanny in their humanness, possessing a level-headed, Vulcan-like disposition that made them feel alien. Was the intent in making them sex-differentiated like us to make them a proxy for real-world queer subjectivities? Arguing for queer humanity by way of literal alienation seems like an odd path to choose, but the alternative seems to be simplistic, open-ended advocacy for the humanity of all future “evolutions” of the human race, which feels a bit non-specific.
The Cage of Zeus is a book that seems fairly predictable, only to veer left in the last 20 pages and confound the easy answers. I’ll be continuing to think about it, and I plan on seeking out more of Ueda’s work. And hopefully I’ll get even more time to do my own work now that the quarter is wrapping up!