Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights
By Ryu Mitsuse
Translated by Alexander O. Smith and Elyse J. Alexander
My relationship with science fiction—at least in literary form—was fairly brief. Although I don’t remember how or why, I picked up a copy of Dune in the sixth grade and just loved it. It lead to a few other sci-fi classics, including Brave New World and an aborted attempt at A Stranger in a Strange Land, but by the end of middle school it was pretty much over. I had discovered manga, which had the same crazy adventures, but also pictures, and could be read in one sitting, and reading actual books of any kind took a back seat for a couple of years. Basically, my exposure to sci-fi is limited.
But I found after finishing Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights that this novel sort of suits me perfectly in what I expect and want out of science fiction—and even literature in general. Not like a glove, so much, but after a long, long absence, I found myself sliding right into it.
Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights quite literally spans billions of years. Opening with the creation of the universe, and quite possibly ending at its close, the novel is ultimately an audacious attempt at trying to find meaning—the literal “meaning of life” as we often think of it—in a three hundred-page novel.
If that sounds like too much, too heavy, too ponderous a thing to try and read, well, it isn’t. The most wonderful and ambitious aspect about Mitsuse’s magnum opus is how it’s able to blend serious and inquisitive “hard” sci-fi with the fun, goofy, Saturday morning cartoon kind of sci-fi. Yes, reading Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights requires knowledge of actual science-y things like Dirac’s sea and Eastern theological conceptions of the “asura” and “Maitreya,” but you’re also rewarded with particle cannons, huge explosions, and insane, Dragon Ball Z style one-on-one fighting.
I hate to spoil some of the surprises of reading this book, since I went in knowing nothing and found it to be a book of fun discovery, but it does tie Plato, Siddhartha, Jesus, Atlantis, post-apocalyptic Tokyo, aliens, robots, cyborgs, and other elements together into one surprisingly cohesive narrative.
At least, “cohesive” depending on your perspective. Although I would hesitate to call it a “problem,” Mitsuse is a demanding and unmerciful writer. Not only does he constantly introduce strange technologies and terminologies with no explanation (their use and meaning inferable only by context), he also writes for an audience that has a very thorough understanding of Western and Eastern theology. It might make your first reading of the novel either very difficult, or will cause you to Wikipedia a lot of things. It is certainly a work that needs to be read more than once for things to start making any real sense.
But science fiction is all about metaphor. What does Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights have to tell us about ourselves, here in the present? What are we left with, when this ambitiously grand and complex novel is over? Well, that’s a good question, and you might have your own answers when you get there. For me, Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights illustrates that man will never fully understand the workings of the universe, and by extension, God. One of the strengths of Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights is the way science and religion coexists, not peacefully, but dynamically, and organically. I feel like the way religion plays out in this novel is how a scientist might see God, if God was a “being” with whom we could somehow communicate—ultimately unknowable, merciless, and too easily misunderstood. And that misunderstanding is what leads to violence and our own self-destruction (not that we need a book to tell us that either I suppose, when it’s apparent in the newspaper every day).
But again, for all these heavy conceptual themes and lofty philosophical arguments, this is still a fun adventure story that has cyborgs and explosions. No matter how you might try to describe Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights, it is certainly unique, ambitious, and well written (I am sure this was a difficult translation for Mr. Smith and Ms. Alexander, but they certainly rose to the challenge). It might not be the most well constructed novel—in a way it feels like the first two-thirds of the novel is really just the set-up for the “real” plot of the last third—but it is certainly one of the most thought-provoking and unabashedly fun novels I’ve read in a while.