Tie-ins, or novels that are created to cash in on a particular franchise — like a movie or TV show — are one of my guilty pleasures. Sometimes they’re interesting in a forensic way, because the novels are often prepared from early shooting drafts of the script and cranked out hurriedly to hit the streets just before the film itself appears; as a result, you can sometimes discover things that were dropped from the movie before it hit the screen — something that happened with Alan Dean Foster’s Alien and Jack Martin’s Videodrome tie-ins. Sometimes they’re just pleasant time-wasters, and aren’t meant to be anything more than that. And sometimes, very rarely, they are something like art: Orson Scott Card’s novelization of The Abyss wasn’t just a cash-in, but a real novel about real people, and Card went so far as to get James Cameron’s blessing for the end result.
The TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, one of the best shows to appear in any format lately, is now getting the novelization spin-off treatment — and in English, no less. The first book released thus far, The Lost Memory, plays like a transcription of a two-part (or maybe even three-part) episode from the series — in fact, the story was that it was intended to be filmed as episodes, but was instead reworked as a novel, which explains its close integration with the series as a whole. And it works really well: it’s fast-moving, touches on all the issues normally explored in the series, gives us all our favorite characters doing their respective things, and is in general a lot of fun. It also bodes well for future such novels in the series, if they are all at least this good. Originally written in Japanese, the book has been translated smoothly and without distraction into English; most casual readers would never suspect it had been anything but.
The novel takes place somewhere around the timeline of the first season of the show; it references the Laughing Man plot, but in a way that implies we are somewhere between the middle and the end of the first season and before the 2nd GiG plotline. It opens with the criminal hijinks of a gang of cyber-revolutionaries, dubbed the “Good Morning Terrorists” — so named for the way they hijack people’s brains, mostly young men in their teens and twenties, and force them to commit various antisocial crimes. Motoko Kusanagi and the rest of Section 9 are called in to deal with one such young man, an army recruit named Shikawa, who takes hostages and straps a bomb to his chest in an electronics store. They lock him down without much trouble, but the data they pull from his brain doesn’t seem to provide them with anything useful. Like all the other victims, he doesn’t remember a thing about the incident.
As in many of the episodes in the TV show, Kusanagi has to go digging for answers in unexpected places. Her trail of clues, however meager, leads her to an underground establishment where people can get illegally hijacked memories, “realies”, implanted for a fee — and as the title of the book suggests, one of those memories was something that probably should have stayed buried. And as with the Laughing Man plot itself, all of these incidents tie together to point at a crime in the past, one that has lain unresolved and has sown the seeds for a broad-scale act of vengeance.
What I liked most about the GitS series, and what’s reproduced capably well here, is how the show was not really about the future but about the present. As far-flung as some of the technological advancements in the story are — artificial memories, “cyberbrain” systems that merge hardware and “wetware”, and so on — they’re not openly absurd, and they’re used to make oblique comments about the way we have become an information society. If everything, including human memory and experience, can be reduced to mere data, does human life itself become a race to the bottom to see who can be the most digital? But the book (and the show) isn’t so much interested in predictive answers about any of these questions as it is simply raising them and then creating an absorbing entertainment that involves them.
A problem I often have with science fiction is how the story sometimes turns into a handwaving exercise — we don’t know the real limitations of what’s going on, so the author can use techno-gibberish as an excuse to get away with murder. One of the joys of the GitS stories is that while the technology is used as a way to set the scene or move the plot, it’s not used to invalidate danger. Kusanagi and the rest of Section 9 have to think their way out of their problems; they’re up against enemies who are at least as smart (or clever, or resourceful) as they are. The one exception to this is a climactic fight onboard a jet airliner, where the law of physics seem to have been briefly suspended at a couple of key moments — but the whole way the characters in question got there was by using their heads in the first place, so it’s not a show-stopper.
The Lost Memory is billed as being the first of several novels inspired by the GitS:SAC mythology, and I look forward to what follows from here. If you’re already a fan of the show, they make a nice addition to a universe that’s already been created and explored so exuberantly.