The heck with the labels. That’s what I say when faced with writing about Tow Ubukata’s Mardock Scramble: forget about the categories you could slot this book into; forget about what part of the shelf to stick it in. Just plonk yourself in front of it and read it and have an Experience with a capital E. I took notes while reading, and words like “cyberpunk”, “post-SF”, “transhuman”, “anime-inspired” litter the pages. I even wrote what amounted to a slugline: “La Femme Nikita meets William Gibson.” But after a certain point I put the pencil down and just let the book be its inimitable self, and came away equally impressed by its ambition and its emotion. A story that is both this magnificently strange and this deeply felt is best experienced with as little preface as possible. Don’t let me ruin your chances of having a good time with it.
That said, this is a review, so let me do my duty as best I can. Scramble takes place in a near-future city vaguely modeled after New York, where certain key technological advancements (antigravity, dimensional pockets) have taken place albeit behind closed doors and under heavily controlled circumstances. A teenaged prostitute named Rune-Balot almost dies at the hands of her current john, a gambler and schizo nutcase named Shell, but she’s rescued from burning to death in Shell’s limo by a scientist, Easter, and his shapeshifting sidekick, the “All-Purpose Tool” Oeufcoque. The only way they can save her life is by repairing her body with black-market technology, which grants her a remarkable set of powers (cyber-hacking, endurance, speed, etc.).
At first Dr. Easter and Oeufcoque approach Rune-Balot as a kind of charity case. By saving her life, they believe she can be used as a star witness in a rather complicated legal case being built against both Shell and his employers, the shady OctoberCorp. Said company may be using Shell’s dissociative amnesia and other mental problems as a way to conceal their own illicit doings. There’s a lot riding on this case: if the Doc and his friends blow it, their continued use of this illict tech — and the continued existences of Oeufcoque and Rune-Balot — will be in grave doubt. Things are further complicated by the appearance of Dimsdale-Boiled, Shell’s murderous right-hand man, a former detective (now P.I./hitman) who used to work with Oeufcoque and is now determined to take out Rune-Balot and her new friends — at first under the pretext of the law, and then by any means necessary.
A story outline is one thing, but the way Ubukata selects the ingredients to fill all the different containers of the plot is another entirely. From the beginning, and all the way through, he focuses resolutely on character and empathy, not just technology and plot mechanics. It is gripping to watch Rune-Balot evolve from a terrified damage case into a powerful (and not just in the sense of physically violent, either), self-determined, and deeply empathic person. She learns to make her own choices, to own up to her own mistakes, and — when the time is right — to trust and let herself be trusted, especially by those she’s trusted the darkest parts of herself with.
To me, this stands in striking contrast to the kind of pseudo-feminism one finds in a lot of SF, where the female characters are made that much more masculine but also that much less interesting. Rune-Balot is a mess of contradictions, even up until the homestretch, and the book doesn’t try to pave that over. This gets brought home as early as the first third of the story, when she serves as a witness for the prosecution against Shell and has her motives cruelly scrutinized by the defense: they try to paint her as someone who didn’t put up enough of a fight when her father raped her. It’s gut-wrenching, which is as it should be.
The same sort of keen observation of spirit goes for the other characters as well. Oeufcoque is a mixture of intelligence and machinery that normally takes the form of a mouse (I had Stuart Little jokes running through my head at first, I gotta confess). He starts off as a gimmick, but by the end of the first third he’s a fully-realized character with a remarkable set of dilemmas that give him all the more reason to bond with Rune-Balot. It’s not just that he’s seeking a replacement partner after Boiled’s downfall; it’s that his whole sense of identity revolves around how useful he is to others. He felt good even when he was being useful to someone who later became a monster, and has never completely dealt with that.
Even there, Scramble doesn’t give us the easy out of dismissing any of its antagonists as mere beasts: there are reasons for why they are this way, and while that doesn’t mean they should be absolved it does mean they can be understood. Rune-Balot develops a thirst for killing that would be all too easy to slake by pumping tons of lead into Shell and Boiled, but instead she’s given ways to confront those feelings and see their true nature.
This doesn’t mean we don’t get moments where Rune-Balot takes guns in hand and goes to town on her tormentors. Three major action sequences, one in each book (there are three volumes in one here), serve that function, and they are terrific to read — it’s clear the folks at Aniplex who commissioned the animated adaptation of the novel had those in mind as the money shots for the demo reel. But in the book, those scenes aren’t so much climaxes as they are proving grounds for Rune-Balot. She may indeed have the firepower to defeat her enemies, but it won’t mean much if she comes out the other side as the same spiritual husk she was before all this started … and takes Oeufcoque with her in the process.
Ubukata also sets up the first of these major combat sequences to pit Rune-Balot against a gang of assassins whose violent traits are also blatantly sexualized. There’s some clever stacking of the deck here: by putting this battle first, it’s as if we’re being shown how it is easy enough for Rune-Balot to do away with such obvious, grotesque villains, the sort of adversaries nobody would feel all that bad about when we see them get their just-deserts at the hands of a woman. What’s tougher, though, is for Rune-Balot to deal with herself in the aftermath of such a fight.
The book’s overall atmosphere is hardest to describe, possibly because it is a mix of the deeply human and deeply felt, and the totally alien and outlandish. You’ve probably been scratching your head throughout this review as the way Ubukata names his characters — there’s an egg motif that runs through everything in the story, which I suspect seemed a lot less awkward in Japanese than it does in English. It calls attention to itself in all the wrong ways, but I’m loathe to call it a mistake: maybe it’s just not the kind of thing that elegantly survives a translation. To Japanese audiences, those names would just seem appropriately exotic. To English readers they simply reek of compulsive weirdness. I worry about that being an obstacle for many people; it did bug me at first, but after a while the heart of the story overrode such distractions.
No less strange, or at least distracting, is a major digression of plot about two-thirds of the way through, wherein Rune-Balot, Oeufcoque and the Doctor head into a casino and execute a very long, detailed, and complex plan to apparently fleece the house of millions. It goes on for about two and a half times longer than feels necessary, and threatens to bog the book down. But Ubukata does a number of unexpected things with this whole subplot: he uses it as a metaphorical backdrop for a lot of themes and conceits touched on during the rest of the book — the role of chance in everyday life, the way other people’s actions can be read and predicted, the way Rune-Balot uses this whole risk-taking endeavor as a way to provoke herself to mature all the more. It’s daring, although also the sort of thing that hangs together better in retrospect than it does when you’re first reading it. (And there’s a thoroughly scene-stealing appearance by a roulette croupier, one of those characters who could easily be spun off into her own, entirely different, book.)
What I’m discovering, though, is that the very things which make this book seem so odd and off-center are also the things that make it all the more original and endearing. Scramble takes a lot of chances and gets away with enough of them, all the better to make you want to find out what happens to these people. What I remember and savor most from it is not the technology or the milieu, but the people: Oeufcoque’s humble determination and fragile sense of purpose; Easter’s mix of unsinkable self-confidence and non-stop head-tripping; and of course Rune-Balot’s touching journey from zero to superhero and back to human again. And if a story isn’t ultimately about people, then it’s not really about anything at all, is it?