As much as I had hoped, Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks, or even 1Q84, The Sacred Era is not.
The synopsis of Yoshio Aramaki’s The Sacred Era set my hopes high, leading me to choose it from the long list of books PopMatters made available for review. Yet in a most disappointing turn of events, the basic details of the narrative of The Sacred Era far outshine its actual execution. As science fiction grounded in a fictionalized Christian philosophy, with world-building that combined futuristic technology with archaic societal organization, The Sacred Era had the potential to be far more enchanting and thrilling than it ever was at any point.
The basic plot outline is as follows: the protagonist, known only as “K”, is chosen to leave his rural village to take a specialized service exam in the capital city of the post-apocalyptic Christian-ish Holy Empire of Igitur. Once he passes the extremely difficult logic- and theology-based exam, he's introduced to a world of privileged knowledge not only about his civilization’s own religious philosophy, but about how this philosophy intersects with metaphysical and scientific concepts of space (and time) travel. Once he has joined this privileged elite, he's assigned to conduct research on a mysterious planet known only as “Bosch”, and along the way learns the truth of his society’s religious beginnings and scientific capabilities.
It’s quite a mouthful, and not exactly easy to distill in only a few sentences, but nonetheless the concept was extremely interesting to me, as someone who enjoys books like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks (and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 to a lesser extent). Namely, I find myself gravitating towards stories that combine fantasy, science fiction, and more recognizable elements of life into one grand, tied-together conclusion about our world (or a world much like our own). The Sacred Era promised a twist on this kind of narrative, albeit with an additional emphasis on Bible-esque themes of holiness and heresy.
It's my regret to have to admit, then, that The Sacred Era is not a pleasure to read, and the longer it goes on, the less enjoyable the entire endeavor is. The first third, roughly, is fascinating in how it combines the world-building of this half-newfangled setting with K’s initiation into the cultural and spiritual societal elite. There were sections of text that were literally just descriptions of the theological systems of Igitur, but even these extended discussions, while not exactly easy to parse through, were integral to the way K’s life and society function, so they held some interest.
The first half of The Sacred Era genuinely does build suspense and trepidation as K learns that all the previous Planet Bosch researchers died mysteriously, and also has to tangle with the ghost of Darko Dachilko, Igitur’s apocryphal heretic, who may or may not be looking out for him. There are passages where the language, though a bit florid and over-stylized, is genuinely beautiful. In particular, Aramaki has an undeniable gift for describing pastoral and nature-related scenes, using a variety of sensations and textures to bring these settings to life. An early section of the novel contains the following example:
Smaller rolling hills dot the landscape beyond the high plateau of the capital, seemingly expanding all the way out to the hinterlands under the boundless vista of the cloudless blue sky. But below the horizon, patches of the dark-brown color of devastation blot the terrain as far as the eye can see. With the incessant haze rising from the scorched earth, the whole area looks as if it were shimmering. (74)
Yet the narrative of The Sacred Era takes a sharp downturn once K actually begins his Planet Bosch research, which involves him leaving Earth and traveling to various planets and extraterrestrial locations. If the first half of The Sacred Era has familiar aspects of a classic loss-of-innocence story, combined with a lurking element of horror, then the second half is, frankly, kind of a mess. It got to the point where I couldn’t help but roll my eyes every time a seemingly important plot development was introduced willy-nilly, with no thought of foreshadowing or consideration of pacing.
The second half does make use of different storytelling elements to clue us into the mystery of Planet Bosch and, indeed, the nature of K’s own existence, as K drifts in and out of dreams that could be memories. But while the first half of the novel at least seems to outline the parameters, or the rules, of the universe in The Sacred Era, the second half, in comparison, just throws new information and characters at the reader with seemingly little regard for how they undermine or muddy any previously-established clarity. It almost seems as if these two halves were written by two writers, or as if Aramaki never referred to the first half while revealing the secrets in the second half, creating a fairly large thematic and cognitive gap.
The Sacred Era’s approach to characterization, or the lack thereof, also negates the power of the dramatic reveals at the novel’s end. Essentially, the plot of The Sacred Era is what propels the story, while any characters who manage to make an impression are merely dragged along for the ride. While K is necessarily a bit of a cipher at the beginning of the story, and has believable and understandable naiveté as he learns about his new life as part of the Igituran elite, he hasn’t displayed any growth as a character as the narrative winds down. Aramaki assumes our sympathy for K, as the only character who really makes it from the first half to the second half of the novel, but doesn’t make us care about what happens to him.
Indeed, the side characters of Abir, the other new Planet Bosch researcher (who is murdered by the ghost), and Hoffman, a libertine friend with hidden radical depths, are more interesting, as they seem to have actual characteristics other than wide-eyed innocence and a predisposition towards asking useless questions. The love story that emerges in the second half of The Sacred Era is awkwardly shoehorned in, and also fails to make K interesting, despite his growing realization that he and Darko Dachilko are more closely connected than he could have conceived. Indeed, I would have rather read the story of Dachilko himself, rather than experience it through characters in The Sacred Era describing and commenting on it.
The final element I have to criticize in The Sacred Era is Aramaki’s cringeworthy approach to gender and writing female characters; that is, if there were any actual female characters who mattered to the story. Without fail, once K passes the exam and is designated as a member of the upper-crust, every woman he meets immediately throws herself at him, leading to some truly awful sex writing. While the male characters are allowed to be greedy, wise, evil, or otherwise endowed with characteristics, Aramaki’s introduction of female characters in The Sacred Era follows this basic template: K sees girl. Girl sees K. Girl is slender / seductive (her body is always, always described in these terms, with a mention of her skimpy clothing or long legs). Girl comes on to K. K at first resists because of his religious beliefs and training, which discourage premarital, non-procreative. K gives in to Girl’s advances and terribly-written intercourse occurs. Afterward, K feels bad about it. K and Girl continue to have intercourse. Lather, rinse, repeat with multiple female characters.
By the time K falls in love with a literal mechanical doll in the second half of the story, the whole routine approaches parody. He loses his virginity to a pair of cloned concubines who even share one name, because they are so unimportant as characters or even people that Aramaki can’t be bothered to distinguish one from the other. The one female character to escape this pattern is the beggar waif who breastfeeds the clearly adult K at the beginning of the story, whose milk is more thoughtfully described than she ever is. Establishing Igitur as a patriarchal and gender-segregated society is not an excuse for the author to reduce every female character to a sex object, or to make her body the only point of focus, and The Sacred Era really, truly suffers from this unfortunate tendency.
Overall, the concept of The Sacred Era set my expectations high -- perhaps a bit too high. Yet despite the intermittent poetic beauty of the language Aramaki uses, what he uses this prose to describe is often confusing, half-baked, or downright unpleasant to read. The blankness and emptiness of his protagonist, while helpful to the reader early on, soon grates, and the mystery becomes less intriguing and more of a slog as the second half continues.
While there are certainly diegetic reasons for the lack of female characters of similar status to K in The Sacred Era, that doesn’t mean that the predictable nature of how women do fit into the story is any less irritating. By the time I finished the novel, I honestly had no desire to pick it up again, despite the sometimes-fascinating aspects of the worlds it creates.