Aramaki Yoshio - part post-apocalyptic world, part faux-religious tract, and part dream narrative. Through the main character’s journey into inner and outer space, the novel translates the substance of religious and mythic texts into the language of science fiction

Aramaki Yoshio, The Sacred Era,Trans. by Baryon Tensor Posadas, Minnesota UP, 2017.

A brilliant work of speculative fiction, blending science and metaphysics, by a Japanese master of the 1970s New Wave
The magnum opus of a master of speculative fiction that established Yoshio Aramaki as a leading representative of the genre, The Sacred Era is part post-apocalyptic world, part faux-religious tract, and part dream narrative. Through the main character’s journey into inner and outer space, the novel translates the substance of religious and mythic texts into the language of science fiction.

A visionary science fiction novel, in which the devil lives in the details, literally, The Sacred Era is a compelling look at belief, collapse, and transcendence. - Nick Mamatas

Yoshio Aramaki is known in Japan (but not elsewhere) for his speculative fiction and, more recently, for his virtual reality war novels. This novel falls into the first category and is considered his masterpiece. If science fiction is not your thing, do not worry. Though Aramaki was influenced by US science fiction writers such as Robert Heinlein, Philip K Dick, J G Ballard and Richard Calder, all of whom I have read, he was also influenced by Nietzsche, Salvador Dali and René Magritte.
This book reflects to some degree Arakai’s Christian background and, indeed, the themes of the novel include religion, church politics and doctrine as well as topics such as climate change, time travel and ghosts. The lead character is called simply K. and though the book is not particularly Kafkaesque, K. does go through life with a hidden presence seemingly after him (in this case the ghost of a heretic who was beheaded seven hundred years previously and now seems to strangle people he does not like).
The book is set on a planet in a solar system. The planet does certainly seem to resemble Earth in some details. For example, they specifically mention Darwinian evolution, there was a famous painter called Hieronymus Bosch who painted a painting called The Garden of Earthly Delights, though, on this planet, it seems to have disappeared, and in the year 1960 of the Christian era, the population was three billion, as it was on Earth. However, their Christianity is different from ours. Instead of being Trinitarian it is Quadritarian, with the fourth divinity being the Holy Igitur. It is not quite clear who the Holy Igitur was, though the capital city is named after him, but he seems to have been some sort of divine prophet, who some said was merely a prophet but others said was divine. This difference is key to the story as the ghostly heretic mentioned above, Darko Dachilko, claimed the Igitur was not divine, which led to his beheading. (Igitur, by the way, is Latin for therefore. I am not sure whether that is relevant.) -   read more here

A surreal dystopian tale originally published in the 1970s is the Japanese author's first novel to be translated into English.
In the distant future, humankind has traveled to the furthest reaches of space, while civilization on Earth has regressed to a medievallike religious state. A student known only as K travels to the capital to sit for the Sacred Service Examination, a series of tests that will place him in a job inside the court of the Igitur, the papal government. To his surprise, he’s assigned to the enigmatic Planet Bosch Research Department. No one seems to know much about it, and the mystery only deepens as he begins his seemingly endless research. K starts delving into the secrets of the Igitur and of executed heretic Darko Dachilko, his connection to Planet Bosch, and even his connection to K. The story grows increasingly surreal and dreamlike, culminating in K’s arrival on the verdant Planet Bosch. Unfortunately, the book suffers from an artless translation, leading to tortured sentences such as: “ ‘That’s right,’ K says, his mouth full from the food his hands ply into it.” Worse still, the story highlights some of the worst tendencies of 1970s science fiction. The current convention offers organic worldbuilding which (ideally) unfolds with the story, but in this book, no facet of the fictional world goes unexplained, often through rambling conversations or long, quoted passages from in-universe books. Sex is thrown in randomly for no apparent reason, as when a beggar woman breast-feeds a starving K in an alarmingly erotic fashion. Not even inanimate objects are immune—a rocket is described as being “like a giant phallus ready to violate the heavens.” But Aramaki's treatment of female characters borders on abhorrent. Some are human, while others are clones or androids, but the only purpose any of them serve is to have sex with the male characters. In a particularly distasteful scene, a woman tearfully tells of having been repeatedly raped by multiple men from the age of 13 onward and, while still sobbing, is made to admit that she enjoyed it. By the next scene, she’s dead, and she’s rarely mentioned again.
A badly translated and misogynistic sci-fi relic.  - Kirkus Reviews

The Sacred Era begins a thousand or so years in the future, on an Earth that has become parched -- sea levels have dropped precipitously (two hundred meters), the effects of extracting hydrogen from the oceans for energy --, with the population of the Holy Empire, once six billion, now: "decimated a thousandfold" [sic]; and it is expected that across the empire: "several million people will die from the heat this year". Our (now distant-in-the-past) times -- civilization as we know it -- is called the Twilight Era, cultural remnants of which still exist, but for many hundreds of years humanity has been in the so-called Sacred Era.
       The story begins with young K traveling hundreds of miles from his isolated village to the capital of the Holy Empire, Igitur, to sit the Sacred Service Exam; he was the only one of the nearly hundred applicants from his district to be invited to take the exam. Given every four years, many of the candidates have spent: "much of their adult lives preparing for this exam" and many have sat for it before; they include not just students from the empire's best universities but even professors. The grueling exam takes place over several days, with only those who pass the day's test moving on to the next day's. To his own surprise, K keeps moving on, and eventually is one of the few who do pass; in fact, he is the youngest ever to pass the test.
       Now a member of the Sacred Service, K is part of the elite, and gets to enjoy some of its privileges -- a marked change from his very humble previous life. Yet K doesn't naturally take to his new circumstances -- and much about them remains mysterious. There's also his assignment: each successful candidate is assigned to a field of sacred study, and K is one of only two assigned to 'Planet Bosch Research'. Planet Bosch lies at the outermost reaches of the thousand-light-year territorial frontier of the empire, and all research into it has been: "classified top secret".
       Before he can travel to his assignment, K must train for six months at Holy Igitur Monastery, along with a few dozen other students who passed the exam but are not yet clerics. It is another stage on his wanderings, in a story that keeps him advancing from place to place. Both in coming and going to the monastery he is relatively isolated: he tries to get there on his own -- but only manages thanks to outside help -- and then all the other students move on to their assignments before he does; it is a cycle that, in variations, is repeated several times. Eventually, K gets to move on from the monastery; indeed: "you will travel to a place far beyond all space and time", he is promised.
       Despite the limited comforts and conditions of Earth life -- technological advances do not seem to be widespread, and life is fairly primitive (K travels by rickshaw at one point) -- the Holy Empire has achieved remarkable advances is space flight. There's no direct flight to Planet Bosch, so K has to go via several other stops; faster-than-light travel through hyperspace makes it possible to traverse these huge distances (a phenomenon Aramaki imagines quite well). K's stops aren't, however, how interplanetary travel of the future is usually imagined: most of the locales he finds himself in are desolate: hundreds of light years from Earth, for example, he finds himself at a spaceport:
that amounts to little more than an empty field. What facilities they have consist of little more than a small section marked off by wooden poles stuck through the ground at four corners with a straw rope going around them.
       The Holy Empire is a theocracy -- ruled by a pope (though the current one died five years earlier, and no successor has been named yet ...). The Southern Scriptures are the guiding holy text -- and the religion is a repressive one where, for example, sex is to be had only for the purpose of conception. There was, however, a heretic, Darko Dachilko who was beheaded almost seven hundred years earlier who prophesized the end of the world. And Darko Dachilko's influence appears to extend to the present day. And not just his influence .....
       The Sacred Era is a novel where dreams, hallucination (brought on by the extreme conditions), and the apparently supernatural seem to mix. K isn't always sure of the reality of what he sees -- especially since some of what he sees seems beyond explanation, from disembodied features to familiar figures in impossible places. Compounded by a world that even at its core is, in varying, ways unreal -- from how faster-than-light space travel works to life-like mechanical 'women' --, K (and the story) is certainly not grounded in a very firm reality.
       A spiritual debate seems to lurk in the background, though K only gets vague impressions of that. And there's also the fact that Planet Bosch's connection to the Earth is of a different order than that of your usual distant planet: "all indications suggest that Planet Bosch was once a subsidiary satellite in Earth's system" -- a satellite of the moon, that 'migrated' so far away some fifteen hundred years earlier.
       Planet Bosch, the ultimate destination, is of course the key. There's a great deal of secrecy surrounding it -- no one seems to have much information to share with K -- but K seems to be a chosen one, to uncover its real secrets.
       Early on already K wondered
     A planet named Bosch and a painting by a man named Bosch. Are they linked somehow ?
       Hieronymus Bosch's triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, is indeed a known -- and notorious -- painting, even in K's day. And, yes, there turns out to be a connection.
       Aramaki's tale is, in some ways, a very simple one: a classic sort of quest/wandering tale of a lost innocent and his various stations. Most of the locales are stark and simple -- and yet there's extraordinary richness to much of Aramaki's invention. It is often nicely understated, as in his description of an Escher-like world, where one goes down to move up, though there are also strikingly unsubtle images ("The phallus of a rocket penetrates the vulva of the orbiting galactic transport, sending throbbing vibrations throughout the vessel"). K's encounters with the super- (or at least un-)natural are also intriguing -- in part because Aramaki rarely lingers on episodes but instead moves (K) on, even after, for example, an encounter with the actual wing-clipped Lucifer. Yet there are recurring characters -- though not always in the same guises -- including his former mentor, Hypocras, and a mother-figure, and a larger design eventually reveals itself to him.
       The Sacred Era is a theological-philosophical novel, in its foundations and focus, and Aramaki's approach to this is fairly interesting. Obviously Christian-influenced, Aramaki's interests are only limitedly institutional (there's not even a pope in office, so the governing institution seems to be a bit unmoored -- though there was enough organization for those Sacred Service exam questions to go a specific way); instead, he's focused on a larger, deeper vision that isn't so much about (real-)world-building but concerns itself with abstracter concepts (leaning strongly on the Bosch painting and its mythologies, Christian and otherwise). The foundations complicate that -- this is a novel where someone tells K: "This world is an illusion. Shall we go see an even greater illusion ?". But Aramki impressively ups the stakes along the way.
       It doesn't work out entirely satisfactorily. Ultimately, there is too little connection between some of the parts, and specifically the Darko Dachilko-mythology isn't sufficiently rounded out. More concerned with ideas and representative types than individuals, characterization is a weak spot -- even K is ultimately perhaps too blank. This is a novel of ideas, but with only a very limited sense of day-to-day life in the Holy Empire (and on the planets K visits, Aramaki misses the opportunity to provide a sturdier foundation to his structure. The limited role the Holy Empire society allows women is perhaps excusable -- theocracies tend to marginalize women, after all -- but Aramaki's presentation of them as sex-objects of one sort or another (in one case, literally as a mechanized sex doll !) in their rare, brief appearances is jarring for the contemporary reader.
       The Sacred Era is a big-idea novel that is also very good with some of its small ideas -- although it perhaps heaps too many of them in, distracting from the larger story. But there certainly is a great deal of striking, memorable invention to admire here. The novel as a whole doesn't entirely fit together, but it is never less than intriguing -- a bit of a mess of a story, but a fascinating mix of the pared-down and the extravagantly imagined. - M.A.Orthofer

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. - Deborah Krieger