Art by SWing-Art CC BY-SA 3.0
The newest episode of GEBen’s experiments in fictional fiction is a rewrite of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha in the style of Douglas Adams. Okay, it might not be as weird (or disturbing) as GEBen’s previous work but, still, putting a story of sexual slavery into the hands of one of the funniest sci-fi writers in the entire galaxy seems risky, at best. GEBen claims that a statistical analysis of plot and style showed significant similarities between Golden and Adams, while differences in characterization and genre suggested scope for emotive cognitive dissonance, whatever that means.
And GEBen is right. Strangely, it works. Really well. Adams gives us is a light-hearted, satirical yet profound examination of patriarchy and the exploitation of women set amidst the social upheaval caused when a Vogon construction fleet builds a galactic interchange through mid-20th century Japan.
I did say “strangely”.
The obvious danger in such a work is that the serious aspects could easily be undermined by the lighter touches. Adams is such a fine storyteller, however, that he is able to carry Chiyo/Sayuri’s trials and sorrows through the absurdities of Vogon poetry and the Infinite Improbability Drive. Beyond that, the relocation of the story to fantastical places—planet-building factories and tea houses with self-sacrificing sushi, for example—strips away the stereotypical “orientalisms” that lingered in the original Memoirs. Likewise, the fact that Hatsumoto and the Chairman are aliens (one is a pan-dimensional being and one is President of the Galaxy but I’ll let you discover which is which) helps distract the reader from the lack of depth in both characters.
The biggest change, however, is in Chiyo/Sayuri herself. With her eyes and mind opened by the limitless possibilities of the galaxy, she sees through the charms of the Chairman who she met once at a party in Islington and no longer focuses on salvation through a fairy-tale romance. And this makes her forced servitude all the more difficult and troubling. The emotional and psychological twists, turns and knots that help her survive—the self-justifications, the minor accommodations and the small, secret rebellions—come into stark and living colour. At times, it makes for difficult reading. But it is immensely rewarding reading.
As a side note, while reading this, I often found myself thinking of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. The mix of historical fantasy and science-fiction, especially when Sayuri is held in a cell to be viewed by Vogons, seemed almost like a #MeToo update of Vonnegut. When I mentioned this to one of the researchers on the GEBen project, she smiled and said, “Just wait for next week’s book.”