Do you ever anticipate a book so much that when you finally get around to reading it, it ends up being such a humongous disappointment and your heart breaks?
Welcome to my reading adventure with The Ouroboros Wave by Jyōji Hayashi.
Sometime in the distant future, scientists discover the presence of a small black hole that is on a collision course with the sun of our solar system. While trying to concoct a means of diverting its current course, scientists create a plan to harness the power of this black hole as an energy source. This book is an #OwnVoices Japanese, hard science-fiction novel that’s published by Haikasoru, a subsidiary of Viz Media, LLC.
Doesn’t that sound like one bitchin’ premise?
That basic plot outline is what drew my attention towards this novel in the first place. I absolutely love black holes. The physics and science behind them fascinate me to no avail. I’m one of those people who believe that black holes are quite possibly one of the greatest and most mind-blowing things in existence. However, when I finally picked the book up to learn more about this narrative, I learned very quickly that this was one story in a short story collection. I was so royally disappointed, to put it lightly.
Now, when I am interested in a book, I rarely look at reviews for the title because I don’t want to know anything about it. I tend to have the most positive and interactive reading responses from titles that I am ignorant of, regarding plot elements specifically, not harmful representation or content. I always keep an eye out for that much at the very least. Upon finishing the book, I did look up reviews (there really aren’t that many at all!). Only a couple of them mentioned that this was a short story collection. This boggled my mind because it’s not advertised as an anthology…anywhere. I looked it up on Amazon, GoodReads, Barnes & Noble, and Litsy. As someone who doesn’t typically read short stories—when I do read them, I try to prepare myself mentally for them—I must confess that it was a terrible way to begin my journey with this book.
The element that further cemented my disappointment was that upon reaching the end of the story, “The Ouroboros Wave,” it ended up revolving around something wholeheartedly different than what I was expecting. The narrative was an intellectual examination of how artificial intelligence views human beings regarding their programming, and how human “processes” differ from an AI. To be honest, it was intriguing and raised some marvellous questions about the evolutionary process of said AI… but I wanted a tale about a black hole, goddammit. Unfortunately, this wasn’t even the biggest issue with The Ouroboros Wave.
The introduction in the first story gives us a basic outline about the black hole that was discovered and how humanity’s main goal was to alter its course, so it doesn’t destroy our solar system. We also learn about a space station where scientists were working hard on this task and a bit about what life is like for them. Then the story begins with some characters chit-chatting. Yet, when it came time to learn more information about the settings and technicalities of their work, the dialogue would halt midway and we’d be presented with walls and walls of data. Nothing was interwoven into the storytelling at all. It literally felt like the book hit “pause” in the middle of the narrative to explain some shit, and then it hit “play” when it was finished.
It was extremely disjointed and created a horribly uncomfortable pace as we moved forwards. There were times when I felt like I was blowing through it, page-by-page, but then I would slam into these textual walls, moving at snail’s speed. It made it very challenging for me to retain my focus, regardless of how much I enjoyed all the information that was pouring into my brain through my eyeballs. Due to their inherent detachment from everything else, it just wouldn’t connect in my brain, which led to boredom.
I hate being bored whilst reading science-fiction. I mean, it’s my favourite fucking genre!
I will say, however, that this issue does improve a little bit with the other stories. You still encounter it, but it’s not nearly as frustrating as it is in the first short story. What you encounter instead are time jumps that cover anywhere from twenty to a couple of hundred years in between. This is an issue because each individual instalment is supposed to be one cog in an overall structure, yet due to poor execution, it’s difficult to tell that it’s all interconnected, or supposed to be at the very least. Story A will not be fleshed out, or even reach a comfortable finale at all, and suddenly we are on Story B that has similar problems. We do get some recurring characters, which helps with that unified feeling, but only to a tiny extent.
In addition to the insufficient fluffing of the tales, another thing that I noticed is that as we get closer and closer to the end of the entire book, each instalment becomes increasingly rushed and incomplete, bordering on incoherent with certain situations. More frustration filled my brain, clouding my patience.
Even with these facets, there is still one more aspect that surpasses all of them as the worse thing about The Ouroboros Wave… *drum roll*… the translation. It’s horrendous.
I’ve lost count as to how many times I have encountered English-translated-Japanese books that have suffered horribly at the hands of inconsistent and incorrect translations. There is a huge difference between literal and contextual translations! If you confuse them, you risk changing the entire fucking dynamics of a book! They are very different and it’s so fucking important to be able to differentiate between them!
My cousin, who speaks, reads, writes, and flirts (‘tis a joke, haha) in fluent Japanese (he grew up and lives in Osaka, Japan) is someone with whom I conferred with on this matter, as he had read the title in its native tongue. I expressed to him some of my suspicions in very specific parts of The Ouroboros Wave, and he helped me to understand what it was supposed to say, or read as. If translated correctly, I feel that a lot of those cohesive and disjointed feelings that I received would have been resolved, which would have created a completely different reading experience for me.
Look, I know that translating shit is no easy slice of pie. Trust me, as someone who speaks multiple languages and spends some of her time translating stuff, it can be really fucking hard. But poor translations can result in stereotyping an entire language or region for “bad writing” when that really isn’t the case at all. It can mar a very talented writer’s credibility. Not to mention that it can inadvertently change something wonderful into something offensive (oh yes, I’ve encountered this before as well). It’s so important to make sure that you can get someone who knows the difference between literal and contextual, as well as someone who can understand idioms.
Aside from all these cons, there are a couple of good things to The Ouroboros Wave. The first is the science. While being presented in an awkward means, it’s still fucking brilliant! The physics, engineering, programming, astronomy—all of it was exceptional and did a fantastic job of complementing the dilemmas that the scientists faced. I will say that it’s all SUPER technical, so if you are not a fan of comprehensively detailed scientific prattling, you will more than likely not enjoy it. But I adored it! It made my brain think in ways that I don’t normally do. When a book can get me to contemplate extensively complex and intelligent concepts, I swoon.
The second aspect I enjoyed were the questions that came up. For example, in one part of the book one scientist asks her colleague a question about the cross that Jesus Christ was nailed to. She asked if the log felt any pain when the nail went through it. He responded that it couldn’t because it was inanimate. My explanation is ruining it, so I’ll include a screenshot of that exchange down below. But essentially the entire interaction was to prove that theory of mind existed, and AIs theoretically couldn’t feel anything they weren’t programmed to. But what happens if they outgrew their programming and began to feel pain the way that humans did? Are they still merely an AI at that point?
Overall, the book was a hot mess for multiple reasons. With good faith, I feel I would not be able to recommend it to anyone, nonetheless, I am going to recommend it to anyone who enjoys complexly mind-blowing science and questions involving sentient AI. Just go into it with a big ass bag of salt.
2 collisions outta 5!