Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
By Haruki Murakami
Originally Japanese Publication 1985
First US Publication 1991
Translated to English by Alfred Birnbaum
Review © 2013 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Modern Fiction, Fantasy, Thriller, Science Fiction, Literature
Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is a literate fantasy/science fiction novel from Japan’s Haruki Murakami. After reading Murakami’s more recent 1Q84, I had tremendous expectations going into this novel; expectations that turned out to be just a tiny bit too high. This novel has some characteristics that are quite similar to 1Q84 which makes it a very worthwhile read but does not quite achieve the same intensity and emotional content as the later work.
Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is another novel from Murakami that does not fit easily into a particular genre. It’s primarily a fantasy thriller but there is also a substantial amount of science fiction. The long title is really a combination of two titles, one for each of the two narratives that make up the novel. The book alternates chapters between the two narratives. Hard Boiled Wonderland is the more real world thriller narrative while The End of the World takes place in a dream world at; you guessed it, the end of the world.
All the main characters in both narratives are unnamed. They are referred to instead by their job title or description such as the Professor, the Librarian, the Colonel, and the Chubby Girl. Both narratives are told in first person. Hard Boiled Wonderland is narrated by an elite data processing expert known as a Calcutec. He’s had his mind augmented through neural surgery to enable a new kind of unbreakable data encryption. As the novel opens, he has taken a new assignment that starts off strange and rapidly escalates into high intrigue and danger.
Meanwhile, The End of the World Narrative is narrated by the same physical person but by his subconscious instead of his conscious self. This narrative follows a remarkably coherent dream sequence where the narrator finds himself sent to a strange city at the end of the world where he has been assigned to a special position. He soon finds that he is at risk of being permanently trapped at the end of the world.
While the Hard Boiled Wonderland narrative has a much more real world feel, it still has a large portion of fantasy. The narrator finds an assignment taking him to meet an eccentric professor who has a secret lab within the Tokyo sewer system which is surrounded by horrible creatures called INKlings who occasionally eat people, after they’ve been drowned and left to rot for a time. When the professor gives him the gift of a skull from an imaginary creature, the narrator finds himself the target of undesirable agents. He soon enlists the help of a local librarian to find out what is going on and finds that his life in in danger from multiple sources and he has only a very limited amount of time to resolve the situation.
Murakami populates this novel with a host of quirky characters. The narrator is an everyman in most ways except for his artificially enhanced talent as a human data processor. He was divorced years ago and is just happy to do his job and enjoy the little things in life without bothering to look for love anymore. The professor is the stereotypical eccentric genus and his daughter is a too precocious 17 year old going on 40. The librarian offers more help than the narrator could hope for as long as he can provide her with enough high quality food. Within the dream world, the characters are more like the shells of real people but then again, it’s a dream world. With a combination of high action in the real world and ominous portents in the dream world the tension is gradually ratcheted up through the novel. My only complaint is that the real world action ends up involving too much fantasy for my taste.
Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World provides a unique fantasy thriller reading experience with memorable characters, interesting mysteries, unusual love interests, and a fragile connection between the dreamworld of the unconscious and the dangers of the real world. Highly recommended for fantasy fans who enjoy thrillers.