I don’t tend to read a lot of science fiction and dystopian novels, often because I find them depressing and life is tough enough at the moment. I often I feel as if the author has become so carried away with world building that they forget the human element of their story. Almost like watching one of those films where the special effects are amazing, but the characters and their dialogue is an afterthought leaving me with an empty feeling. This book sounded intriguing though and once I started reading it I was completely blown away. This is science fiction with a heart and a lot to say about the human experience. Our narrator John is an awkward 17 year old, from a dysfunctional family and with deeply personal body issues. He also happens to be a coding genius, talented in quantum code and greatly in demand by tech companies. He is spending some time in Tokyo while signing a deal with Sony and comes across a small cafe that offers ear cleaning. Inside he finds a huge Japanese man working behind the counter, a quirky dog with a spherical head and his owner, a pretty and rather enigmatic young girl called Neotnia. This chance meeting develops into an incredible journey that will take them from the neon city of Tokyo, to the tragic past of Hiroshima and finally the beautiful mountains of Nagano.
Michael Grothaus also takes us on a journey of genre, starting the novel with a chilled travelogue style, interwoven with a tender story of first love, via body shame and finally becoming a dystopian thriller. The author knows how to build a world that feels dislocated and distant from us with just one simple sentence, such as the description of the night sky with three objects visible from earth. The moon’s light picks out the twin space stations being built by the world’s two superpowers; China and the USA. The author’s journalism background and research into the world of fake video production has helped in creating a believable and brilliant backdrop of warring superpowers in a daily information war. ‘Deep Fake’ videos are used to produce fake news, meaning people must question, not just everything they read, but everything they see. Warfare has become a barrage of misinformation and cyber attacks, at their worst disrupting every aspect of daily life. He also weaves in social issues that are already evident worldwide for us, such as the rapidly ageing population in Japan. People are now routinely living into their nineties, but need care for longer and there simply aren’t enough young people to pay for or provide the care needed. This is a world that’s ours, but not as we know it. I loved how I would be relaxing in a park, looking at a familiar landscape of trees and pagodas and then I’d be blindsided by a tourist information bot. When the group all go on a car journey I couldn’t work out who was driving; the answer was no one. Often I didn’t know where we were going next but I was so bewitched by his writing that I’d have followed him anywhere.
I loved the relationship that builds slowly between Neotnia and John. She has a quiet, calming manner that seems to soothe him and a caring nature that John has never really experienced before. They seem to connect on a deep level very quickly, but there are people around her who are very protective. Goeido is a disgraced sumo wrestler and owns the cafe where Neotnia both lives and works. He doesn’t speak much, but John is aware of his concern because of the barely concealed scowling and head shaking. Neotnia takes John to a nursing home where she volunteers, to meet an elderly American man she has a friendship with. John enjoys meeting him, but also gets a feeling this meeting was some sort of test. Why are these men so protective of her? His relationship with Goeido only improves when they drink sake together and next morning John wakes up still in the booth where they had dinner. They seem to have connected, but John is very confused by a disturbing dream involving a bath and a toaster! Despite this John and Neotnia’s relationship does deepen and I was so drawn into their tender love story. There is something they’re both hiding and strangely it’s the biggest thing they have in common. Then comes the massive twist that I really didn’t see coming. The clues are there but the idea is so fantastical it’s quickly dismissed.
The beautiful backdrop of Japan really brought the place alive for me and made me think deeply about some aspects of it’s history. The city of Tokyo is wonderfully varied with it’s neon signs, bubblegum fashions, restful gardens and kamii shrines dotted everywhere. I learned more about Japanese belief systems, the differences between Buddhism and those who believe in kamii. The history around Hiroshima was so devastating, as was the knowledge that any advance in science seems to be harnessed for the purposes of war. The full impact of the bomb on the population of Hiroshima was devastating as the author tells us about those damaged by the blast, but left with terrible injuries. That complete change of abilities, identity and living standards could be seen as a more terrible end than those at the bomb’s epicentre who were simply vaporised. I loved how philosophies of life were discussed too. In conversation with Neotnia, John explains that her age group’s concerns and anxieties about the space stations and cyber attacks haven’t affected younger generations because they’ve never known anything different. This is probably something we’ve all experienced and it’s interesting to think that a small child now will grow up with the cost of living, climate change and hybrid vehicles as their norm. Whereas someone like me who has lived half their life really feels the changes and is more likely to find them unsettling. I found the end so emotional and I was moved by John’s thought that the common thread of humanity is suffering. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, both in my personal life and in my therapy work. My brother says that I think everyone needs counselling, because I’m a therapist. I always reply that everybody needs counselling at some point in their life. Yet, John’s experience makes him rethink his original statement and this took me from heartbreak to a glimpse of hope. This is a beautifully written story that’s definitely science fiction, but is also a deeply felt love story about difference and human connection. If this isn’t your usual genre, please give it a go. I’m so glad that I did.
Published by Orenda 16th March 2023.
Meet The Author
Michael Grothaus is a novelist, journalist and author of non-fiction. His writing has appeared in Fast Company, VICE, Guardian, Litro Magazine, Irish Times, Screen, Quartz and others. His debut novel, Epiphany Jones, a story about sex trafficking among the Hollywood elite, was longlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger and named one of the 25 ‘Most Irresistible Hollywood Novels’ by Entertainment Weekly. His first non-fiction book, Trust No One: Inside the World of Deepfakes was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2021. The book examines the human impact that artificially generated video will have on individuals and society in the years to come. Michael is American..
2 thoughts on “Beautiful Shining People by Michael Grothaus”
Thanks for the blog tour support x
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Thanks for having me Anne x