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image The premise of Marc Horne‘s Tokyo Zero: “I want to end the human race. But not because I don’t like it. I just have a better idea.”

On this wildly amusing romp down a Vonnegut-like rabbit hole, you don’t learn this until you’re 93 percent of the way through the novel (commercial POD title from Amazon;  free e-book from Horne and the multiformat Manybooks.net).

Originally bearing the far-superior title of My Tokyo Death Cult, the book is very loosely based on 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. The “fulcrum of human history” is a plot to eliminate the human race by means of a device a device that “strongly resembles a drinking bird toy.” To get there, you cruise wildly imaginative waters where would-be fascist billionaires consort with female assassins, mothers are killed by the Khmer Rouge, plastic surgeons manipulate human DNA, bearded cult leaders levitate on the Tokyo subway, and a superpowerful artificial intelligence employs an irony filter.

A living, sweating Tokyo, not just a stereotype

Horne sets his plotimage in a living, sweating Tokyo: “I sat down and was brought a steaming yellow towel wrapped in plastic. I unwrapped it, enjoying the too-hotness of parts of it and then stuck it to my face, which it melted. But it was just melting the outer face that Tokyo layers on you always, so that was good.” He admirably portrays the great megalopolis without relying on the usual stereotypes of big-eyed comic girls and horribly crowded subways, exposing the real Tokyo in all its unending idiosyncrasy lurking among the drab conformities of concrete.

Horne writes in a lyrically jarring fashion that never quite releases the tension long enough for you to get your footing. Flashbacks and flashforwards zoom past like hurtling Tokyo trains, leaving you agreeably frazzled. Horne has a way of dropping big ideas without taking his foot off the pedal. “The Japanese … liked their cars to have faces and their ATM machines to have social lives. They were beginning to see humanity as something everywhere … something you do, not something you are.” Some writers might get tangled up in such abstractions, but not Horne. The plot zooms on and you go with it if you want to find out how it all ends. Believe me, you do.

Dickensian coincidences

Sometimes the clever button gets overused, as in a vertical car park “that dangled cars like some tie rack that would arrive from your wife after the love was gone.” Coincidences of Dickensian proportions are a touch too prominent. The ending arrives with the abruptness of an idea tank running on fumes. Small points, but you do notice them as the book winds up.

Overall, Tokyo Zero is a fine, fun read. Recommended.

On a technical note: The PDF file I downloaded contained typos and not a few misspellings. Nothing major, but I do hope the official Kindle version and the paper version are cleaned up. Available under a Creative Commons license, it’s a great example of the quality fiction that is available for free download.

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