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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Sacred Era

Aramaki Yoshio

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To purchase The Sacred Era

Title: The Sacred Era
Author: Aramaki Yoshio
Genre: Novel
Written: 1978 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 252 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Sacred Era - US
The Sacred Era - UK
The Sacred Era - Canada
  • Japanese title: 神聖代
  • Translated by Baryon Tensor Posadas
  • With a Foreword by Tatsumi Takayuki

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Our Assessment:

B : remarkably inventive, but ultimately overwhelmed by its ambitions

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 25/11/2017 Alyssa I. Smith
Kirkus Reviews . 15/5/2017 .
World Lit. Today A+ 9-10/2017 Rachel S. Cordasco

  From the Reviews:
  • "While the depiction of women as sex objects throughout the novel is unfortunate, the plot weaves together theology, illusions and scientific discovery in an imaginative and dream-like way that leaves an impression." - Alyssa I. Smith, The Japan Times

  • "A badly translated and misogynistic sci-fi relic." - Kirkus Reviews

  • "Nothing is superfluous in this novel: each word of Posadaís translation from the Japanese has weight, and each page betrays the almost ecstatic extravagance of Aramakiís unbridled imagination. The Sacred Era is truly a masterpiece." - Rachel S. Cordasco, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Sacred Era begins a thousand or so years in the future, on an Earth that has become parched -- sea levels have dropped precipitously (two hundred meters), the effects of extracting hydrogen from the oceans for energy --, with the population of the Holy Empire, once six billion, now: "decimated a thousandfold" [sic]; and it is expected that across the empire: "several million people will die from the heat this year". Our (now distant-in-the-past) times -- civilization as we know it -- is called the Twilight Era, cultural remnants of which still exist, but for many hundreds of years humanity has been in the so-called Sacred Era.
       The story begins with young K traveling hundreds of miles from his isolated village to the capital of the Holy Empire, Igitur, to sit the Sacred Service Exam; he was the only one of the nearly hundred applicants from his district to be invited to take the exam. Given every four years, many of the candidates have spent: "much of their adult lives preparing for this exam" and many have sat for it before; they include not just students from the empire's best universities but even professors. The grueling exam takes place over several days, with only those who pass the day's test moving on to the next day's. To his own surprise, K keeps moving on, and eventually is one of the few who do pass; in fact, he is the youngest ever to pass the test.
       Now a member of the Sacred Service, K is part of the elite, and gets to enjoy some of its privileges -- a marked change from his very humble previous life. Yet K doesn't naturally take to his new circumstances -- and much about them remains mysterious. There's also his assignment: each successful candidate is assigned to a field of sacred study, and K is one of only two assigned to 'Planet Bosch Research'. Planet Bosch lies at the outermost reaches of the thousand-light-year territorial frontier of the empire, and all research into it has been: "classified top secret".
       Before he can travel to his assignment, K must train for six months at Holy Igitur Monastery, along with a few dozen other students who passed the exam but are not yet clerics. It is another stage on his wanderings, in a story that keeps him advancing from place to place. Both in coming and going to the monastery he is relatively isolated: he tries to get there on his own -- but only manages thanks to outside help -- and then all the other students move on to their assignments before he does; it is a cycle that, in variations, is repeated several times. Eventually, K gets to move on from the monastery; indeed: "you will travel to a place far beyond all space and time", he is promised.
       Despite the limited comforts and conditions of Earth life -- technological advances do not seem to be widespread, and life is fairly primitive (K travels by rickshaw at one point) -- the Holy Empire has achieved remarkable advances is space flight. There's no direct flight to Planet Bosch, so K has to go via several other stops; faster-than-light travel through hyperspace makes it possible to traverse these huge distances (a phenomenon Aramaki imagines quite well). K's stops aren't, however, how interplanetary travel of the future is usually imagined: most of the locales he finds himself in are desolate: hundreds of light years from Earth, for example, he finds himself at a spaceport:

that amounts to little more than an empty field. What facilities they have consist of little more than a small section marked off by wooden poles stuck through the ground at four corners with a straw rope going around them.
       The Holy Empire is a theocracy -- ruled by a pope (though the current one died five years earlier, and no successor has been named yet ...). The Southern Scriptures are the guiding holy text -- and the religion is a repressive one where, for example, sex is to be had only for the purpose of conception. There was, however, a heretic, Darko Dachilko who was beheaded almost seven hundred years earlier who prophesized the end of the world. And Darko Dachilko's influence appears to extend to the present day. And not just his influence .....
       The Sacred Era is a novel where dreams, hallucination (brought on by the extreme conditions), and the apparently supernatural seem to mix. K isn't always sure of the reality of what he sees -- especially since some of what he sees seems beyond explanation, from disembodied features to familiar figures in impossible places. Compounded by a world that even at its core is, in varying, ways unreal -- from how faster-than-light space travel works to life-like mechanical 'women' --, K (and the story) is certainly not grounded in a very firm reality.
       A spiritual debate seems to lurk in the background, though K only gets vague impressions of that. And there's also the fact that Planet Bosch's connection to the Earth is of a different order than that of your usual distant planet: "all indications suggest that Planet Bosch was once a subsidiary satellite in Earth's system" -- a satellite of the moon, that 'migrated' so far away some fifteen hundred years earlier.
       Planet Bosch, the ultimate destination, is of course the key. There's a great deal of secrecy surrounding it -- no one seems to have much information to share with K -- but K seems to be a chosen one, to uncover its real secrets.
       Early on already K wondered
     A planet named Bosch and a painting by a man named Bosch. Are they linked somehow ?
       Hieronymus Bosch's triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, is indeed a known -- and notorious -- painting, even in K's day. And, yes, there turns out to be a connection.
       Aramaki's tale is, in some ways, a very simple one: a classic sort of quest/wandering tale of a lost innocent and his various stations. Most of the locales are stark and simple -- and yet there's extraordinary richness to much of Aramaki's invention. It is often nicely understated, as in his description of an Escher-like world, where one goes down to move up, though there are also strikingly unsubtle images ("The phallus of a rocket penetrates the vulva of the orbiting galactic transport, sending throbbing vibrations throughout the vessel"). K's encounters with the super- (or at least un-)natural are also intriguing -- in part because Aramaki rarely lingers on episodes but instead moves (K) on, even after, for example, an encounter with the actual wing-clipped Lucifer. Yet there are recurring characters -- though not always in the same guises -- including his former mentor, Hypocras, and a mother-figure, and a larger design eventually reveals itself to him.
       The Sacred Era is a theological-philosophical novel, in its foundations and focus, and Aramaki's approach to this is fairly interesting. Obviously Christian-influenced, Aramaki's interests are only limitedly institutional (there's not even a pope in office, so the governing institution seems to be a bit unmoored -- though there was enough organization for those Sacred Service exam questions to go a specific way); instead, he's focused on a larger, deeper vision that isn't so much about (real-)world-building but concerns itself with abstracter concepts (leaning strongly on the Bosch painting and its mythologies, Christian and otherwise). The foundations complicate that -- this is a novel where someone tells K: "This world is an illusion. Shall we go see an even greater illusion ?". But Aramki impressively ups the stakes along the way.
       It doesn't work out entirely satisfactorily. Ultimately, there is too little connection between some of the parts, and specifically the Darko Dachilko-mythology isn't sufficiently rounded out. More concerned with ideas and representative types than individuals, characterization is a weak spot -- even K is ultimately perhaps too blank. This is a novel of ideas, but with only a very limited sense of day-to-day life in the Holy Empire (and on the planets K visits, Aramaki misses the opportunity to provide a sturdier foundation to his structure. The limited role the Holy Empire society allows women is perhaps excusable -- theocracies tend to marginalize women, after all -- but Aramaki's presentation of them as sex-objects of one sort or another (in one case, literally as a mechanized sex doll !) in their rare, brief appearances is jarring for the contemporary reader.
       The Sacred Era is a big-idea novel that is also very good with some of its small ideas -- although it perhaps heaps too many of them in, distracting from the larger story. But there certainly is a great deal of striking, memorable invention to admire here. The novel as a whole doesn't entirely fit together, but it is never less than intriguing -- a bit of a mess of a story, but a fascinating mix of the pared-down and the extravagantly imagined.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 June 2017

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The Sacred Era: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Aramaki Yoshio (荒巻義雄) was born in 1933.

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© 2017 the complete review

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