Originally published in 2013, and translated here by Daniel Huddlestone, Sisyphean—a word that refers to a task that can never be completed—is a work of mind-boggling complexity and almost uncategorizable weirdness. Incorporating elements of horror, mystery, Japanese folklore, interstellar space travel, and phantasmagoria of the most curious kind, Dempow Torishima has conceived a vast, complex universe of interconnected civilisations, each with its own set of laws governing the life-cycles and social hierarchies of its inhabitants. In this respect, Sisyphean is breath-taking, in both its conception and execution—but it does require some explanation.
The book consists of four parts, each of which is headed up with an introductory ‘Fragment’ that serves as an origin story for the narrative that follows. The first part, Sisyphean (Or, Perfect Attendants), presents us with a third-person account of the day-to-day life of a hapless worker, whose responsibilities include fashioning a range of fully-functioning organs from slabs of “slimecake” under the supervision of a tyrannical and – literally – faceless boss known only as the president. Lacking in basic self-awareness, and confused by the verisimilitude of his own memories, the worker drags himself through the days, carrying out his tasks with a meticulousness that borders on the maniacal.
The worker set to the task of polishing the curved surfaces of the block using an emery cloth. To the steady sound of his polishing, there was added another sound, as of some liquid coming to a boil. Despite a growing sense of puzzlement, he reached for the next piece and took it in his hand. The boiling grew louder, and he looked over at its source, which was the president. Beneath his clothes of knitted meat, great bulges were suddenly swelling out from his chest and side, then receding, only to bloom again.
From there, we move on to a different dimension entirely. In Part Two, titled Cavumville (Or, The City in the Hollow) we meet Hanishibe, a trainee taxonomist who lives with his grandparents in a world of mutants, where downpours of organs and flesh known as Descents from Heaven are commonplace. It’s shortly after one of these Descents that Hanishibe takes on the role of “court enforcer” for Cavumville’s Shrine Chieftain, which leads him to question the very laws he is supposed to espouse.
Part Three – Castellum Natatorius (Or, The Castle in the Mudsea) is narrated by a “dodgejobber” named Radoh Monmondo, who leads us through an investigation into the death of an Archlearner proxy, in which he, Monmondo, may or may not be a suspect. Of course, this might all be a hallucination caused by over-indulging on something called namas-machina, but hey. Either way, it’s no less strange than the previous parts and—oh, did I mention this character’s hearing organs are in his elbows, or that he has antennae through which he reads “scentences”? No? Well, they’re the least of his problems, as he navigates the intricacies of this incredibly tightly-woven plot about mind-control and evolution.
Unbidden, a question came to mind: what were the remains of so many life-forms even doing in the Hellblaze? Hadn’t the same hemisphere been exposed to the light of the Rimblaze since the world first formed? Wasn’t it established science that living creatures could only survive the Mudsea?
“I have named this creature ‘Pancestor.’ That’s enough for the introduction; now I will have you see the reality.”
“See it? I thought you called me up because it had disappeared from the autopsy room.”
But no reply was forthcoming. I saw the man from before leaving the room with his empty barrels, and then the many long legs of those lunming bugs that had been waiting on the walls to my right and left started moving—so swiftly that each was like the afterimage of another—and clamped onto every part of my body, holding me still in a firm grip.
Thankfully, by the time we reach Part Four, Peregrinating Anima (Or, Momonji Caravan) things get a whole lot more straightforward. Hey, I’m just kidding. That said, the pace is initially a little less frenetic, as we follow a caravan of momonji—a kind of lumbering, claw-legged version of the abominable snowman—across an expanse of land known as the Vastsea. At the heart of this tale is Umari, a young girl with an unswerving dedication to her Master and an endearing affinity with the momonji creatures. The narrative alternates between two separate dimensions, which eventually converge, and we also see the reappearance of Hanishibe…
Let’s cut to the chase: this is a weird book. Weird, and often very challenging. The threads that tie each of the four stories together are not always immediately obvious, but they are there—scattered throughout the narrative in the form of a plethora of strange biological and mythical motifs. It’s true that I found a number of the references unfamiliar, and I wasn’t always sure whether this was down to my own inexperience of scientific or folkloric terminology, or simply because it’d been invented by the author. (Turns out it was a bit of both: magatama, for example, are comma-shaped beads carried as jewels, and once believed to have held magical qualities, while ebisu derives from the name of a Japanese God; here the term is used to describe a species of outcasts that use their exceptionally long arms for fishing.) Soon enough, though, the stories had sucked me in, and my difficulties in deciphering some of the technical terms became less of an obstacle to my enjoyment of the book, which was dazzling for its level of detail and the depth of imagination. On almost every page something surprising, alarming, or even deeply disturbing takes place, constantly forcing the brain to shift gear in order to keep pace. Dedicated followers of the genre will no doubt draw comparisons with the works of authors such as Octavia E. Butler, whose Exogenesis Trilogy explores some similar themes; however, the sheer weirdness of the events described in the pages of Sisyphean, coupled with the breakneck speed of its prose, and the astonishingly detailed descriptions of various life-forms, make this a unique reading experience. And, in addition to his word-wizardry, Torishima—a graduate of the Osaka College of Art—has illustrated Sisyphean in fascinating style, making this a must-buy for fans of books from the more bizarre end of the sci-fi spectrum.
Ultimately, though, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Sisyphean is how grounded in reality it is—an entirely alien reality, granted, but one that bears more than a passing resemblance to our own, if only for its ability to raise questions about the life-processes by which we’re surrounded, and the origins of our existence. Furthermore, in each section, the reader is presented with a protagonist who is at odds with their surroundings, or at least forced to face the inconsistencies of established wisdom, about where they came from and where they’re heading, both as an individual and as a species.
Books are, by their very nature, immersive. Good books are more than that: they settle on you, getting inside your head, forcing you to carry them with you. Essentially, they’re reborn with each new reader for whom life changes as a result—sometimes almost imperceptibly, other times dramatically. This idea of rebirth—or revivification, to use Torishima’s term—is central to Sisyphean, and by the time I’d finished reading it, the world was a very different-looking place. This book certainly won’t appeal to everyone’s tastes or sensibilities, but as far as boundary-pushing genre-fiction is concerned, you may struggle to find a more far-reaching, mind-bending vision of the future. And aside from anything else, Sisyphean makes one thing clear: no matter how weird things get, and whatever job you do, the work will never quite feel like it’s complete.
Thanks to Nick Mamatas, who provided me with a Kindle version of the book. Sisyphean is available now, from Viz Media/Haikasoru and it can be bought from both Barnes & Noble and Amazon.