We’ve reviewed recent and classic novels, noted graphic stories and Hugo-nominated prose fiction. For our final Summer Review, we look at Derwin Mak’s 2011 novel, which holds particular appeal for fans of anime and manga.

Title: The Shrine of the Siren Stone
Author: Derwin Mak
ISBN: 9780986653117, 098665311X

Available from Amazon.uk, Amazon.com and Amazon.ca

Premise:

During a future global crisis, an underachieving otaku joins the Japanese Navy in order to find purpose in his life—and to become worthy of his love, a sophisticated android.

Meanwhile, strange and possibly spiritual developments draw the characters towards a mysterious shrine.

High Points:

1. After a romance, a war, a rebellion, and a bit of a twist, the book refocuses with a new eye on its subjects of android emotions, ethics, and spirituality. Can a machine love someone? Can it show courage? And, if religious beliefs are in fact correct, how do they apply to a creature like Yuko? Can an artificial being have, for lack of a better word, a soul? If a higher power exists, does it consider thinking machines? Did Jesus die for your computer? Can an artificial intelligence achieve nirvana? Do Shintoist purification rites apply to manufactured beings?

The novel’s core questions develop naturally from Yuko’s story, rather than being imposed upon it.

2. The explanation of why a sophisticated and unique android works in an obscure maid café makes perfect sense.

Low Point:

In a good deal of popular SF and anime, the future looks an awful lot like the present. This novel takes place more than two hundred years in the future. Save for the addition of better weapons, androids, and remilitarization, however, Japan seems strangely unchanged. Otaku watch anime and go to Maid Cafes in Akihabara. People eat American fried chicken for Christmas. I suppose that recent tradition might survive the next two centuries– but would it still be news that Americans eat turkey instead? TV functions pretty much as it does today, with Web-related media little altered or developed. Granted, I think this is quite deliberate, but I suspect some readers will find it distracting. Elements of this future feel mismatched. Ultimately, as in all SF, one has to take the book’s world on its own terms.

The Scores:

Originality: 4/6 Manga-esqe future tech, artificial intelligence, star-crossed lovers, and theories about ghosts/souls: individually, the elements may be familiar, but this blend has its own freshness. Mak also gets points for treating religious traditions seriously, and exploring the notion that something real underlies them. I may not agree with him, but his particular approach is unusual in contemporary SF, and differs significantly from, say, Philip K. Dick’s thoughts on artificial life.

Imagery: 5/6

Story: 4/6 The novel has an interesting storyline, though some readers may find it starts a bit slowly. We have otaku culture, military engagements, space tech, and android rights. The Shrine covers a lot of territory in a little over 300 pages.

Characterization: 4/6 Yuko represents the novel’s strongest achievement, especially as she develops. Ishiro, in his earliest incarnations, seems almost impossibly clueless, but I suspect he’s closer to reality than I’d like to think, and his depiction is satirically amusing. The other characters lean a little towards the stereotypical and, at times, their dialogue feels stilted.

Emotional Response: 4/6

Editing: 4/6

Overall score: 4/6 This is an interesting novel that, I think, will appeal especially to fans of anime and manga. I found it less engaging than Mak’s short fiction.

In total, The Shrine of the Siren Stone receives 29/42