Beatless, Vol. 1

By Satoshi Hase and redjuice. Released in Japan by Kadokawa Bunko. Released in North America digitally by J-Novel Club. Translated by Ben Gessel.

This is a doorstopper of a book, and I think my largest issue with it is that it could easily have been split into two normal-sized books. There’s a lot going on in it, yes, with a large number of very cool action set-pieces, but the book also wants you to know that it’s going to be talking about what hakes a human and what makes an artificial intelligence, and it does. In great detail. It’s quite interesting, but after a while it can be exhausting. I also wish we had spent a bit more time with hIEs (that’s the series name for the artificial intelligences mankind has built) other than the five main modern units, as they’re clearly meant to be more special and more human than the usual shopkeeper hIEs and the like. It’s a bit difficult to hear one of the cast talking about them as if they’re cars that can be sold when you get to see their POV briefly and see they do have wants and needs beyond their owners.

This takes place almost a century from now, where humanoid intelligences (hIEs) have gotten to the point where they’ve started doing the “drudge” jobs for humanity and also are hard to tell apart from humanity. Our hero is Arato, who at times almost seems a parody of “generic anime protagonist”. He’s aggressively normal, except for the fact that he always wears his heart on his sleeve and tries to think of everyone as basically kind. He’s also kind to hIEs, seeing them as people, which his friends Ryo and Kengo certainly don’t. His father is a major player in the hIE world, but we barely meet him. His sister is even a classic anime little sister. That said, it all changes when, coming across a bizarre flower attack on the hIEs in the street, he’s rescued by Lacia, a clearly far more advanced than the usual hIE who asks him to become her “owner”. He agrees, but she also has a lot of secrets – like how she’s connected to five hIEs who broke out of a lab and are being hunted down.

This book does get a lot of things right. Arato is simple and earnest without being boring, and you get why people naturally like him. Yuka is a spoiled little sister but also not annoying. Ryo, his best friend and the heir to a hIE organization, is probably the most interesting and nuanced character in the book, and we watch him slowly go from being Arato’s best friend to a villain in stages so gradual you barely notice it. The action movie set pieces are fantastic, the best being a massive firefight at an airport that also involves one of the cast trapped in a slowly burning limo. It does, however, love to have everyone and their brother talk about the role of hIEs in society, and whether they are like people (Arato’s view) or like toasters (seemingly everyone else’s view). Towards the end the book even becomes a zombie survival novel, but never lets go of the nature of hIEs even then.

Given its length, there’s a lot more I didn’t get into here, like Lacia’s modeling career, or the somewhat abbreviated terrorist career of Arato’s other best friend Kengo (who is then mostly removed from the rest of the book, presumably as his function is finished). I think it might read better if you pace it out over several days. I do recommend it for fans of action-filled works, near-future SF what-ifs, and of course those who have seen the anime.

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