Thursday, June 12, 2014
“All Aboard the Express Kundalini!”: The Dirty Pair Strike Again
First of all, I just want to say this book has possibly the most amazing opening chapter in the history of literature. Four years have passed between the first Dirty Pair book and this one, and, as if sensing that we'd missed the girls when they'd been away, Haruka Takachiho tosses us one of the most captivating, over-the-top action scenes I at least have ever read. Kei and Yuri are sitting in the 3WA headquarters with their testy chief after their latest successful, yet disastrous, mission. The chief chews them out for destroying an entire planet (which of course wasn't their fault) and the Angels play along with exasperation. Yuri goes through an elabourate routine of mock-grovelling while Kei openly rolls her eyes at her idiotic superior and tries not to break out giggling at Yuri's masterful performance. Then, out of nowhere, the entire freaking front side of the building explodes and in fly a bunch of flying shadow ninjas in jetpacks firing indiscriminately at everything in sight.
What happens next is nothing short of sheer poetry. Kei and Yuri fall back to the roof of the 3WA building where they take off in single pilot needle-nosed rocketship jet fighters and pursue the shadow ninjas throughout the entire city, as Kei naturally gives us a truly riveting play-by-play commentary. Power plants and chemical refineries are utterly razed by the firefight, causing gigantic explosions that reach into the upper atmosphere and level whole city blocks in a single blow. The Angels dogfight with the shadow ninjas in the skies above major metropolitan centres, weaving in between Blade Runner skyscrapers before straight shooting out of city limits and soaring over expansive fields and rolling meadows. And then, best of all, Mughi (who, need I remind you, is a giant sentient alien cat beast who is also chief engineer of the girls' starship) charges headfirst into the fray, leaps fifty feat into the air, snatches said shadow ninjas out of the sky in mid-flight and then field pitches them straight into said skyscrapers, toppling them like bowling pins made out of Jenga. It is a breathtaking, awe-inspiring scene of inconceivable carnage and indescribable beauty.
And on top of that, it's an utter jaunt to read, keeping you smiling every step of the way. Kei is as sassy, snarky, sharp and whip-smart as she's ever been, and her comic timing is dead on. Her storytelling is a spectacle unto itself. Not only is it absolutely hilarious, it effortlessly and vividly evokes the kind of cinematic splendour I didn't think was even possible to convey through prose, and it goes on like this for fifty-four whole pages.
You would think the book would start to lose momentum after this, and while it does slow down and change gears a bit from this point, it's no less a provocative and fascinating read because of it. The case the Angels were being briefed on before being rudely interrupted by flying shadow ninjas in jetpacks involved an injured miner on the planet Chakra. While on the surface not even seeming to be worthy of 3WA involvement, let alone involvement by Kei and Yuri, it swiftly becomes obvious that there is, as always, more to the case than meets the eye, because piecing together the details of the incident reveals that the miner was apparently attacked in broad daylight by an invisible monster.
The girls warp to Chakra to check things out (and to flee being unjustly blamed for the complete and utter destruction of their city), but their investigation is hampered by the machinations of the mayor of the primary mining town and the owner of the mine operation, each of whom try to dissuade Kei and Yuri from helping the other and both of whom seem like they have something to hide. As the girls try to figure that out, they also have to dodge the incessant pursuit of the shadow ninjas and the invisible monster, who engage them at the most inconvenient moments leading to destruction on an ever-increasing scale. There's also a third party, an enigmatic and dogmatic religious leader known as The Master who gives impassioned speeches to his chosen followers about a time of reckoning soon to be at hand.
Structurally, The Dirty Pair Strike Again marks a kind of turning point for the series, as it's the first properly novel length Dirty Pair story (the previous book, The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair, being in fact a compilation of the first two serialized stories). This means that The Dirty Pair Strike Again can be a far lengthier and more intricate yarn than either of its predecessors and unfold at a slower and more methodical (but no less engaging) pace. We even get to take a break from the plot for a couple chapters to (of course) watch a wrestling match that (of course), Kei gives a breathless play-by-play of (and incidentally, I quite like how the headquarters of the 3WA is on planet Lyonesse). Not to worry though, a monster shows up and throws a fit in the ring and then the arena burns down before too long.
That said though, and I'm not immediately certain if this was the case last time too and I just didn't notice it there because of how brief those stories were, but this one seems to wear its pulp serial heritage on its sleeve a bit more noticeably than either of the Great Adventure stories. The general body of the thing feels very much like something that initially ran in drabbles in a science fiction magazine: There's a lot of breaks on cliffhangers where the girls are in mortal peril, only for the next section to open with some random plot element flying in at the last second out of nowhere to save the day, typically involving Mughi. It's not that this is especially bad or detracts from the story, but it does invoke its lineage quite evidently. It reminds me a lot of the Tintin books, where every page would end on a panel of Tintin in danger, only for it to be swiftly resolved in the first panel of the next page, because that's how the serial was broken up when it ran in comic magazines. But the Tintin books still worked effectively as a single unbroken longform narrative in spite of this, and such is the case for The Dirty Pair Strike Again too.
(Well...for the most part. There's one extended section near the back of the book where the girls spend a somewhat unnecessary amount of time faffing about in abandoned mine shafts dodging a rather ludicrous number of successive cave-ins.)
But what I think is the most interesting about The Dirty Pair Strike Again is what it pulls in its climactic moments. Now I'm pretty much going to spoil this book outright from this point onward, so if you want to go into it blissfully unaware of its big reveal, close this and go check it out right now. Seriously, I highly recommend it: It has all the radical performativity and giddy fun of the last book, all the action and explosions you could hope for and it kicks the series' mystical component into overdrive (but you don't have to take my word for it). For the remnant, it turns out that everyone on Chakra is trying to get to the centre of the main mine, where the corporation has discovered a giant, solid black egg of mysterious origin and is trying to keep it under wraps. They're not having much success though, as The Master and his people, the Absolute Children of Heaven, know about it and consider it the key to the resurrection of their Messiah, whom The Master calls Boralura. Lucifer (of whom the owner is a secret member) has gotten wind of it too, and wants to secure its power to tighten their grip over United Galactica.
Eventually, it's revealed that everyone is right: The egg is a solid deposit of pure Ishana, a mineral so rare it only exists in a few places in the entire universe, and Ishana is what Boralura, who actually exists and is an extradimensional collective consciousness, is trying to channel itself through to make first contact with humanity (it's worth noting here the magnitude of this reveal: Extraterrestrial life in the Dirty Pair universe is the province of sacred, ancient myth and legend, spoken only of in hushed tones). The invisible monster is a similar such entity, an evil, ravenous member of Boralura's species known as Yaksha, unleashed by The Master as an agent to convert Chakra through a terror campaign. But in the end, it's neither the Absolute Children of Heaven, nor the mining corporation, nor Lucifer who ultimately get chosen to speak with Boralura, but Kei and Yuri, who undergo what can only be described as a spiritual, transcendental out-of-body experience where they not only speak with Boralura (via telepathy), but temporarily join with it to share consciousnesses.
There is a *lot* going on here. I was blown away when I first read it, and then when I did follow-up research to confirm my suspicions for what all this hinted at I was even more impressed. First of all, this is another case where a lot of care has gone into things like the meanings of names and textual symbolism. All of the major names here are taken quite explicitly from Hindu, Buddhist and Tantric philosophy: a “chakra” is a vortex of energy on the “subtle body” (defined as a simultaneously physical and spiritual emanation of the larger divine, that is, one individual experiential manifestation of the “great chain of being”, which we could also call the oversoul or godhead) where the channels of life-force ebb and flow into. “Ishana” is an aspect of the Hindu god Shiva and is derived from the word describing the sacred and fundamental power of the cosmos. An Ishana than would be someone who is in possession of that power and who can control it for themselves, which might explain why everyone in the galaxy seems to be after the ebony egg in this story.
You might be thinking that The Dirty Pair Strike Again thus becomes an example of “Pop Hinduism” or “Pop Buddhism” given the way it throws these terms around, but that couldn't be further from the truth here. On the contrary, all of these names are very clearly supposed to mean something and The Dirty Pair Strike Again is absolutely a musing on spirituality. What exactly it's trying to say be a bit deceptive to parse out though: It's tempting to call it an embrace of Eastern spirituality and a condemnation of Western spirituality: The Absolute Children of Heaven use quite a lot of Christian imagery and are clearly evil (at one point attempting to literally crucify Kei and Yuri as a sacrifice to Boralura). And then, of course, there's Lucifer again.
But that would be a rather facile reading I think, for a number of reasons. First of all, Kei and Yuri are of course the “Lovely Angels”, and they're the ones who quite explicitly attain enlightenment here. The Master and Lucifer aren't evil because they're Western-coded, but because they feel they alone posses the Pure Sacred Truth and that they alone have the right to indoctrinate others as they see fit. Boralura definitely contacted The Master, but he let it go to his head, appointed himself prophet and priest and decided to invoke an authoritarian, dogmatic conception of spirituality (this is why they're called the Absolute Children of Heaven, after all). That's where The Master went wrong, because the kind of enlightenment Boralura represents is a communal, egalitarian one, promising to help show humanity how they're connected to the larger universe and welcoming them into a higher plane of knowledge and understanding. Building a hierarchical church around Boralura is anathema to the truth it embodies.
This is reiterated in Yaksha, who is described by pretty much every character as being an essentially demonic counterpart to Boralura. But...in Hindu teachings a “yaksha” is actually a nature spirit who is simultaneously two different contrasting formes: A peaceful forest or mountain elemental and a predatory ghost-like creature who devours those who trespass into the places it guards (similarities can be drawn with the Celtic conception of faery here). Combining this with Yaksha's connection to Boralura in this story, and it immediately becomes obvious that Yaksha and Boralura are not only of the same species, but the same entity. Yaksha is merely the darker, negative manifestation of Boralura's consciousness, given life by the intense and fervent hatred of the Absolute Children of Heaven, just as we've said many times before how demons can be read as merely intense negative emotion given life as an entity.
And though they're not given any additional titles in this story (apart from being dubbed “The Gods of Destruction” by The Master, which is, well, fair), the extends to Kei and Yuri too. Because they have meditated on the inner workings of the universe and experienced the freedom of ego death by separating their consciousnesses from the material world to attain a higher spiritual plain, the girls, the Lovely Angels, have become Tantrics in the most traditional sense. Though deriving from classical Hinduism, Tantra is not a religion but a spiritual pursuit and, very fittingly, can be undertaken by anyone regardless of class, creed, gender or religious background. It's about finding your own personal path to nirvana, which in some ways makes it roughly similar to the Western Thelema (and you can go ahead and read a Tantric Sex subtext into that if you want. It *is* Kei and Yuri, after all).
So really, instead of being a West vs. East theological knock-down-drag-out, what The Dirty Pair Strike Again shows us is that we all approach enlightenment from different perspectives and conceptualize it different ways...and that understanding that in itself is enlightenment. I am we are all one. If there's any universal spiritual truth, it's that we're all connected to each other through the oversoul of nature, which is as much an animist concept as it is anything else.
But what really strikes me about this statement is how quickly and dramatically the book changes tonal gears: Dirty Pair has given us one of the most sublime and provocative science fiction messages ever, and then it all immediately goes south and goes hard. Because, you see, the universe isn't ready to hear this yet. The existence of Yaksha and all the drama on Chakra has Boralura concerned it acted in error and chose the wrong people to contact, to which Kei and Yuri have an amusing response: “Well...There is room for improvement” and convince it to take a different approach to contacting humanity at a later date. Another reason it's such a great moment is that it's a total inverse Captain Kirk speech: The charismatic captain(s) show the noncorporial entity why it's better than humanity and why humanity isn't ready for it's teachings.
Boralura foresees that this will be “the first and last interaction at this place of Ishana” and departs, leaving the situation, and the future, in the girls' hands. And, this being Dirty Pair, this comes to be through the utter obliteration of Chakra (like, it ceases to be an extant planetoid) and thus the loss of the only known source of Ishana in the universe. It's a bitingly cynical moment: We've ascended and returned to nirvana and unlocked the nature of reality, and humanity responds by blowing everything the hell up. We don't deserve enlightenment, and the universe rolls back on itself to prevent us from destroying ourselves and everything else in our arrogance and hubris.
But, maybe it's not all for nothing. After all, Kei and Yuri still discovered their path to truth. The universe at large might not be ready, but the girls, who are after all as much shamans as they are angels, certainly are and they're here to make sure that someday it will be. Because that's the job of spiritual teachers-To go on transcendental journeys, learn the secrets of the cosmos and to remind us of what we really are. And what we could be.