If you follow LN news, you might have heard about this one. Eighty-Six, by Asato Asato. In 2016, this very book was the winner of the Dengeki Novel Prize‘s grand prix. Many Dengeki Prize winners are books forgotten by history, ones that don’t ring any bells even among experienced LN readers. But not this one, I think. It wouldn’t surprise me if it got animated at some point. Very recently, its English translation was published by Yen On, so I absolutely had to get my hands on a copy. Google a bit and you might find a curious label used to describe Eighty-Six: “the antifascist light novel”. How seriously can this line be treated? Let us find out.
The fictional world of Eighty-Six is a racially diverse one – you can find pretty much every color of the rainbow in people’s eyes and hair. And yet, the story is set in the republic of San Magnolia where, after a lost war, the dominant ethnicity of silver-haired, silver-eyed Alba decided they were the master race and created a polarized state which doesn’t even recognize non-Alba as humans. Sounds familiar? They call them the Eighty-Six, since officially the number of inhabited administrative units of San Magnolia is 85. Unlike certain villains you might know from real world history, they didn’t sentence the underpeople to extermination through labor. The Eighty-Six were instead sent to the forefront of the Republic’s ongoing war with the neighboring Empire, where their deadly combat machines steered by AI lie in wait. There, the oppressed minority is given mechs, very meager resources and an order to fight the mechanical Legion. Whether the despised Eighty-Six manage to defend the republic or die in battle, if you follow the racist state’s logic, it’s a win-win situation…
Eighty-Six is a story of teenage soldiers and their officer, an Alba girl told to command her platoon from afar. She works in a military facility in the safe heart of the country, far from the frontlines, using a cutting-edge technology to communicate with her subordinates in a way that would be called telepathy nowadays. It enables people to share each other’s sense of hearing. She’s sympathetic towards her protegees from the start, since she happened to see her nation’s degeneration up close at a young age. As the story progresses, she will grow close to the Spearhead soldiers. And her understanding of just how absolutely rotten the fascist system of San Magnolia is will deepen as well. Her subordinates are the most competent among the Eighty-Six defending the Republic, largely thanks to their leader Shin and his mysterious psychic powers. But even the Spearhead is hemorrhaging people and resources, its annihilation seemingly a question of time. And the girl’s attempts at negotiating with her fellow residents of the Republic to end this madness prove futile. Together with her subordinates, she has no choice but to fight and try to actually win the war, against the low odds and their own nation throwing logs under their feet (and its own, as a consequence). The number of Spearhead members gradually diminishes and finally, the time comes to fight the final battle…
At a point, the story will veer dangerously towards supernatural, ghosty territory and some personal drama. The final battle felt like something largely unrelated to what truly interested me – my hopes for a conclusive ending. Will the novel have a non-ending? Who’ll survive, if anyone? Will San Magnolia fall? Thankfully, all those questions neatly find their answers in the epilogue.
The main character is an Alba girl, Vladilena Milize. Wow, what a name – it’s one hundred percent aesthetics, completely separated from any original meaning it might have. Russians would be rolling on the ground giggling if they heard. I was worried from the very beginning of Asato Asato’s novel that Eighty-Six might prove to be yet another example showing Japan is the nation of aesthetes, able only to produce works that appeal to the senses and have nothing of weight to say. Mechs, war, teenage soldiers and not-nazism as the backdrop. I bet all the teenage nerds in Japan would love it and say Eighty-Six is the best thing ever. The introductory bit at the beginning where you get to know the Spearhead members and their chuuni-sounding nom-de-guerres made me roll my eyes, hard. It doesn’t help that most of the child soldiers have Japanese-sounding names, unlike their Alba oppressors. So, it’s a one-two punch of cringeworthy teen war fantasies and Code Geass-style “good, oppressed Japan versus the evil West”? …is what I thought. My fears turned out to be largely unfounded, however. When the first platoon member dies an ugly death in battle, the mood of the novel – kids joyfully playing war – does an one-eighty into serious territory.
The deeper you go, the more it becomes clear that Eighty-Six is a story of the folly of fascism. You get to know the multitude of ways in which San Magnolia treats a huge percentage of its former citizens in an awful way, with next to no reason apart from petty rightist bullshit. Together with Lena, you’ll grow to like Shin and his comrades in arms, root for them and empathize with their situation. They’re people of the highest quality and yet they’re treated like elements of low worth, destined to be discarded. The novel has mad respect from me for its unflinching, true depiction of evil – one that never yields and listens to no rational arguments. The behavior of the Republic is cruel, but before anything else, it’s stupid. So stupid, it’s obviously suicidal – the state’s demise inevitably comes in the epilogue. If Eighty-Six was somehow published in early 20th century, people would call its plot absurd and unbelievable. It’s only the real world history’s lesson that makes us realize this novel is realistic and that reality is absurd sometimes. A lesson some seem to ignore to this day.
Although I initially had some doubts about what kind of novel it’d turn out to be, Eighty-Six is a solid chunk of pop-lit. A worthwhile, well put together book that has a noble idea to convey. Which, sadly, isn’t something that could be said about a lot of light novels. I have only one fear: the sequels. The first volume is a complete, self-contained work, which nevertheless got developed into a series. I can’t imagine what could happen in the second volume. But from what I’ve read, the story abandons its backbone, which is “writing a novel to convey a idea” and opts for depicting the war with the Legion, now beyond anyone’s control, which sounds like the least interesting thing ever. Oh well. If worse comes to worst I could just read the second volume and then drop the series. We’ll see how it goes.