Source: Review copy
Publication: 16 March 2022 from Orenda Books
My thanks to Orenda Books for an advance copy for review
It’s our world, but decades into the future…
An ordinary world, where cars drive themselves, drones glide across the sky, and robots work in burger shops. There are two superpowers and a digital Cold War, but all conflicts are safely oceans away. People get up, work, and have dinner. Everything is as it should be…
Except for seventeen-year-old John, a tech prodigy from a damaged family, who hides a deeply personal secret. But everything starts to change for him when he enters a tiny café on a cold Tokyo night. A café run by a disgraced sumo wrestler, where a peculiar dog with a spherical head lives, alongside its owner, enigmatic waitress Neotnia…
But Neotnia hides a secret of her own – a secret that will turn John’s unhappy life upside down. A secret that will take them from the neon streets of Tokyo to Hiroshima’s tragic past to the snowy mountains of Nagano.
A secret that reveals that this world is anything ordinary – and it’s about to change forever…
One of the great things about smaller independent publishers (and there are many, many great things) is that you learn to trust their judgement and because you do, you’ll read a book even if it doesn’t sound like something that you would ordinarily pick up. Now, I’d probably have read Michael Grothaus’ book anyway, because I loved Epiphany Jones so much, but dystopian fiction isn’t much my thing and so knowing that it was coming from Orenda Books, the home of beautiful writing, was what pushed it to the front of the pile.
And of course that trust is rewarded in spades in this stunning, beautifully written book.
Michael Grothaus takes us to Tokyo, not too many decades in the future. But this is a future where the digital revolution is well bedded in. Deep fakes are everywhere and wars are fought with them. The US and China are at loggerheads and keywords are now banned lest they trigger some new faked controversy. Service bots and androids are everywhere and technology drives even the smallest business.
Michael Grothaus’ world building is a thing of beauty. He transports us to a place we recognise yet a place transformed. As we wander the streets of Tokyo decades into the future, this place moves and shimmers, chimeric, illusory, yet breathtakingly real.
Nineteen year old John is in Tokyo to finalise a deal with a major tech corporation for his revolutionary quantum code. He’s a bit of a genius, recently featuring on a magazine cover for his work on quantum coding. But as we will discover, he’s not a happy young man. His family background isn’t great and he suffers physically as well as emotionally from never really having fitted in. He’s hoping that this deal will give him the means to at least sort the physical aspects of his life that cause him grief.
While he waits for the corporation to finalise the paperwork on his deal, John is taking in the Tokyo sights and trying to tire himself out so that he can finally sleep. Jetlag has not been his friend since he made the trip across continents.
That’s how he meets Neotnia, a young Japanese waitress in a café. The café is owned by Goeido, a seemingly very grumpy ex sumo wrestler whose career came to an abrupt end due to a deep fake. Goeido is a hard man to win over; he trusts no-one until he knows for sure that their motives are benign. He spends most of his time grooming his rather fetching dog, Inu.
At first, conversation between the two is somewhat stilted, but soon John and Neotnia find a lovely strain of humour in their interactions and that leads to a bond between them.
Though incredibly accomplished in his coding field, John has never really fitted in anywhere. His past is a miserable country and he plans to use this financial windfall to reset in an attempt to feel more comfortable within his own skin. Neotnia, conversely, is desperate to revisit the past. She has lost her father and wants nothing more than to trace him and ask him the questions that have been burning within her, especially since she met John.
Michael Grothaus has written a love story and it is so beautifully rendered that it had me in pieces, pulling me in to the story of these two young people; two souls who find each other because what they have in common is that they are outsiders; neither fits into this world but both are seeking answers to their questions about what their place is in this life.
This beautiful, compassionate story is wrapped in a brightly lit, brash wrapper that is Tokyo a few decades into the future. Walking the streets of Tokyo at Halloween is like wandering through the set of an anime movie. Technology is now so well developed that it is the most effective weapon in what is now almost exclusively digital warfare. Instead of looking at how much public benefit digital technology can provide to the world, those in charge are committed to using it to gaining supremacy. This is corporatism writ large. AI bots prevail everywhere you go, ostensibly helpful, but even their messages seem somehow sinister. It all feels scarily plausible.
Grothaus embeds us in a civilisation that seems as polarised and brittle as it is today but which has found ever increasing ways to create division, even as that same technology fails to be harnessed for the public good. And yet, Beautiful Shining People is a deeply spiritual journey into a digital world, allowing us to find humanity and compassion in the midst of so much negativity. He underscores the importance values such as those at the heart of the kamis which still play a significant role in the lives of the Japanese.
This a love story and of what it really means to be human in a world where technology seemingly makes everything possible. It is about loneliness, being different, feeling alienated in a world where fitting in is a prized value. It is both a beautifully told story and a warning. It asks questions about how far we really want to go in making the world more technology driven without underpinning that progress with the values and beliefs that make us compassionate, empathetic members of humanity. This is no po-faced book, however; it has its fair share of wit, some great laugh out loud moments and quite a few tense and scary chills, too. The characters, though are something else, In a book where the world building is so amazing, it is the richly drawn, emotive characters that stand out, who draw you in and make you care so fiercely for their future.
Verdict: An epic, brilliant, beautiful, shining book that everyone should read. I absolutely adored it.
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Michael Grothaus is a novelist, journalist and author of non-fiction. His writing has
appeared in Fast Company, VICE, Guardian, Litro Magazine, Irish Times, Screen, Quartz
and others. His debut novel, Epiphany Jones, a story about sex trafficking among the
Hollywood elite, was longlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger and
named one of the 25 ‘Most Irresistible Hollywood Novels’ by Entertainment Weekly. His
first non-fiction book, Trust No One: Inside the World of Deepfakes was published by
Hodder & Stoughton in 2021. The book examines the human impact that artificially
generated video will have on individuals and society in the years to come. Michael is