A war without deaths. A war without human losses. A dream? A glorious advance from the horror of slaughter and death? Or just a mirage?
Story: Asato Asato
Mechanical Design: I-IV
Translation: Roman Lempert
What They Say
A War Without Casualties
The Republic of San Magnolia has long been under attack from the neighboring Giadian Empire’s army of unmanned drones known as the Legion. After years of painstaking research, the Republic finally developed autonomous drones of their own, turning the one-sided struggle into a war without casualties—or at least, that’s what the government claims.
In truth, there is no such thing as a bloodless war. Beyond the fortified walls protecting the eighty-five Republic territories lies the “nonexistent” Eighty-Sixth Sector. The young men and women of this forsaken land are branded the Eighty-Six and, stripped of their humanity, pilot the “unmanned” weapons into battle…
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
The first volume of Asato Asato’s Eighty-Six is as much a warning as it is a story (the second volume I expect to play out somewhat differently because the story engages in what we could call a “soft reset” at the end—I will not spoil what happens at all). What is this novel warning us about?
In a world inhabited by humans, the Republic of San Magnolia has been trapped in a life-and-death struggle against a brutal and unrelenting opponent: the completely mechanized, fully autonomous war machines of their neighbor, the Empire of Giad, that bear the imposing name of “the Legion.” In the initial attacks, the Republic’s army fought bravely, but fruitlessly to some degree, as men and bullets and ordinance can only do so much against mass-produced machines of death whose simple programming is only concerned with killing their opponents.
The Republic achieved something of a halt to the Legion’s advance by building a massive wall around their core territories, manning it with powerful artillery that could destroy even highly armored AI tanks, and then placing a giant minefield around the wall. This was not all. The Republic also set to work developing their own unmanned drones, the Juggernauts, to counter the Legion and fight them beyond the minefield. The people of San Magnolia, especially the elites that live within the First Sector, the capital city of the Republic, go about their daily lives of preening themselves and engaging in the usual kinds of civilian endeavors people in democracies tend to do.
A war without casualties.
Science fiction writers in various media have explored the idea of a “bloodless” war before; Asato Asato’s take on it follows one path, one that skirts around the philosophical problems of the concept by utterly subverting it: the Republic’s “autonomous drones” are no such thing.
The reality is that early in the war, the dominant people in the Republic, facing an existential crisis, decided by popular vote to enslave their minority groups, including those who were descended from immigrants originally from the Empire, and force them to fight against the invaders. The most powerful group are the “Alba” (“white” in a certain old dead language, the same one the word “legion” comes from, by the way), who are notable for their pale skin, silver hair and eyes. The various minority groups are collectively referred to as “Colorata” (need I translate that for you? “Colored,” if you did not know already). They come in all kinds of types, including many who in our world are usually considered “white.” Not here. Here, they are pigs.
The Alba sent all of the Colorata to internment camps outside the walls first. Then, they promised the restoration of political rights to any family if someone from it volunteered to join the military and fight the invaders. Of course, many Colorata enlisted immediately. Millions died, but the invasion was brought to a temporary standstill. After the parents died, many of the older children, when they reached an age where fighting was possible, enlisted as the Republic claimed that only one being’s rights could be restored by a single volunteer.
Though taking many casualties, an end to the war is in sight: from intercepted messages, the Alba had learned that the Empire had fallen (it was still a mystery what caused its ruin). The Legion were not programmed to fight forever. In two more years, they would all shut down. So, all they had to do was wait out the deadline while letting the “Eighty-Six” (as they dubbed all of those excluded from being considered human in the Republic) die outside the walls fighting the Legion.
Okay, heavy world-building explanation over, the novel itself does not just sit in exposition mode. The two people featured on the cover, the slim, silver-haired girl in a fancy uniform, and the dark-haired boy in camouflage, give us a split-screen view of life in this world. The girl, 16-year-old Vladilena Milizé, usually just called Lena, is a major in the Republic’s military and a “Handler,” the officers well behind the lines who “command” the Juggernaut squadrons through a device that allows people to be linked from far away, not subject to radio jamming: the Para-RAID device. The boy is Shin Nouzen…or at least that’s what he was when he was considered human. Eighty-Six are stripped of their names. Instead, they are given numbers. Those who survive many battles and become seasoned warriors are allowed to gain a new name, doubling as their call sign used in battle. These are the Name Bearers. Shin is one such ace Juggernaut pilot, known as “Undertaker.” He belongs to the elite Spearhead Squadron, which Lena is assigned command of at the beginning of the novel.
Lena’s role is mainly to reveal the dark side of the Republic to us: it may have glittering lights and parties where high society strut about as if nothing is wrong, but the Republic is a morass of hypocrisy and corruption. The Alba are now living well…thanks to all of the property and wealth they stole from the Colorata when they removed their political rights. Worse, over time we learn just how depraved the Alba have become through the eyes of the idealistic, young Lena. Not only are they having others fight the war for them, they have no intention of those others living to reclaim their political rights and property once the war is over.
Shin’s role is to show the resilience of humanity under the most oppressive of conditions. This is not meant to be uplifting, far from it. As we see the Spearhead Squadron fight against the Legion, we see how these marginalized people continue to live as humans. While the Alba in the rear may have material splendor, they also display the morality of vicious brutes. Anything salvageable among the Alba seems to reside in Lena and but a few others.
The story itself is not particularly groundbreaking. There are predictable lines of character development (that the Eighty-Six would start off very hostile or ambivalent towards Lena, moving towards a greater acceptance of her genuine concern for them over time) and plot progression (that the stalemate would not last forever). The execution is quite solid, for the most part, and the narrative does hold the reader’s attention even with how unbearably grim the world Asato Asato has created can be. One minor surprise is in how the story engages in a partial reset of the basic premise towards the very end, promising that the second volume will have to redefine, to some degree, what it wants to be about.
This volume is about racial oppression, brutality, the horror of war, especially against an amoral enemy (by definition, the Legion, being AIs, have no morality—it’s not in their programming), and the small acts of kindness that can bridge the things that divide us humans from each other. It’s a warning, as I said at the outside, of what could happen when extremist notions of differences between people are taken to their most deranged end. I look forward to what Asato does next.
The Republic of San Magnolia, a true democracy that believes in the basic rights of all people, has been under assault for years by the vicious drone weapons of the neighboring Empire of Giad. It took time, but the Republic developed their own autonomous weapons to fight the invasion. At least, that is the official story. The reality is that the Republic’s most powerful ethnic group enslaved all of their minorities and used them as cannon fodder to stop the invasion. So much for freedom, equality, and democracy. Not just a narrative of a merciless war, 86 is also a cautionary tale, inviting us all to reflect upon how inhuman humans can be when they focus upon and exploit what divides us for personal gain.
Content Grade: A-
Art Grade: A
Packaging Grade: A
Text/Translation Grade: A
Age Rating: 16+
Released By: Yen Press
Release Date: March 19th, 2019