SD Alternative

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.” - Dr. Seuss

J.G. Ballard, "Now: Zero"

The credit for this goes to [info]emblem, who found it. I'm just the person who had to immediately order it from amazon and pay the extra $2 for it to be delivered overnight.

…The package I mentioned in my last post was J.G. Ballard's The Venus Hunters, a short story collection which combines stories from 1967's The Overloaded Man with stories from 1969, 1976, and 1978. Now: Zero is the first story in the collection; it's eleven pages long. Genre-wise, it's a horror story told from the first-person perspective of that creepy guy at your office who doesn't say anything when you mistreat him, but who secretly keeps a record of every abuse (real or imagined) he's ever suffered at your hands, and who you'd be afraid was going to murder you in your sleep if you didn't know for a fact that he was a total coward and would never dare.

Now: Zero takes that person, and gives him an old notebook that seems entirely ordinary, except that the day after he, in a fit of sudden rage, writes down the name and fantasized death of his boss at the office, his boss dies at the time and in the manner specified in the notebook.

Wait! It gets better. You see, not only does the main character in this story possess a Death Notebook (you see what I did there? XD), he also determines (through trial-and-error: no instructions for this one, I'm afraid) that there are several conditions, or rules, under which the notebook operates. The first is that the manner of death must be feasible. For instance, he determines that whatever the “militarists” of the country say about the ever-present threat of nuclear attack, it is not feasible for every inhabitant of a disliked neighboring town to suddenly drop dead at noon.

The second rule is that only the events surrounding a death can be controlled by the notebook. He can't, for instance, change the weather, or effect the stock market. (However, it doesn't seem to occur to him that he can accomplish many more things besides death by including those things as a condition of death. If Ohba read this story (and I really think he did — you'll see why in a moment), this may have been one of the points that set him off thinking about how much more could have been done with the premise, and wouldn't it be interesting if…? But I'm getting ahead of myself.)

Spoilers for Now: Zero & implied spoilers for Death Note:
Ahem. Once the narrator has begun to wonder whether perhaps it was his writing it down that caused, or at least predicted, the death of his old boss (and of the guy the company decided to promote into the position, overlooking the narrator's own seniority — I told you this guy was petty), the first thing he does is to reach for a newspaper and write down the name of a criminal who was recently excused from the death penalty.

The criminal dies the next day. But the narrator is naturally suspicious and still isn't completely satisfied. So, he has his department's deputy head commit suicide in the third floor men's room, second stall from the door, during working hours.

It works! The company gives the rest of the department's traumatized employees the day off — but the narrator can't rest now, a great opportunity has been thrust into his hands! He decides that he can easily rise in the company by killing everyone ahead of him, starting with half the current Board of Directors. Then, from a position at the head of the company, he should be able to move on to other things — like, say, RULER OF THE WORLD. (“As soon as real power came within my orbit my rise to absolute national, and ultimately global, supremacy would be swift and irreversible” — page 8.)

Sadly, the result of this purge is not the narrator's ascension, but the company's liquidation. ;_; However! The narrator learns a valuable lesson from this event — namely, that he'd been thinking much too small! It's at this point that he starts experimenting with the deaths of airline passengers (the planes fly directly over his house, disturbing his sleep) and other large groups of people, for example the aforementioned attempted murder of every inhabitant of Stetchford.

At a certain point the narrator begins to question what this great power is and why it has come to him. In Death Note, Light concludes that he was meant to have the notebook and that it's his obligation to use its power to eliminate all of the people he doesn't approve of and in this way become the God of a perfect world. The narrator in JG Ballard's story is more humble, and concludes that he is merely the instrument of God, or Fate:

“Sometimes it seemed to me that the brief entries I made were cross-sections through the narrative of some vast book of the dead existing in another dimension…instantly drawing from the eternal banks of death a final statement of account on to some victim within the tangible world around me.”

I swear, I'm not making any of this up.

But to conclude the story: the narrator is, however, essentially a coward, and when it starts to look like the police are on to him — when he concludes, from the reactions of the people around him, that use of the notebook has caused him to be surrounded by an aura which is perceptible to others — he decides that he must burn it, and give up the power forever. But it seems like a waste to just let the power disappear like that, so he decides to have his story published…but with the catch that anyone who reads it all the way to the end will die horribly.

The only review of this story I found online described it as “inconsequential”. Aha. Well, I can sort of see why: despite a very strong beginning, Now: Zero doesn't quite succeed as a horror story — that is, while you're reading it, you are profoundly horrified, but once you've gotten to the end…once you've reached the last line…once the moment has passed…reality once again asserts itself (STRONGLY, in this case). The horror doesn't linger, like it does in truly great horror stories. Now: Zero combines truly excellent ideas with great writing, but just misses coming together in a really effective way.

It's of such situations that fanfiction is born, as they say. XD

Background on JG Ballard: I hadn't heard of him, but he's apparently been very influential (he's cited as the forebear of cyberpunk!). [info]emblem has been reading some of his stuff and her report is that it's weird. His stories are apparently heavily laced with a feeling of impending doom, which sometimes arrives by the end of the story.

Ballard is 77 now. Growing up, he spent two years in a Japanese interment camp in Shanghai. He wrote a novel about it, later made into an Oscar-winning film which was directed by Steven Speilberg, written by Tom Stoppard, and starred John Malcovich and Christian Bale (who debuted). *_* <-- wants to see this so bad. EDIT: See this for a way in which this story is *not* like Death Note.
EDIT2: See this comment for similarities between the story and the Death Note pilot.
EDIT3: “Now: Zero” was published in Japanese. Recently, in fact. Apparently, the connection between it and Death Note is not unknown to Japanese fans. ^^; There go my dreams of groundbreaking investigative journalism.