"Why me?" is the kind of existential question that we've all asked ourselves at some point in time or other, but to the protagonist of Tow Ubukata's Mardock Scramble it is perhaps the over-riding question that dogs her over all else, and with good reason. The individual in question is a girl named Rune-Balot; a girl forced by her circumstances into prostitution and, as this trilogy of books bound into a single hefty volume begins, the "property" of a man named Shell - the first (and arguably most important) of numerous egg references you'll encounter throughout the book.
Shell is a man on a journey - a journey up the ladder of the futuristic city of Mardock, a typical dystopian vision of the future where corruption is rife and the gap between those with and those without is unimaginably wide. However, Shell's fight to reach the top of Mardock's tree is hardly a fair one, as Balot soon discovers as she looks set to become the latest victim of a plan which is on the brink of costing her life. Enter a rather unlikely pair of saviours, in the form of a slightly eccentric doctor and his even more oddball sidekick, a golden mouse named Oeufcoque who is much, much more than a mere rodent.
With her life saved by a hair's breadth, Balot herself awakens to find herself infused with impressive powers - a new "skin" which covers her body and allows her to manipulate (or "snarc" to use the books terminology) the flow of electricity to great effect. Thus, the "reborn" Balot finds herself working with her Private Investigator saviours under the rights of a programme known as Scramble 09, with the hope of proving her usefulness to society as she sets out to find the truth behind Shell's plans and crimes - a hunt which takes her into a world of gambling, pain and physical danger embodied by a rival PI who goes by the name of Boiled.
Right from the off, this English translation of Mardock Scramble does a fantastic job of introducing the reader to its sprawling, technology-infused and frequently surreal world - every scene is beautifully descriptive without ever losing its sense of pacing, and you can almost taste the gritty world of Mardock as we travel through it from its busy roads through to its casinos. This carefully attuned style of writing becomes all-important to the book almost from the start - it allows Ubukata to introduce unbelievable concepts and characters in a way that still allows you to accept their existence, and it pulls no punches when it comes to describing some of the more disturbing elements of the story.
Where Mardock Scramble and its writing style really stands out is when it comes to the action sequences which punctuate the three novels of which it consists - the first true test of Balot's powers as she's faced with a team of killers in particular is an incredibly engrossing and spectacularly handled segment of the book which really brings the speed, tension, blood and sweat of combat into the readers imagination in perfect fashion. Come the end of the first volume of the book, you'll be glad to put it down just so that you can relax and take a breather, so immersive is the story-telling here.
Thankfully there's more to this novel than just sci-fi action though - Balot's personal journey is an engrossing one, while the motivations of the book's other major characters are similarly fascinating to watch as they develop, shift and reveal themselves to the reader. The book also fares well no matter the setting of proceedings as they develop - even the weakest section of the book, set in a hidden away laboratory that reveals the origins of a number of characters, is a great read that mixes action, exposition and some deeper meanderings into the human condition with aplomb. Similarly, the move to a casino for a lengthy section focused around gambling elicited a groan from me as I saw where it was headed, before I found myself caught up in its compelling narrative during a tense game of Blackjack that again eased aside the implausibility of aspects of its scenario on the strength of sheer good writing.
Although Mardock Scramble may frustrate fans of more restrained science fiction (and by that I mean science fiction that offers up a more plausible vision of the future), as I mentioned earlier the excellence of this novel's writing manages to make even its most seemingly daft elements fit the over-arching story like a glove - an impressive feat for a book that leans heavily on a talking mouse! It's hard to describe just how much of a joy the novel as a whole was to read, with its 800 or so pages flitting by effortlessly thanks to near-perfect pacing and a story which remained focused and utterly compelling to the last.
While I could probably dive into the deeper meanings and themes of this set of novels, I can't help but feel that would be missing the point - although it clearly has something to say about the human condition (far more so than the technology its world employs), above all else Mardock Scramble is an incredibly entertaining read that'll frequently have you on the edge of your seat as it ramps up its tension while you cheer on its protagonist throughout. In short, it's a superb read, and well-deserving of your time regardless of whether you managed to catch the recent screening of the first book's anime adaptation in Leeds earlier this year.