In Black Sheep, the world is segregated, with cities divided into Asian, Caucasian, and African people. In response to the “Racial Wars” some time in the story’s past, the UN has banned multiculturalism. Within the cities, everything is controlled: culture and history are tailored to suit the group you belong to, and no contact with the other cities is ever allowed.
Isao Dazai moves with his wife and young daughter from Asian-Tokyo to his wife’s home city of Asian-Sydney, but he is dissatisfied with his life there. After speaking too freely about how he feels, he finds himself falling foul of the city’s Segregators, black-masked policemen who enforce the UN’s laws, and is convicted of being Japanese. The punishment is Assimilation, a process which removes the victim’s pigmentation, leaving them completely white from head to toe, and turns them into mindless drones used for the city’s manual labour.
In this story we see the events that led up to Isao’s arrest, the process of Assimilation itself, and what happens to him afterward, in a book that at times brings to mind both George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Of course few books would come out ahead in such comparisons, and Peek’s novel is not trying to. Rather, it uses some of the same elements of familiar dystopias – the environment of constant surveillance, the inability to trust anyone you might speak to, the farce of bureaucracy and justice designed to reach a predetermined verdict – to tell its own story.
In some ways Peek’s dystopia is closer to reality than Orwell’s classic. There is more of a human element – it is easier to understand how the people who perpetuate this regime could have come to do so. There are clever moments in the world-building, too, like this one when Isao is on the plane to Asian-Sydney, and his daughter Kyoto is given a pill to calm her down for the flight:
I said quietly, “How come you don’t give them the pill in the airport?”
“Segregator Law prohibits it,” he replied. “They say that if medication is given out at the airport, then they would have to perform surveillance there, which they say is against the United Nations Freedom Laws. It is violating our rights if they are watching all of us all the time, even though airport security does that…”
Ultimately, however, Asian-Sydney and Asian-Tokyo are too perfectly dystopian to really ring true as a potential future; what they can do is serve as an extreme example, a model of a world where issues of race are handled with the ultimate form of segregation – a strange kind of equality, with the three major race groups kept equally under the heel of a faceless – and thus raceless – regime.
The story of Isao Dazai has two main strands – the first is the exploration of the cities and how they function; the second, Isao’s need to confront his wife, who was responsible for reporting him to the Segregators. While a lot of story time is devoted to the former, with much being revealed – including some tantalising hints toward what the UN’s ultimate goal with the cities might be – that side of the story doesn’t really receive a resolution. We end with an understanding of the status quo; what moments in the story that seem to suggest something bigger for Isao prove illusory. It is Isao’s wife, Kimiko, who comes to dominate the final parts of the story, as Isao sets out to find and confront her. What results is a tense exchange that reveals two people who have never and will never understand each other. It’s a moment that seems more true and right than other possible endings would have, but an ending like that is not one that can really leave you feeling satisfied.
For me, the highlight of the novel is not the world Peek creates, or the story Isao follows outside, but the depiction of Isao’s Assimilation. These are strange, sometimes surreal scenes of a manipulated virtual reality seen from inside Isao’s perspective, and what really gives it kick is the knowledge that what you are witnessing is the deliberate, calculated destruction of a man’s mind, a process deeper and more harmful than ordinary brainwashing, one designed to ruin the victim so thoroughly that he rejects his own identity. It was quite disturbing to read these scenes and begin to understand just what was being done to Isao and what purpose each element served.
Black Sheep is a book I do think people should seek out. It’s a well-crafted dystopian novel that, though it doesn’t really offer a satisfying resolution (does a dystopian novel need to?), is still overall a satisfying read. It makes me wonder why Peek is not better known.