This is a mind-bending thought-experiment novel portraying a parallel-world Japan where artificial insemination techniques, pioneered during World War II to compensate for so many men being away at the battlefront, have advanced to the point where sexual intercourse is no longer how people procreate, and gender differences and the conventional family are disappearing.
Young Amane Sakaguchi never knew her father and is being raised single-handedly by her mother, who dotes on her to no end. She lives in an age when in vitro fertilization has become the rule for human reproduction, and, even between husband and wife, conception through sexual intercourse is deemed to be “incest” and regarded as taboo. When word gets out that Amane herself was conceived in this “incestuous” manner, she becomes the object of bullying by her elementary school classmates, and even experiences guilty feelings of her own. But her mother urges that she, too, should find someone she loves, get married, and become pregnant in the same way when she grows up, and Amane feels caught between what her mother says is the “right way” and contemporary social norms. Historically, Japan’s longstanding custom of arranging marriages to serve family interests had given way after World War II to men and women freely choosing their mates for love. Amane’s doubts about the ideal of romantic marriage that her mother continues to press on her, and the resulting friction, are key structural elements in the story.
Against the backdrop of this conflict between Amane and her mother we see an unfolding of Amane’s very active sex life. It begins with her being aroused by and masturbating to an anime character on TV—a 7,000-year-old “eternal youth” figure—while in elementary school. Then in seventh grade she persuades a male classmate to be her partner and experiences her first intercourse with the help of an instruction manual. In an age when all of society frowns upon both sex and romance, Amane daringly continues to engage in sexual activities, falling in love with both humans and anime characters in turn. Because all citizens are subject to contraceptive measures, intercourse does not result in pregnancy.
After college, Amane takes an office job for several years and then gets married at 25. But the marriage quickly ends in divorce. The husband who was supposed to be nothing more than a source of sperm had begun making sexual demands, which is considered sufficient grounds to dissolve the union even though having sexual relations within marriage is not actually against the law. When she is 31, Amane meets Saku Amemiya, 30, at a matchmaking party, and they get married. They appear to be the ideal couple, building a trust as family, agreeing that Amane will get pregnant through in vitro fertilization at age 35 in order to pass on their genes, and, adhering to the social norm, both regarding sex as something that belongs outside of marriage.
Later, disillusioned from devastating extramarital breakups they have both suffered, the two decide to move to the cordoned-off city of Chiba, where the central government has been running a social experiment for the last ten years. Under the watchful eyes of the authorities, the children of the city are raised outside the conventional family structure. An effort is underway to make it possible for men to “become pregnant” and carry babies to term in surgically implanted artificial wombs. All births are conceived in vitro, and the resultant children are separated at birth from their parents and raised as community property in special child-rearing facilities where every child is treated equally. The two find comfort and security in this “Eden System,” as it is called, and fall increasingly in thrall to its utopian ideals.
Eggs taken from Amane are fertilized with Saku’s sperm. The cultured egg implanted in Amane ends in a miscarriage, but Saku becomes the first man to succeed in carrying a baby to term. His resulting celebrity causes their marriage to break up.
Author Sayaka Murata has given us a chilling portrayal of the grotesque dystopia that may lie at the end of humanity’s relentless pursuit of progress.