This highly suspenseful science-fiction novel is set in a future when humanity has discovered how to stop the aging process and yet must deal with the consequences. Japan, now a republic, faces multiple national crises that must be overcome.
An American ornithologist discovers a very small number of ageless specimens among a flock of pigeons, leading to the development of what is dubbed “human ageless virus” (HAV), with human inoculations beginning in 1940. HAV is able to stop the body from growing old by rewriting the genes involved in the aging process. Upon achieving victory in World War II and occupying Japan, the United States reconstitutes the country as a republic, begins HAV inoculations (HAVI) of the general population, and establishes a “Century Law” essentially similar to the one already in place at home. The law states that any citizen who has undergone the HAVI procedure must give up all basic human rights, including the right to life, after 100 years. The law is intended to force a changing of the guard from one generation to the next. The expectation is that people will typically receive the HAVI procedure in their twenties, live agelessly in their twenty-something physical body for the next hundred years, and then be euthanized.
The story begins in 2048, the year before the euthanasia program is scheduled to launch in Japan. Not wishing to carry out a policy that is unpopular with the citizenry, Prime Minister Kōnoike puts the Century Law to a national vote. An overwhelming majority votes against the law, which is then suspended. But although this means the people have regained unlimited lifespans, an inexplicable malaise settles over the country. There is an abrupt spike in suicides and murders. Young people are unable to find jobs, further worsening a flagging economy, and protests break out around the country. Kōnoike declares a state of emergency, and Japan plunges into the “Crisis of 2049.”
Rising to the occasion is Akihito Yusa, head of the Interior Ministry office charged with preparing the way for the Century Law. He prods Ryōichi Ushijima, chairman of the minor New Era Party and a champion of the anti-suspension movement, to run for president. Although the presidency itself is only a ceremonial post, Ushijima’s resounding 93% victory is parlayed into major gains for the party in the subsequent lower house elections, catapulting the NEP to major third-party status. In a bit of political jujitsu aided by Ushijima’s 93% showing, the NEP negotiates with both leading parties to form a grand coalition in which Yusa emerges as prime minister. The Ushijima-Yusa government quickly institutes reforms, setting 2054 as the date for a “New Century Law” to take effect, and substantially broadening the power of the presidency. In particular, the president is given the authority to waive the new law on an individual basis, which means he has direct life-or-death power over members of the national assembly as well as every citizen in the land. They have succeeded in carrying out a coup d’état by legal means.
The country regains stability for a time, but in 2098 new difficulties arise. More and more people reject the HAVI procedure, terrorists attack euthanasia facilities, and the Ushijima-Yusa government barely survives an attempted military coup d’état. Ushijima then becomes incapacitated by illness, but a special law already in place allows Yusa to assume the powers of the presidency along with those of prime minister. At the same time, reports pour in from around the world that HAVI recipients have begun dying of rapidly metastasizing multi-organ cancers, with death counts rising at an alarming rate. The U.S. government projects that all Japanese HAVI recipients will likely be wiped out within 16 years.
The key to the country’s survival after that period, in the hands of a younger generation, rests in Japan switching to a limited-term, 20-year dictatorship in order to allow quick decision-making and reforms. The measure is approved by the voters in a final democratic vote under the current government. Yusa becomes the first dictator, but is assassinated by a rabid democrat. The fate of the country ultimately falls to a charismatic younger leader Yusa has groomed: Ken Nishina, born in 2056. Having lost his beloved mother to the Century Law, Nishina has continually put off undergoing the HAVI procedure, making it likely that he will survive past the 16-year period. Indeed, he successfully steers the country out of the “Crisis of 2098,” and the book comes to a close with his declaration that the dictatorship has completed its mission, and Japan will return to being a representative democracy the next day. The nation has survived the existential threat brought on by HAVI.
Filled with endless twists and turns and unrelenting suspense, this is a high-intensity tale that represents entertainment fiction at its best.