Qualia the Purple is one of those books that can be challenging to review. Yes, there’s the point that it deals in some dense scientific concepts and also dips into very dark, messy places as far as its material. But mostly, Qualia the Purple is one of those stories where much of the enjoyment comes from having as little idea as to where it’s going when you first experience it. Thus I could tell you to disregard the body of this review at the beginning here, to simply close the window and seek out Qualia the Purple for yourself, and to be fair, I stand by that as an absolutely valid option. It’s a remarkable, earnestly recommendable story that I’m elated to finally have in officially-translated English print.
But making that simple qualification for Qualia and then delving straight into spoiler-laden analysis for the sake of everyone who already bought this book would be doing a review of it a disservice, I think. Thankfully, Qualia the Purple is itself a story that often deals in broad, abstract approaches to its subject matter, and thus evaluation of it can take the same tack; we can talk about this book, the things about it that may or may not work for prospective readers, without getting into the dense details of everything that actually happens in it.
The starting point for this particular universe is as easy as the elevator pitch for the original story would lead you to believe: Marii Yukari is a girl who sees all humans apart from herself as robots. Divided into two parts, the first section of the novel deals with describing the power of Yukari’s perception, exploring the effects of her eyes through the eyes of our narrator protagonist, Manabu. Qualia the Purple does seem dedicated to easing readers in at the beginning, arguably a little too easily. Manabu’s early descriptions of her and Yukari, and their daily life and interactions together, can come off as rambly and repetitive. However, there’s also an immediate awareness to that depiction, with Manabu intoning multiple times that she realizes she may be beating a dead horse with regards to describing Yukari’s robot-vision, but still finds it a necessary point to stress. A variety of small-scale subjects are covered in brisk semi-vignettes, driven by dialogue-heavy writing and the sort of short, simple descriptions perhaps expected of middle-schoolers.
It’s fun in an inoffensive way, the high concept holding reader interest, but it’s also perhaps a relief when it does become apparent that the writing is indeed a purposeful stylistic choice. As soon as more serious subjects—like a serial killer whom detectives have Yukari assist in identifying—creep their way into a broader plot, the prose solidifies noticeably. The text still carries some more casual, slang-y elements courtesy of Manabu’s viewpoint, but moving past all those bursts of dialogue, author Hisamitsu Ueo shows a strong grasp of both dense suspenseful narration and indulging in scientifically intense detours.
Said detours are probably the most distinguishing element of Qualia the Purple, and potentially the harder bit for some readers to get into. Of course, it’s not like the novel makes any secret of the kind of concepts it’s going to be playing with; quantum physics are referenced right there in the title. What the story eventually ends up doing with the ideas indeed makes sense as an extrapolation of the initial idea of Yukari’s powers and how they might work in the broader universe as we’re currently understanding it. And if you’re prepared for that indulgence, it definitely carries plenty of entertainment; just sixty pages in, the characters are already pontificating on the nature of anthropomorphization and assigning agency to entities based on perception.
Qualia the Purple is hardly the first title to feature middle-schoolers having casual conversations about the pratfalls of perception-based reality and theoretical physics, but it comes off that much more strongly here because of the contrast with those earlier, lighter approaches to its subject matter, and also because of what it really ends up doing with those discussed ideas once the real story gets going. Schrödinger’s Cat comes up, of course, but Qualia the Purple might be the first anime-and-manga-adjacent light novel I’ve encountered that actually accurately addresses the mechanics and entire point of that thought experiment. To say nothing of having the presence to question how the cat might feel about that whole situation.
Still, all those entertaining factors still exist alongside the fact that Qualia the Purple does get dense with some of these descriptions. That same repetitive wordiness that characterized the earlier descriptions of daily life can be seen recreated in stressing the fundamental theorizing which the writing constantly assures us is not the stuff of science fiction. You absolutely need to make some leaps while reading to connect these mechanics with the nature of the story that ends up being told, and the book acknowledges that in the writing. Still, you can hardly be blamed if you’re one who doesn’t have a head for quantum physics, and your mind starts to wander a bit or you have to go back and reread sections to get everything.
It is worth it though, because once the technical explanations level off and the quantum physics-based intrigue picks up, so does the tone and intensity of the writing. Ueo clearly understands the value of keeping things evenly interesting, and so the story is peppered with odd bits of ominous foreshadowing and suggestions of odd places the plot could skip ahead to, as about halfway through you can start making guesses as to what Qualia the Purple is actually going to be “about”. It’s laid out alongside points like Manabu clarifying that this story is in fact really about her, just with Yukari and her eyes as a key driving element, ratcheting up that tension and intrigue in the nature of the narrative itself even before an on-page warning directly tells you: “Be warned, reader: the story takes a sharp left turn from here”.
It all collides into a heady mix of physics-based thought experiments as a vector for a character’s massively-scaled emotional journey. Even more so than the quantum backdrop to the narrative, some of the directions that this story goes might be the more alienating parts of Qualia the Purple. Again, they’re points the writing itself is gracious enough to let you know about ahead of time. But there’s still contention in, for example, the advertised yuri elements of the book finally becoming explicit partway through, but not necessarily with who or how the reader might expect. It is, as with much of the scientific theorizing, something of a leap, though one that arguably helps crystalize and clarify the true emotional center of the story. It might just be one of the most heartwarming, romantic applications of quantum physics you’ve yet seen. And if it also feels like a too-vague, easy cop-out in parts of its finish, subsisting largely on mere theorizing to the very end, it has the generosity to end on a comparatively simple, ambiguous note. But this is definitely a story more about the concepts and questions it’s provoking along the way before getting there.
It is a genuinely fascinating journey, however, and worth it if you’re the type interested in how a simple concept like “girl who sees people as robots” can give way into an exploration as grand as to everything that was alluded to here. The novel version of Qualia the Purple is supplemented by a handful of illustrations from Shirou Tsunashima, whose art is extremely nice-looking. The illustrations only appear in a few spots, mostly garnishing the story decently. Though Tsunashima also contributes some lovely full-color images at the beginning of the book, plus fully-noted character designs in the back, along with some hilarious 4-koma manga. The English translation of the text also reads very well, whether it’s the brisk dialogue and descriptions, or those pointedly dense physics discussions, which I imagine took some work to make sure they were adapted accurately. There is one instance where a wrong character’s name is referred to regarding dialogue that is said to be delivered by someone else a sentence later, but overall, for the gamut of stylistics and subjects this story covers, it all reads very smoothly.
As I said, Qualia the Purple is not the first story to mash up theoretical physics with the perceptions of schoolkids and their emotional journeys, nor is the specific arc it eventually ends up pursuing a wholly unique narrative construct. But the way it gets there, the specific flavors of escalation and exploration it builds to from its high-concept to its high-minded story structure, is what makes it feel so remarkably unique. To the point: I opened this review indicating that this was a story that worked best with as little about it spoiled as possible, yet even I, someone who did know where it was all going when I cracked open this release, still found it a gripping, wild ride to be taken on.
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