I often wonder how many of those who mouth platitudes about "rebellion" and idolize the nonconformists of the past ever thought about how dealing with those people as people, in the moment of their rebellion, must have been a terrible pain in the ass. We love having the distance of history to insulate us from truly dangerous things about antiestablishment heroes, while at the same time comfortably reaping all of the benefits their rebellion engendered.
Perhaps that's unavoidable. The whole point of being a rebel is to reject the world you have — including the people in it — for the sake of the world that could be. Whether or not your successors build a statue to you shouldn't be the point. Tetsuya Tsutsui's manga Prophecy is about a group of people engaged in a very modern rebellion against the system, who have long since settled for the idea that they will never get anything from the system by asking nicely, and believe the only way forward is to trick the system into giving the dead their due.
Prophecy works on two levels, any one of which alone would be good enough for a story. On the surface it's a modern-day cyberpunk thriller in the Michael Crichton mold, with plenty of local color provided by way of both Japan's elite cybercrimes unit, and by its seedy underbelly of part-timers, shut-in, no-hopers, and never-was-es. The other level is that of a meditation on the idea that nobody ever got anything from this world by asking nicely, and also how that fact is to be lamented, not celebrated.
Point, click, destroy
Describing a story as "ripped from the headlines" always made me cringe, but a label like that fits Prophecy well, especially since it chooses the implications of such a label as a point of departure, not a point of conclusion. A vigilante known only as "Paperboy" — so named for the newspaper wrapped over his face, save for two crudely punched eyeholes — begins making appearances on a streaming video portal, promising Anonymous-like acts of retribution against exploiters and fat cats of all stripes. Despite there being clues as to where he's broadcasting from, one of any number of Internet cafés throughout Japan that cater to transients and shut-ins, he's an expert at covering his tracks, and does a very good job of leaving one blind alley and dead end after another for the cops. (Author and artist Tetsuya Tsutsui clearly did his homework; the technical details of the hackery are all spot-on.)
Paperboy also knows how to build a following, much to the chagin of the cybercrimes subdivision of the metropolitan police force that's made it their mission to track him down. Online mobs move fast and strike without mercy, and they thrill to his exploits: a unclean food processing plant set afire, a tech company that humiliated a potential applicant. In the latter case, he even goes so far as to capture and beat the humiliator on a live video stream.
"Don't get me wrong," he tells his audiences. "I'm not doing this for my own benefit." The police — especially canny female detective Erika Yoshino, head of the cybercrime division in Tokyo — don't buy it for a second. How could someone clearly out to do nothing but draw the attention of anonymous mobs be in it for anything but their own self-aggrandizement? But Paperboy's popularity grows in proportion to the degree that he claims to speak that much more directly for the disenfranchised and disaffected, in the same way Project Mayhem of Fight Club (one of many possible points of reference for this story) became a rage-channeling weapon aimed at wrecking the society they no longer want to be a part of.
Then we come to the end of the first of three volumes, and Prophecy plays its hand a little more explicitly. Paperboy, we learn, is not one person but four: "Gates", the former IT worker and originator of the Paperboy concept; "Kansai", the failed musician; "Tubby", the engineering dropout; and "Nobita", the former hikikormori pushed out into the real world by his father's death. They have banded together to avenge a fifth: "Slim", a Filipino-Japanese whose efforts to emigrate to Japan eventually cost him his life. With none of them having anything left to lose, "Gates" and his cohorts set up a plan. Not to take revenge on the system, but to use the pretext of taking revenge to draw the attention of the system towards their dead comrade ... where, in their minds, attention should have been paid in the first place.
Rough justice, rough law
Learning this fact turns the story on its head, and maybe inside out as well. What was originally a techno-thriller constructed to milk mileage out of current events becomes, by degrees, a larger story about how far any of us will go to honor the memory of the dead. That question over time grows to encompass many things: it's not just about what kinds of antisocial, outrage-sparking (and -sating) acts Paperboy and his minions can cook up, but also about what happens when one of their number starts to realize he might actually have something to live for outside of this mission, and how that hope winds up being more dangerous to the rest of the group than the work of the cops themselves.
I mentioned how the technical details of the story are impressively researched — not just in the nitty-gritty of how Paperboy covers his tracks, but the ways others in the story also use (and abuse) technology to get the upper hand, patterned after various real-world examples. One of the subplots involves a local politician who secretly employs a whole cadre of sockpuppets to prop up his campaign; no prizes for guessing he runs afoul of Paperboy and has his career ruined. He counted on the rest of the world moving a little too slowly to catch him in the act, and guessed wrong. The real world is a good deal less satisfying, though: I thought back to the recent revelations that paid Wikipedia editors insert biases into articles that go undetected for years on end, and how most of the people doxxed by anonymous (or Anonymous) mobs are folks whose worst crimes mostly amounted to pointing out the pervasiveness of systematic bias.
The genius of great stories of suspense is in how skillful they are at misdirection. With most such stories, it's a matter of plot — that B was the one who committed that murder, not A. With a few, it's more about whipping the rug of meaning out from under the audience. What you thought was a story about one thing is in fact a story about another, far deeper thing. Prophecy is only nominally about the logistics of cybercrime, or postmodern, digitally facilitated vigilantism a la Anonymous. Its real subject is something broader under all that — the way it inevitably falls to the individual to risk her neck to bear witness to the ways the system fails us both individually and collectively. It does not say this is a good thing, only that the way we have arranged our lives means that is one of the painful costs of modernity. The least we can do, it argues, is take a moment to remember those who threw themselves into the abyss. I'd say we owe them a lot more than that. But it is not a bad place to start.