Murata’s latest novel...continues to explore life on the fringes in Japan through an even darker and weirder lens, one that will take most readers on a wild ride far beyond the outermost limit of their comfort zones ... so much of the story’s grotesque joy depends on the surprise at just how perverse things can get ... It is a book that must be experienced firsthand, but it is also a book for which a single trigger warning would not be adequate, as it enthusiastically challenges most of our most deeply held societal taboos ... Whereas Murata’s goal with Convenience Store Woman may have been to gently unsettle her readers, it’s clear that Earthlings’ mission is to actively disturb. By disrupting her readers’ complacency, Murata allows us to better empathize with the misfits she champions. As her characters’ unease and discomfort becomes our own, we gain greater awareness of how it feels to be an outsider looking in ... The journey is often rather harrowing and bewildering and will appeal to few readers. But for adventurous readers who revel in a book that defies expectations and dares to be outlandishly different, Earthlings is a mind- and soul-expanding countercultural battle cry that is utterly one of a kind.
The novel’s tone hovers between deadpan and naïveté: Even in its episodes of violence it has an affectless quality, which we presume is a function of Natsuki’s PTSD from the sexual assault (plus her E.T. origins, of course). Its appeal lies precisely in this tonal flatness — the anthropological distance the narrator maintains from her subjects. Reminiscent of certain excellent folk tales, expressionless prose is Murata’s trademark. If her description of 'the Factory' strikes a superficial note, we can ascribe its stripped-down literality to Natsuki’s automaton identity. Extraterrestrials, it seems, are less like living beings than rudimentary robots with limited powers of affective analysis ... no need, in Murata’s stories, for a tedious interpretive struggle ... Their project of de-acculturating themselves is rendered matter-of-factly, without suspense, since — existing in a half-life of childish patter and reductive reasoning — they didn’t exhibit much tension of personality or emotional intelligence in the first place. But the proposition that we can deconstruct our socialization through an act of will is intriguing and important. Here it comes with a dose of pathos, since these characters don’t possess the conceptual tools to explore with depth or nuance the human nature they’re so focused on rejecting. Their beef with society is the reproductive pressure it exerts; other systemic oppressions that might give a thoughtful alien pause, like widespread inequality and injustice, are of no interest ... If the Marquis de Sade were reanimated as a polite Japanese millennial — less French, less political, less relentlessly graphic and less obsessed with feces — he might produce a document like Earthlings ... Murata’s presentation of alienation as a natural response to the pressures of conformity may not give us much that wasn’t on offer in, say, European existentialist writing of nearly a century ago. The strength of her voice lies in the faux-naïf lens through which she filters her dark view of humankind: We earthlings are sad, truncated bots, shuffling through the world in a dream of confusion.
As sole narrator, Natsuki relates all this in a spare, blunt tone that appears to hide nothing. The transparency of Murata’s prose and dialogue is jarring, seeming to rob the reader of all rights to interpretation. Yet what it really does is repeatedly throw us off balance—such matter-of-factness is dizzying. What are we to think of a character who has earned our sympathy yet whose unflinching take on a parent’s grief is: 'Humans got really worked up when an organism that had inherited their genes was killed' ... What happens when they return to Akishina is shocking, hilarious and hugely, darkly entertaining. Murata has crafted an unforgettable, original hybrid of absurd fantasy and stark realism.