Welcome back to the Light Novel Club!
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With that said, let’s jump into our discussion of vol. 4 of the VRMMO light novel Infinite Dendrogram! We’ve already covered three volumes of this series, but things are heating up with the beginning of Franklin’s Game, so Jeskai Angel, Gaheret, and I are here to get a piece of the action.
1. What are your overall impressions of this volume?
Gaheret: Overall, I still feel the author should be able to tell what he wants us to know in a way that feels more organic to the story, and I think that he tells too much. What I find to be the best parts (worldlers vs. ludos, the perspective of tians, religions and cults, the psychology of the players, consequences of the interactions of the two worlds, BNHA-like fights of different powers with different logics, mysteries) took a step back in this volume for the most part while videogame fights which, this being a super-realistic videogame, were kind of disturbing images (I´m thinking of Marie shooting an old man point blank, of the leader of the traitors unadvertely slicing his captive priestess friend, or of Rook cutting Marie´s arm off, or the casual comment that Yuri/Hugo should’ve crushed Rook’s head at the first chance). As a fight among experienced gamers who were clearly playing, I found Marie v. Veldorbell to be the most entertaining.
stardf29: So this volume was definitely an action-packed one, more focused on the fights than on other sorts of development. It’s fun for what it is, and it’s interesting to see how these various characters outside of Ray, whom we’ve gotten to know all this time, actually fight in battle. At the same time, it definitely feels like this is just the middle chapter of the story arc that started in the last volume, so while I might have felt that some sort of extra development might be nice, I think there’s room for that in the next volume.
Jeskai Angel: I enjoyed this volume, though it wasn’t quite as good as I remembered. A big part of that is difference between reading one vol. more or less on its own, versus reading a bunch of vols. together. I fell in love after reading Dendro vol. 1 and proceeded to devour all the other volumes released up to that point (six or seven, IIRC) in the space of a few weeks. That made the story a far more cohesive experience, and allowed me to go through the entire Franklin’s Game arc in a short time, rather than leaving the finale until whenever the LNC might come back and read vol. 5.
I appreciate the author’s / translator’s efforts to give different voices to each narrator. Ray doesn’t sound the same as Marie, who doesn’t sound the same as Hugo, who doesn’t sound the same as Rook, who doesn’t sound the same as Franklin…
This vol. was also more violent than I remembered, which raises one of the interesting aspects of the story. What one thinks of this book depends heavily on one’s response to the question at the heart of Infinite Dendrogram: just how “real” is it? Or, to use Franklin’s word, how “earnest” about it are we? Characters within the story already face this question, but I think vol. 4 challenges readers to a greater degree than the earlier books. Thus far, Ray’s enemies have mostly been monsters or tians, but now he faces other Masters. This casts the violence in a different light. It might be one thing to dismember one’s enemies in PvE…but does it mean something different to do so during PvP? Moreso than previous vols., this one confronts readers with how horrific such a realistic “game” might actually be. Is this a game in which people do things we may find distasteful but which aren’t all that meaningful? Or is it something more? And if it is, what does that mean about the characters’ actions? Or even our consumption of the story as readers?
Even without full-dive VR, we still have books, video games, & anime. Dendro invites us to ponder how we experience such things. Does it really matter how we feel about a novel’s story, or whether we steal from that shopkeeper in a game? (For the record, it does matter because everyone will call you THIEF the rest of the game and the shopkeeper is a Sith lord who will kill you with blasts of lightning.) When using our imaginations, how much is just acting or role-playing, and how much are we ourselves truly involved? Based on the Bible, there are clearly sins of the imagination (e.g., lust). I wonder if there could be, for lack of a better term, virtues or good works of the imagination.
stardf29: The “how realistic is the violence” question is interesting because at the start of the game, you’re able to choose whether to view the world as “realistic”, “CG”, or “anime-style” (with the ability to change it later with an item). Ray chooses to go with “realistic”, but it does make me wonder if those who chose CG or anime might feel less bothered by the violence.
Also, the whole idea of fighting Masters makes things interesting because of the knowledge that “killing” Masters only logs them out for a time, and that by default there are no pain settings, which might make some people less reserved about violence. I think this leads to the following moral question: is our moral revulsion to violence based on the actual act of violence itself, or on the consequences thereof? (And this can be applied to other similar moral dilemmas when experiencing fiction.)
2. What do you think of Professor Franklin?
Gaheret: Professor Franklin, apart from the Benjamin Franklin reference, seems like an “Island of Doctor Death” archetype, with an special ability called “Playing God”, “my boy” gentlemanly talk and evil laugh included. He is the main villain of this volume, and while I like to have a more intelectual villain, focused on strategy and manipulation of the rules (and I like Dr. Death-esque types), it seemed to me that in this case the interpretation was too over-the-top. The writer wandered between the awe and horror of unexplained creations and the “this is how he does it” kind of explanation, and wasn´t satisfying in those fields. Dr. Franklin seemed to me more like someone hacking the game than a player.
As a player, things were more interesting. I liked the “gamer with a grudge” archetype, as it is a very recognizable problem. I would have supported a full hacker twist (the rules of Infinite Deondogram basically allowing themselves to be cheated, not so much). As he does not think of the tians as people, it surprised me a lot that he was willing to talk with Elizabeth like he did (on the other hand, you simply cannot be a mad genius without explaining your plan beforehand to a captive, it is one of the conventions of fiction). I did like that he was aiding Hugo, and that his plan was in fact a clever alternative to a more costly and bloody invasion by the General of his Empire.
The reason behind the grudge against Ray wasn´t very convincing, but maybe Franklin was childish enough for that sort of thing. I like how this was introduced in an unrelated context, as part of the background, then happens to be important. I think it would have been better if we didn´t know the special instructions he gave concerning Ray, so that he being the only who can pass may have seemed like a coincidence at first, and then Franklin would have revealed that he had chosen him to embody the kingdom´s defeat.
So: I like this sort of villain, both in the gamer and in the mad scientific archetypes, yet I’m not full on board with how he was played out. Too much explanation of the hows, and the dialogue could have been much more vivid and funny.
stardf29: A few things about Franklin. First of all, his personality is absolutely the worst. He’s the type of person who absolutely cannot handle losing, and must go out of his way to one-up anyone that gets the better of him, even if it is a “newbie” like Ray. He’s very immature in that way, which just makes it even scarier that he actually has the capabilities to act on his whims, torturing those who go up against him with personalized monsters. And on top of that, he wants to send an entire country into despair so they don’t dare oppose Dryfe… yeah, he’s nasty. Which makes him work as a villain, if you ask me.
However, there are a few things curious about him. First of all, at one point which is from his perspective, he says that Ray is one of only a few people who are extremely earnest about Infinite Dendrogram… a group that also includes himself. So in some way, he considers Ray as similar to him. This seems to go against his seemingly villainous ways and how he doesn’t care about tian lives… so that’s a curious point.
Also, Hugo at one point mentions that he has some personal attachment to Franklin. Also, he refers to Franklin as “he”, in quotation marks… I think at this point, the gears in my head were beginning to turn with thoughts on who “Franklin” actually is in the real world…
Jeskai Angel: Franklin is a troll. He exemplifies the worst kind of trolling behaviors associated with the internet. His genuine cunning empowers his spite in obnoxious ways. However, if Dendro is just a game, then in the end Franklin is a munchkin roleplaying as a villain. But if Dendro is more than a game, then it’s arguable that the professor is, in a moral if not legal sense, a mass-murdering terrorist. This brings us back to that question of what we think of Dendro. How “earnest” we are changes whether Franklin is evil or just a jerk. I would also note that his Embryo being Pandemonium brings to mind hell as depicted in Milton’s Paradise Lost. It’s no coincidence that Franklin and Hugo have embryos that literally reference hell (Hugo of course deriving from Dante’s version of hell). Finally, I’m really curious to learn more about why Franklin groups himself with Hugo, Ray, and this King of Tartarus person, as people who truly take Dendro seriously. If that’s true, and in-game Franklin is still a murderous maniac…he has the potential to be really disturbing.
3. What do you think of the fight against King of Orchestras, Veldorbell?
Gaheret: Veldorbell was my favorite character of this volume. I think his reason to be a villain of the Empire was understandable, the music aspect was interesting and his real life was both intriguing and credible. I only miss there were even more musical references, it could have been a feast. That he was clearly an old man also added an interesting twist (I imagine most players to be teens or twenty-somethings, though this may be just ignorance on my part). His four musical powers were explained beforehand and were a good fit for him, and his project about making the rising of a hero into an opera reminded me of Christopher Lee´s Charlemagne. Marie Adler was also very interesting to watch, on the other hand, both because of her powers had been explained just before and her personal connection with Elizabeth S. Altar established in the previous volume. Also, while the tians being rational beings means that they should be treated as humans, I find characters with more of a gamer mentality to be more interesting than those with a real world mentality, even if the author sides with the second more than the first. The power to create characters painted on the bullets seems a bit of a strecht, but the power to disappear from the game, on the other hand, is both credible and very useful. This fight was the high point of the novel for me.
The aesthetics of the Musics of Bremen analogues were frightening enough, too. And “a melody worth to die for” is a very suggestive name.
stardf29: So this battle was mainly to show Marie off in battle. There’s not that much in the way of character development, and the opponent is one we only first see here, with a pretty basic motivation very similar to Marie’s. So all things considered, it’s a battle that is pretty much here just for our entertainment. Not that there is anything wrong with that; it’s a fun fight that shows just what kind of fighter Marie is.
Jeskai Angel: The battles are generally highlights of Dendro, and Marie vs. Veldorbell is no exception. The story pits Incredibly powerful fighters with thematically linked abilities that have logical limitations against each other. All the characters feel legitimately powerful and use their abilities cleverly, and yet none of them feel invincible. However strong they are, others just need to figure out the right trick, the right matchup, the right combo, the right opportunity, to defeat them. I really think Dendro has some of the most well-written, tactically deep fight scenes I’ve encountered.
So, I agree that Veldorbell came across like an underdeveloped composer version of Marie, I still thoroughly enjoyed their battle. Marie was cool in the the previous vol., but here she shines even brighter by going up against such strong enemies as Franklin and Veldorbell.
4. What do you think of the fight between Rook and Hugo?
Gaheret: Rook and Hugo, on the other hand, had backgrounds which felt unrealistic to the extreme. Rook was English, called Holmes, and the orphan son of a wealthy Sherlock Holmes bloodline of detectives and a Irene Adler/Carmen Santiago bloodline of thieves (who didn´t keep what they had stolen). He is a wealthy teen who has literally an explosive trap in his mother´s office, who he had to deactivate to find her dying gift. I find the whole thing crazy: that sort of background can fit in a comedy, or in a superhero story, but I´d say the whole point of an ID kind of story is that the outside world is realistic, and a gamer cannot turn into a real-world Batman (and thus, he does it in the game). In a way, Rook´s story undermines the essential function of the two worlds.
We find in this game that “Hugo” is in fact the idealized portrait of a shining knight, used as an avatar by a French girl of a bourgeois family with a convoluted family life, and whose sister and mother both left the family house (Oscar François de Jarjeyes, anyone?). This was more interesting, but as it happened with Rook, the story of the lady in question was a little bit just too French for me. Her father was even an amateur painter. Rook seems frustrated with her because he can see she is a “wordler” with a similar personality to our protagonist, yet she participated in Franklin´s plan due to a misdirected sense of loyalty and to consequentialist reasoning.
As for the fight itself, the Divine Comedy power -as much as I like a reference to the Divine Comedy- made things unnecesarily complicated, with numbers and percentages everywhere, and the deductive ability that Rook displayed in two seconds was a bit hard to believe. I disliked the fight. That said, I did like the scenery: the frozen warriors, the giant robot, the fact that some could pass and some could not gave a very unique feeling to the setting.
So, not so much a fan of this one. I liked that the two characters interacted, though, and that two friends of Ray were in direct opposition as rivals. Rook´s tactics seem a little hideous to me, but then, this is a game. Both seem the kind of people that have unresolved issues in the real world they should address, though I like her better.
stardf29: So the big thing here is that we get to see what kind of backstories Rook and Hugo have. I do agree that Rook’s backstory is a bit ridiculous, but then again, we got some hints in vol. 2 that Shu (Ray’s brother) in real life is also quite ridiculous. So I didn’t feel it was quite that out-of-place. At any rate, his crazy skills aside, his backstory is pretty simplistic: enough to make you sympathize for him and understand what he’s trying to do in this world, but nothing too huge.
Hugo, or rather Yuri… It’s definitely interesting to learn her backstory, and that she is a girl in real life, so she’s doing some crossplaying here, but for her it’s more than just role-playing and she’s basically assumed Hugo as part of her identity. In that sense, her involvement in Franklin’s plan poses an interesting moral dilemma, especially with Ray involved. And on the flip side, we see how Rook sees her dilemma and rather dislikes her for it.
At any rate, this all was very interesting to learn about the two of them, and was probably the highlight of the volume for me. The battle was pretty fun, too, as we see their powers in action. (Though I can’t help but feel like Hugo’s power can be a bit too OP since it gives him an edge against practically any Master, but maybe there’s additional limitations on it?)
Jeskai Angel: Rook and Hugo’s fight was much more character-focused than the action-centric Marie-Veldorbell fight. The IRL identities of Rook and Hugo had a major effect on their duel. I found both of them interesting characters, so the duel worked for me. Now, regarding the family backgrounds of these two…
Infinite Dendrogram is steeped in historical, mythological, literary, and pop culture references. So we’ve got Hugo referencing Dante and Franklin referencing Milton. Marie is literally the protagonist of a shounen manga. Figaro is a nod to opera. Nemesis’s “Vengeance Is Mine” ability is a Christian reference (as are, I presume, the paladins’ Grand Cross ability and the presence of a seductive female character named Babylon). Meanwhile, Rook’s creatures all bear names of famous actresses (Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor). The mithril in “Mithril Arms Slime” of course comes from Tolkien. The control AIs derive their names from Lewis Carroll. Ray’s mount shares its name with a famous TV horse. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
In this context, I can’t help but wonder if the presence of a “marshmallow-like balloon giant,” isn’t meant to call to mind a certain comedy film from the ‘80s. Similarly, it seems perfectly appropriate that at least some of the characters’ IRL identities would take inspiration from history or fiction. Considering how loaded with references this story is, it doesn’t bother me at all if Rook and Hugo have backgrounds straight out of novels. That’s just the kind of story the author is telling.
On a related note, is the “certain someone” Rook references a few times himself? Or some other person we don’t know about yet?
5. What do you think of Ray’s battle against the RSK?
Gaheret: Concerning the RSK, what I liked the most was the tians perspective of the story at the end, full of epic and memorable descriptions, listing all the meaningful moments. The fight itself felt too technical for me, though I appreciated the effort to keep things interesting and offer an opponent that was able to negate all the abilities which had been used so far. Having Professor Franklin there but not doing much was somewhat puzzling, too. That the princess was at stake and the Knights of the Guard were fighting gave everything an epic feeling, on the other hand. “I will have to punch you” or “I´m just mad” feels inadequate when the stakes are so high, and it seemed to me that Ray wasn´t as pressed as he would be given that actual lives (or so he believes) are at stake, including lives of innocent children and loved ones.
Jeskai Angel: Power creep is common in stories without a definite final boss. So, for example, in the old-school isekai The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the White Witch is the final boss, so there can be a progression to enemy encounters and character development that build toward her ultimate defeat. There’s no need for another stronger enemy to come along, the story finishes. But in stories without an ultimate villain, you find enemies of increasingly absurd and arbitrary strength, of whom you’ve never heard before, endlessly coming out of the woodwork to pester Goku or Superman or whoever.
In light of all that, I love how the Ray vs. RSK fight dodged a lot of these power creep issues. The story has repeatedly emphasized that winning often hinges on understanding the abilities of one’s opponent. As Ray himself observes, the RSK isn’t just arbitrarily strong — it’s custom-designed to counteract abilities Franklin knows Ray has. Ray’s struggle to defeat the RSK is a battle of wits as much as a physical confrontation. The RSK is a challenge to Ray for logical reasons, and he defeats it for logical reasons (as opposed to randomly getting stronger because the plot demands it * cough *why would you think I’m talking about the Dragonball franchise? * cough *)
stardf29: Your comment on “power creep” makes me think of how many of my favorite RPG bosses are ones that aren’t just “like the last boss but stronger”, but who actually change up the gameplay in ways that force you to think carefully about how to beat them. For example, in Pokemon, normally your gym leader battles are one-on-one matches, but there have been a few times the battles are two-vs.-two matches instead, forcing you to consider a completely different set of strategies. Bosses that make you fight smarter, not harder, are great in RPGs, and in that sense the RSK makes for a great “boss fight”. I guess I have to give Franklin some credit; he might be terrible as a human being, but at least he provides for a great battle.
On that note, the way the RSK gets beaten is also amusingly very “video-game-esque”: the RSK is like a video game boss that is designed to be immune to all of your earlier abilities, making you have to make use of your most recently-learned abilities to beat it. In video games, this is a part of helping players learn how to use new abilities; you start with some simple applications of those abilities in a safe environment, then start increasing the challenge as they get to use the abilities for real, then throw in some twists that make them think of more creative ways to use those abilities, and finally present a final challenge as a last test of sorts, like a boss battle. Ray’s own process of learning new abilities is a bit different, but overall this RSK battle is a great showcase of both his new abilities and how in general Ray overcomes challenges with some ingenuity.
6. How did the anime adaptation of this arc compare with the book?
stardf29: Overall, because this volume was so focused on battles, the anime did an okay job of adapting it. (This is in complete contrast to vol. 3, which the anime cut a lot out of, particularly with Marie and Elizabeth.) The overall low production values do still hold it back, but at least the backstories are all there and the battles are reasonably adapted.
7. Final comments
Jeskai Angel: I think this volume showcases some of this series’s strengths while largely neglecting others. We get an abundance of exciting combat won through information and cleverness. We get more humor, more fun literary allusions, and more thought-provoking questions about reality, morality, and how we experience fiction / imagination. The story also continues to blend a hyper-realistic setting with video game elements in a surprisingly elegant way, like the video game-y manner in which Ray defeats the RSK that you mentioned. (Some series, Reincarnated as a Sword for example, are so heavy handed about having a world based on RPG mechanics that they inflict blunt-force trauma on the reader, and Dendro avoids that.) On the other hand, character / relationship development takes somewhat of a back seat in Dendro vol. 4. Likewise, this volume doesn’t provide much new worldbuilding, either.
Gaheret: For my part, I definitively liked some parts more than others. This was for the most part a long, video-game like fight with character development via flashbacks. There were evocative, powerful images, some interesting characters, fantasy politics, video game mechanics and the interesting moral and vital issues related to the ludos and wordlers were also there, though not at the spot for most of the time. I think that, given that in the last volume we came to know, throught Elizabeth S. Altar, that in this novel the tians are basically real people able to think and love, a fight exclusively among Masters seems like a relief. They are, after all, players protected from pain and death. The backgrounds of many of the most important characters have come to the light, so it seems that an exploration of their respective issues will make for interesting future volumes.
stardf29: I suppose I’ll just say here that over the course of these four volumes, there’s been lots of foreshadowing for some reveals that are likely to happen in the next volume. Some of those reveals are already known to the readers, namely how Marie is the Superior Killer, but Ray doesn’t know of it, and it’s very likely he’ll find out soon enough. At any rate, it’ll be interesting to see how those reveals play out as next volume reaches the climax of this arc.
And that’s it for our discussion of Infinite Dendrogram, Vol. 4! If you read along with us, let us know of your thoughts in the comments!
We will be announcing our next Light Novel Club titles on June 30th! Here are some hints on what those titles are:
- “Dragon Rage had no effect!”
- Anime adaptation incoming!