It’s time for our first Light Novel Club meeting of the year! We’re covering volume 5 of Infinite Dendrogram, finishing up the first major arc of the story, and as such there are some interesting things to discuss, so join Jeskai Angel, Gaheret, and myself as we take the full dive into the VRMMO once again!
1. What are your overall thoughts on the novel?
Jeskai Angel: It reminds me structurally of The Return of the King, where the story reaches its climax halfway through and then spends the rest of the volume winding down and tying up loose ends. Actually, though, maybe vol. 4 was the true climax of this five-volume arc, and the entirety of vol. 5 was a matter of tying up loose ends. The stakes felt higher in the previous volume. Going into this volume, it quickly became apparent that Franklin has already lost. He’s just a uniquely sore loser, so he needed an extra half-volume of getting walloped before he actually backed down. On the whole, I found vol. 5 a very satisfying conclusion to Dendro’s opening arc.
stardf29: Yeah, it does seem like this volume is more about wrapping the arc up, rather than a “climatic” volume in and of itself. I do like all of the various reveals that had been foreshadowed up to this point, and the exploration of these characters is still great. The extra stuff after the “conclusion” is nice, too, and overall this was a great way to finish off this arc.
Gaheret: To tell the truth, at this point I don´t think Infinite Dendrogam is going to be able to deliver a satisfying conclusion to the Gamers/Wordlers dilemma. I find increasingly horrifying the position of those that, like Liliana, are living their daily lives in a world that happens to be a video-game set for a more advanced civilization. As it is, the Masters have nearly unlimited superpowers, can come back from the death and, most of all, are in this world to amuse themselves during their leisure time. The objective of even the best being to seize as many powerful items as possible and to advance mathematically numbered statistics through warfare, duels to the death, and espionage. If the previous book told us that, without doubt, the Tians are people, this one shows how they are trapped quite literally in their own version of the Cold War, only the superpowers cannot be deterred by MAD, because they will be back anyway. Things that are acceptable for a gamer (as Figaro´s “solo player” ideology) become terrifying when your knights are going to be killed by an army of monsters due to his inaction. For me, this is not a game anymore, but I don´t know if the writer has noticed. That scene during which Liliana watches her people bury their dead in shock and sadness was heartbreaking. This looks increasingly bleak, and were it real, I would start searching for some way of closing the bridge between the two worlds altogether.
2. What are your thoughts on the characters?
Jeskai Angel: Okey-day, so I want to talk about the professor’s Embryo. It’s a monster-spawning fortress called Pandemonium. This is clearly a reference to the epic poem Paradise Lost, by John Milton, in which Satan and the demons build a castle in hell called “Pandemonium.” First, that’s an awesome reference that I was surprised to see. What’s even better is how this comments on the Ray-versus-Franklin relationship. Franklin’s Embryo associates him with the devil. And Ray’s signature ability is “Vengeance Is Mine,” a reference to Romans 12:19 and a statement attributed to God himself. Obviously Ray and Franklin aren’t literally God and the devil, but it feels like this combination of ability and Embryo names really signifies the sort of relationship dynamic they have, with Ray on the side of good and Franklin as the diabolical nemesis. And fittingly for their symbolic roles, Ray always wins (at least so far).
On a different Franklin note, I love love love the reveal that Ray and Franklin are IRL next door neighbors! I found it hilarious, and look forward to seeing whatever happens when the characters themselves finally discover this.
stardf29: First of all, the revelation of Franklin as the older sister that “Hugo” had wanted to protect, whose life had been controlled by her father until she ran away, was very important. It’s easy to see how she sees Infinite Dendrogram as a place where she can be in control, for once, and in contrast to the powerlessness she felt growing up, she can do what she wants as long as she can defeat any “opponents” in her way. It also could explain why Franklin is such a “sore loser”, and why “he” will go to such lengths to get revenge against those “he” lost against; it could be her way of “getting back” at her father, and others who have stood in her way.
The most notable thing, though, is how Franklin sees the world of ID as “real” and the tians as real living people, and yet has zero compunction in massacring them if “he” needs to do so. In fact, the only reason “he” held back at all is out of respect for Hugo, and is part of the reason for sending Hugo out of the clan so Franklin’s future plans can be as nasty as possible. It shows how the whole “seeing ID as a real world” aspect can be taken a different way, where instead of developing empathy for the tians, they become just another target of evil actions. It makes me wonder if the only reason Francesca has not gone on a similar sort of criminal spree in the real world is simply because the laws of the real world make that counterproductive, whereas in ID as long as Franklin plays by the rules of the game, “he” can get away with a lot.
And yes, the fact that she and Ray are neighbors in the real world is great. If they ever do find out who they are in the game… well, there are a couple of ways that can play out, all of which will be interesting.
Gaheret: I also got “war in heaven” vibes from the combat between the mad scientist Professor unleashing a seemingly infinite army of monsters, including the nuclear bomb one, from an airship Pandemonium and being confronted by superpowered knights. By admitting to being essentially a willing mass-murderer and kidnapper at the head of an Empire in ID but having the life of a college student in the real world, Francesca is embodying the worst kind of ID player, the one who lets her darkest desires destroy everything around her when she has enough power.
Jeskai Angel: There have been hints that Shu was big stuff in Dendro, but this is the first time we get to see his full power on display and get official confirmation that he’s the mysterious superior King of Destruction. One of the more intriguing parts of Shu’s role in the story was a section where he’s the narrator…and it turns out he’s talking to one of the control AIs. First, why is Shu is addressing comments to the control AI at all? Just how are he and the control AI (I forget it’s name) connected? Does Shu talk to the AI often? Second, Shu’s first-person narration directed at the AI raises an interesting question: what about all the other first-person narrative sections in Dendro? Are any of them likewise directed to characters within the story? On a different note, we know that Embryos reflect the players who have them. So what exactly does a battleship-sized tank indicate about Shu as a person?
stardf29: One thing’s for sure about Shu: he’s very protective of his little brother. Bringing out his battleship to torch an entire forest to get back against the one who PK’d Ray… yeah. Overall it seems like supporting his brother is one of his main motivations, especially as we haven’t seen much else out of his motivations otherwise.
As for how his Embryo reflects his personality… well, it’s not just his Embryo, but also his stat allocation being focused entirely on offense, and his real-life involvement with martial arts (among other things), I think it shows how he considers himself a “fighter”, who will take down everything that stands in his (or his brother’s) way. Though I think it’s also important to distinguish him from Franklin, who you could say also has that sort of “destroy everything in his path” attitude. But whereas Franklin’s Embryo specializes in creating monsters specifically designed to counter and defeat targets or overwhelm by numbers while he himself stays away from battle, Shu’s Embryo is based more on generalized offense and supporting him as he actively fights himself. I think that shows pretty well how Franklin is more of a “villain” while Shu is more of a “hero”.
As for his contact with the AIs… well, we do know the AIs had to stop the battle between him and the Magically Strongest, so maybe they keep close contact with him to keep him from destroying too many things? Well, given that he has been playing from around the beginning, maybe he’s more involved with the game than just a player… Well, that’s a fun bit of speculation for the future.
Jeskai Angel: Just one scene of Ray’s I wanted to mention: when he calls the Superior Killer by name, freaking out both Marie and Nemesis. And the Nemesis freaks out more upon finding out Ray was right. So funny. I also love how this scene subverts the stereotypical obliviousness often seen in light novel / anime protagonists — including Ray himself on other occasions. Turns out he actually is observant and smart enough to figure out Marie’s identity. Ray has some shonen protagonist attributes, I think, but I felt like this moment in particular helped demonstrate that he’s more complex than that.
stardf29: Ray’s casual acknowledgement of Marie as the Superior Killer was great. He doesn’t even hold any real grudge over how she had PK’d him anymore, other than wanting to duel her. Then again, he wants to duel everyone, no matter how much stronger they are than him, so that doesn’t mean too much. Though I do like how he willingly battles opponents he knows he has a very low chance of winning against. Ray the Unbreakable, indeed.
I also like how he gets along with the super-chuuni Juliet and can easily figure out what she’s trying to say. He’s probably just the sort that gets along easily with people, so long as they aren’t trying to hurt him.
Gaheret: As always, Ray is defined by his strong determination to save everyone and experience ID as realistically as possible, Shu is the genius and protective older brother raised to the nth degree, and Nemesis is increasingly showing his love for Ray (mild jealousy, attraction, “was that a kiss?”). The revelation that Ray is starting college and searching for a path in life, as well wondering about the contrast of his relatively normal life and the flamboyant backgrounds of his sister, Shu, Rook and Marie, is very interesting for me. The novel ends with Ray reflecting how Nemesis is the difference between the point he was at in the beginning and the point he is now. I think this means that his calling is the world of Infinite Dendrogam, and Nemesis.
Jeskai Angel: Coming out of this volume, I think Hugo is the character with the most ambiguous and potentially interesting future. Hugo has been forced to acknowledge the ugly parts of Franklin’s character. The events of this volume and the previous one have shown that there’s a conflict between his devotion to his elder sibling and his desire to be a heroic protector who cares about tians. Straddling the fence isn’t going to cut it: as we see in this volume, by trying to do both things, Hugo failed at helping Franklin and at protecting tians.
stardf29: It’s kind of ironic how, on the one hand, family can be the people you most know about their faults, but family can also be the people whose faults you are blind to the most. (I’ve heard of plenty of stories of parents who try to justify or deny bad things their children do, believing their “little angels” could never be so mean.) In this case, probably because Yuri always saw her older sister as the “victim”, she refused to acknowledge that the “victim” could have such a terrible side to her. Hopefully now that she’s going off on her own, she can figure out what she really wants to do rather than following Franklin.
On a side note, it’s interesting that, while both Hugo and Franklin see the world as “real”, they also choose to play as characters of the opposite gender. I wonder how much this is the two of them actually wanting to be male or how much it’s just part of the image they want to project to others.
Gaheret: It must be disconcerting trying to find orientation in a fantasy world where you can regain contact with your lost sister, become a popular celebrity in your clan, which happens to be the vanguard of a very complex Empire and roleplay a Frech knight, all at the age of 14. The revelations concerning Franklin allow us to make sense of Hugo´s seemingly contradictory motivations. Yuri´s decision to free the army and protects the Tians, as well as her role as the moral conscience of her sister, indicates that she is a solid, noble and caring, if young and confused, individual. She could even become the saving grace of her sister.
stardf29: A few notes on some other characters: it seems like this is the volume that officially reveals that Xunyu is actually a 9-year-old girl… I mean, I know there are some really talented kids out there, but imagining the giant, intimidating Xunyu as a young girl is, well, kinda hilarious. Also it makes her earlier “flirting” with Ray more cute than anything, like a kid who’s found a cool older playmate.
The other character of interest is the King of Beasts, who was just observing Franklin’s Game and has taken an interest in Shu. We know that she is the “Physically Strongest”, and the battle between Figaro and Xunyu didn’t interest her. Given how she didn’t actually participate in Franklin’s plans, I guess she has no interest in doing anything against Altar, perhaps unless she thinks there’s a chance to fight someone strong. It’d definitely be interesting if the two of them were to ever actually fight it out.
Gaheret: The other Masters: The Earth, Marie, Rook, Figaro and Xunyu. They all continue to display competence. I like the ironic Marie the most. She is training the Tians, the development of her friendship with Ray and the others is heartwarming (but come on, there was a dramatic opportunity in this Superior Killer revelation thing) and I like her style of narration. On the other hand, I find Rook´s abilities (according to the narrator, he can almost read minds) to be too much. We are told that he deduces Yuri´s background and dilemmas, but not how. That´s not how a Sherlock Holmes character is supposed to work. The Earth being a busy salaryman who might be scolded by his wife is a fun premise for a character. I hope that Figaro is a Gamer who thinks the Tians are just IAs, because otherwise his going solo philosophy in the midst of a war would indicate a very cold heart. As for Xunyu, she being ten years old feels slightly horrifying given that her main power consists in squashing realistic human organs in technicolor. Ugh. At least she drinks juice, I guess.
The Tians. From my perspective, they are becoming the most interesting characters, as the ones that have more at stake. Their politics and their world are also increasingly fascinating. The tragedy and nobility of Liliana were in full display in the scene in which she narrates the aftermath of the battle (and besides, I wonder if a romance between Ray and Nemesis would shatter her own hopes in some sense), and Count Gideon´s ninja team in a Rome-like city, seems a wonderful idea to me. I found the few glimpses of the Altar Princesses very interesting: I can understand Princess Altimia´s antipathy for Masters and I think it may become an interesting plot point, while Elizabeth´s flight becoming a regular thing (with predictable results) is a develop I´m less fond of.
3. At this point, what do you think of the world of Infinite Dendrogram? Do you think it really is just a “game”, or if it might be an actual alternate world or something else?
Jeskai Angel: I think it’s clear that Dendro isn’t really the “game” it claims to be. I’m much less sure what it really is. One obvious possibility is that taken by the recent anime I’m Standing on a Million Lives, where a “game” world turns out to be isekai. Another obvious possibility is something like the Underworld of Sword Art Online‘s Alicization arc: a simulated world populated by truly sapient AIs indistinguishable from “real” people. I kind of lean toward the former over the latter, though it’s far from certain.
Gaheret: Franklin/Francesca makes a very compelling argument concerning the reality of the world of ID. We already knew, though, as we have experienced the events from the point of view of the Tians (I think they being rational creatures is what truly makes the difference). She points to the incredible degree of detail and the complexity of the world. She then points to three possible explanations: a Fantasy/Isekai setting, Aliens and sentient IAs. To explain why it operates like a game for the Earthlings, the first hypothesis would require some sort of “programmer” wizard or alien, so in the end, it is not so different. Be it as it may, to my mind a game populated by real people cannot be considered a game.
stardf29: At this point I definitely agree with Franklin that the ID world is more than just a bunch of 1s and 0s on a server. I don’t know what exactly it is; I don’t think it’s quite a parallel universe in the vein of most isekai series, and it does seem like it’s more “created” than anything, at least as far as the world environment is concerned. As for what the tians are… unfortunately, all of my theories on this have some bad implications, whether it implies human creation of “life” or somehow managing to drag people into the “tian” position. Not like an actual isekai situation is any better, with its implication of invasion… Well, it definitely adds an extra element of intrigue to the story.
4. If you were in this story’s setting, would you play Infinite Dendrogram, and if so, how would you play it?
Jeskai Angel: To answer your question with a question, “If I were in this story’s setting, how could I possibly resist playing Infinite Dendrogram?” I ask because I can’t imagine not playing Infinite Dendrogram if it existed. I would find the opportunities to go on adventures and be a hero irresistible. I tend to find it easy to identify with my character or avatar in games, which also means I tend to feel guilty about doing “evil” things in games, so I’d probably stick trying to be good. Given that I can take my player-character’s actions so seriously, I think there’s at least a chance I’d end up as a Maiden’s Master, not necessarily because I go into Dendro thinking the world is real, but because I think even choices in a game can carry real moral weight. I doubt I would be quite as excited about fighting as someone like Ray, and probably wouldn’t get into dueling; I would, however, be something of a tourist who likes exploring.
Gaheret: I would like to roleplay the noble knight, I guess. Or, if I knew the ID world to be real, I would consider forming a gang and entering there as a Tians rescue team of sorts, and try to help the rulers of the Kingdom of Altar.
stardf29: While I probably would play the game, I feel like trying to get too involved with things, whether it be trying to become one of the “top” players or getting too invested in tian lives would be too mentally draining for me. So I would probably look to find a nice, casual way to play the game. I probably would be more interested in exploring the game environments than anything, and would pick jobs accordingly.
5. Additional Thoughts
Jeskai Angel: I’m impressed by how this series is able to have ridiculously OP characters…who nonetheless have logical weaknesses or limitations. Figaro is insane in 1-v-1, but he wouldn’t be very effective defending the city from 50k monsters. Franklin’s ability to deploy 50k monsters is absurd, but Shu’s overwhelming firepower can wipe them out. Shu’s large-scale offensive power is off the charts, but he can’t use it against Franklin if the latter has a hostage. These kinds of limitations and compatibility issues really help Dendro feel like a game. This sense of balance also makes conflicts more interesting: no one is truly invincible in this setting, and there’s a chance even a weaker opponent can win if they have the right quirky ability.
Gaheret: Incidentally, the bandits being crushed by one superpowered player after another reminded me of the desperate pirate captain of the Asterix and Obelix comics.
Thank you for reading our Light Novel Club discussion! As a reminder, our next Light Novel Club read is Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai, which we will start discussing on the Beneath the Tangles Discord on February 20th! If you want to join in on our discussion, just join the Discord and look for the Light Novel Club channels!
Infinite Dendrogram Vol. 5 is available from J-Novel Club.