Espy (ESP Spy) Part 1

Espy
Komatsu Sakyo

Espy is a clever bilingual title (ESP + Spy) that is thwarted by the ESPN Sports Awards of the same name. Komatsu did it first, so we can’t hold this against him, but it is much easier for me to think of it with a Japanese pronunciation than visualize the English. This despite the fact that it sounds a bit like someone with a fake Mexican accent discussing espionage. (“Where eez dis espy, senor?”) Setting aside (bad) language jokes, this review is going to be something a bit different. Espy has never been translated, as far as I know, so rather than writing a proper review, I will try to introduce the book to readers who will probably never have a chance to read it otherwise. While a short summary is no substitute for the real thing, I hope that a selection of these introductions will build a useful foundation to discuss Japanese SF. I may, if I find something really amazing, even start a translation project. Going forward, I will be happy to accept requests and recommendations for this.

First, some disclaimers. Most importantly, I am assuming that nobody else will ever read this, so spoilers abound. If any readers think that someday, somewhere, they are going to pick up a copy of this minor work in the original Japanese, stop after the first post.  If not, then press on to part two and enjoy the chaos. Second is a word about my Japanese ability. In English, I read about one page per minute. This amounts to 150 pages or so during a normal workday commute. By the end of Espy, I had pushed my Japanese speed up to almost 40 pages per day. Painfully slow. A Japanese novel takes me between two and three weeks, usually with a break halfway for something written in English. Further, on any given page, I probably don’t understand ten or fifteen characters. I am far too lazy to actually look things up, so I gauge meaning from context and hope I don’t miss anything crucial. Sometimes I do, but the misunderstandings generally even out over time. “Hey,” comes the voice from the peanut gallery, “I thought you said you were fluent!”  I pretty much am, but in my defense, how many people reading a second language understand the sentence, “The Lieutenant ordered the second officer to engage the anti-grav repulsor lifts and fire a battery of laser cannons at the approaching rebel dreadnought?” The end result of all of these is that, first, I am usually off-base on a plot point or two, and second, I am far too impatient by the end to care. If there are holes or weirdness, my apologies, but please consider the source material before launching verbal broadsides.

For today’s post, the spoiler-free summary, just in case somebody wants to go out and read this. A more detailed look will follow later this week. Espy is a strange hybrid. At heart, the story is a typical superspy romp from the depths of the Cold War. Not just any spy, though, but an espy! Our hero, Tamura Yoshio, belongs to a secret worldwide group of ESP enabled spies dedicated to maintaining peace, order, and happiness in the world. The plot is pretty straightforward for this sort of thing, but then there are little dashes of SF tossed here and there. “Aircars” are everywhere (but undescribed), there are hints of sundry advanced technologies, and a laser rifle makes an appearance. These are all unrelated to the main plotline until the end, when things very suddenly turn philosophical and futuristic. More on that later. For the most part though, this is a quirky book in the James Bond vein.

Komatsu seems to be having a great time with the tropes of the genre. The good guys are a super secret band of super spies. The bad guys are also a super secret band of super spies, but they want to take over the world instead of protecting it. The bad guys have a needlessly convoluted plot in motion and have a tendency to talk too much. (The notorious “Well, now that I’m about to kill you, I guess it’s alright if I spill the beans” cliché.) The action moves quickly through exotic and/or seedy locations, except for a brief moment in Long Island. Maybe that’s exotic to Japanese people. All of the women are seductive. There are a number of snazzy vehicles, various guns, fights, and occasional explosions. The book is also dripping with Cold War atmosphere, gently seasoned with organized crime and clandestine refugees of Hitler’s failed regime. Also aircars. Lots of aircars, though heaven only knows what those are.

There are times, though, when I suspect that Komatsu goes beyond simply fun and is seeing how crazy he can get before someone calls him on it. He plays it straight the entire time, with no hint of satire or any winks at the audience, but things get so over the top that I can’t believe he’s serious. The good guy’s name, Yoshio (良夫), literally translates as “Good Guy.” At one point, he actually says, “Using skills passed down from the ninja….” Later, one of the bad guys, an ex-Nazi with a monocle, calls out, “Igor (!), please escort Abdullah to the basement and flog him. He is demonstrating an unforgivable attitude towards our guest.” “Our guest” happens to be chained to a metal chair and is engaging in witty repartee with the bad guy about fine wines. As the love interest is about to be ravished, “Good Guy” goes off at length about how pure and radiant she is, despite the fact that they have only known each other for about three days, the first of which involved an initiation into the Mile High Club. (This does not make her a bad person, but I was puzzled why “Good Guy” blathers so freely about protecting her virtue, when he did anything but on that airplane.) Komatsu is far too smart to not realize how crazy some of this is, but he never gives any indication that his book is anything by deadly serious. Maybe there is a deeper Japanese comedic undercurrent that I am unable to discern.

Finally, there is the ESP. In general I am not a fan of such things. (John W. Campbell would hate me.) Very few books with telepathy, ESP, or whatever at their core hold my interest. Indeed, had I known what I was getting into with Espy, I may not have read it. (My wife chose it for me at the Japanese library based entirely on the cover, which involves 70s looking guys with guns and sunglasses next to a mostly undressed woman. “This is what you want, right?” she asked.) Komatsu builds an ESP system with varying powers (telepathy, mind reading, telekinesis, etc.) that seems to hold together, though it feels like he’s making it up as he goes. “Hmm, how can I get him out of this mess? Maybe he can teleport. That sounds good.” Or perhaps, “wait, this is too invincible. I know! Silver is their kryptonite! Perfect.” I just went along with it, though sometimes I had to roll my eyes.

This brings the spoiler-free section to a close. The next post will give a rundown of the plot, highlight things I thought were hilarious, and open a window into the Soul of Modern Japan.

Continue to Part Two.

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Two Dudes Steps Out

Our humble blog is taking its first steps into the grownup world. The excellent WorldSF blog, the internet’s #1 source for non-US/UK SFF information, posted a Two Dudes article this morning. Check it out here!

A big thanks to Lavie at WorldSF.

The Legions of Fire

The Legions of Fire
David Drake

Because we here at Two Dudes are committed to bringing our readers only best, most relevant commentary, we’re very excited to piggyback on the recent release of the second book in a new series by reviewing the first book, now in paperback. This is the kind of cutting edge scoop that we pledge to deliver at least once every few months or so. So with Out of the Waters hitting stores over the summer, let’s take a look at the first book in Drake’s Roman Empire with crazy magic series.

I’ll set out my biases now, so that anyone who disagrees with this paragraph can save themselves the trouble of reading any further. I’m a big fan of David Drake, who writes my favorite military SF. I find him just as interesting as his books; in the countless interviews and podcasts scattered round the internet, he always comes across as a fascinating character. Anytime a Duke law student with a background in the classics gets sent off to Vietnam to witness and participate in horrific events, drama will ensue. Drake’s books are a pretty clear window into the soul of a man who really just wanted to read Virgil, but is tormented by what he’s seen and done. I wrote previously about Redliners and confessed that his books haven’t been the same since; there’s something about treading on the edge of madness that makes for books I can’t put down. Now that Drake is more at peace with himself, his writing is somewhat less compelling. With The Legions of Fire, however, he is opening up a setting that plays right to his strengths and encourages mad creativity. How does it all hold up?

Drake sets his story in the city of Carce and goes to great pains to explain that, even though Carce looks a lot like Rome circa 30 AD and the rest of the world is basically our world in 30 AD, Carce is not Rome. It is, however, pretty much Rome, but with magic and some other mystical stuff. This is a good thing, as Drake’s extensive knowledge of the era makes for a convincing stage. It is also refreshing to escape the Middle Ages, or any derivative thereof, with the usual variations on swords, knights, elves traipsing through the glen, etc. Magic is present in Carce, but it is wild, untamed, and uncivilized. Proper gentlemen keep their distance from the stuff, preferring logic and rhetoric. Magic is relegated to the periphery and practiced only by hairy barbarians. (Or so, at least, is the popular wisdom in Carce.)

The story is a variation of the usual “Youths of destiny come of age while saving the world from unspeakable evil,” though I get the feeling that Drake is beating that dead horse because it is fun, not because he is incapable of anything else. Some authors lack the creativity or courage to tell any story but a pale Tolkien imitation. In this case, however, I can imagine Drake saying to himself, “Fire demons rampaging out of Vesuvius is good. Such a waste to only roast Carce though. Hmm, said demons are summoned by bald, skeletal Hyboreans, foretold by the stars, and opposed by ambiguous, prophetic manuscripts. Why not just destroy all of creation? I’m David Drake, and I can do what I want!” It works for me. The Legions of Fire is, on the surface, predictable and cliché, but this is a densely plotted book, taking convoluted paths towards a familiar end. The good guys are definitely good (though only one is unambiguously awesome), but the bad guys are confusingly bad. Who is opposing whom, and to what end? Which pawns are being manipulated by which side, and for what purpose? And who are all these side characters and what are they after?

The supporting cast is one of the best parts of the book. The spirits, gods, and supernatural creatures here are best avoided by the living. Their factions are intentionally left unexplained, so the experience as a reader is much like what the characters are seeing. Is this lovely and flirtatious dryad going to help me? Or am I going to be trapped in a fairy ring, dancing until I keel over? What about all these dead people? Is that spell that allegedly binds them to my service really working? What are its limits, and what happens when I cross them? Who are these crazy, bald geezers on the blasted heath anyway? This is most definitely not Fantasia. As might be expected of Drake, Legions is not a gentle book. There is lots of violence and an assortment of naughty bits. The violence is realistic, but not as graphic as, say, Hammers Slammers, and the naughty bits are mostly just weird, considering the personalities and nature of creatures involved.

For those keeping score at home, Legions loses some points for its rather conventional overarching structure, but makes most of them back with a complex, demanding plot. Rome is a much more fun place to spend some time than a thinly veiled Middle Earth – Olde England hybrid; I certainly wouldn’t cage fight the author over its authenticity either. The human characters are alright, even though some of them “grow” by the end of the story, while the supporting cast of weird creatures is endless entertainment. (Though I shudder to think what the tree sprites in my back yard might look like. Judging from our trees, they’d probably be Russian babushkas.) As mentioned above, Drake’s writing has lost some of its edge of late, now that he keeps the madness at bay. Legions lacks the psychological pyrotechnics of Northworld or Redliners, but I liked it more than other recent concoctions. Still, anyone who already dislikes Drake’s books won’t change their mind with this one.

Rating: For violence and skullduggery in the ancient metropolis, Two Dudes recommends the Roma – Lazio derby!

Macross Plus

Macross Plus

Having made my way through the Big Three of sci-fi anime (Mobile Suit Gundam, Space Battleship Yamato, and Super Dimension Fortress Macross), it is time to dig further into the major franchises. Macross II is widely regarded as a failure and was promptly disavowed by the franchise creator, so I skipped that and headed straight for the next in line, Macross Plus. This four-volume OVA (Original Video Animation, direct to video in our parlance) gets rave reviews in the anime community and is often cited as must see anime. I have yet to settle on an opinion; I hope that in writing this I will be able to make sense of it all. As always, please read the Anime Disclaimer before leaving scathing comments.

The easiest place to start, and least difficult to untangle, is production values. Macross Plus was apparently made with a massive budget for its time and it shows. From the opening titles, the art and animation are light years ahead of the original. I’m not much of an animation connoisseur, so if the difference is clear to me, it must be the equivalent of getting slapped in the head with a full-grown tuna for true anime fans. I especially enjoyed the cityscapes and wondered if they borrowed at all from Blade Runner (which is, of course, modeled on Osaka). As an art-related side note, I was pleasantly surprised by the relative lack of fan service. I am told this was remedied in the movie version, and an appropriate number of breasts are on display. (Unconfirmed.)

Music is, naturally, the other area where Macross Plus shines. The franchise has always given music a central place in the narrative, though I spent most of the original series irritated at the songs and wishing that Minmay (the dopey idol singer) would go away, or at least shut up. Plus, however, does the music right. I’m more impressed by the breadth of the soundtrack than by individual tunes, as it swings smoothly from Sharon Apple’s pop songs to driving electronica to traditional orchestral movie scores without ever missing a beat. There is even a musical Star Wars Easter egg that made me laugh out loud during the final battle. I won’t go so far as to buy the soundtrack on CD, but the mere fact that it is available in the States gives some idea of importance the franchise places on music.

Those are the easy things to praise. Once I start to think through the plot, ambivalence rears its ugly head. With four episodes of about 40 minutes each, Macross Plus is mercifully free of the bloat that haunts many TV series. No clip shows, no weird side stories, no random filler. In spite of this, the pacing and overall arc feel a bit off, considering the lean narrative style. The first episode sets the stage and introduces the requisite love triangle, the second and third fill out the details and allow the conflict to develop, then the fourth unexpectedly veers off in a new direction and blows a bunch of stuff up (literally). In the negative column, this really feels like the producers needed to balance the last bit of the plot more, or find some other way to resolve the initial conflict. It felt very strange to go from “Top Gun, only Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise hate each other and have always loved Kelly McGillis” to “Holy crap the AIs are EVIL” so abruptly. On the plus side, this didn’t occur to me until later. While watching, I was fully engaged and caught up in the story.

The characters are another set of mixed feelings. The ostensible Hero isn’t very likable. He doesn’t just start out arrogant and condescending, the story never forces him to stop being a jerk. Usually these characters show a better side, or at least take a moment for self-reflection at some point in the narrative, but not Isamu. It’s hard to cheer for someone I would punch in real life. His rival, the bad guy until the Real Bad Guy appears, is actually more sympathetic than the good guy. Yes, Guld is rigid and distant, but he’s also honorable and shows a protective instinct. In almost any situation, the viewer can count on Isamu to be a self-centered wanker, while Guld does the responsible thing. And yet, we’re supposed to cheer for the jerk. The point opposite the hypotenuse of the love triangle, Myung, is relatively unremarkable. She’s nice enough, though I would have told her to get her crap together before looking to me for love and support.

The development of this triangle is the biggest hole in the story. I suppose it’s a love triangle (because this is Macross, and it has to be a love triangle), but one point of the triangle never really shows up. Guld hovers over Myung and appears to make it to at least second base, but Isamu is a non-entity. He’s busy flirting with other people, and I suspect there is little room in Isamu’s heart for anyone but Isamu. Guld is constantly threatened by him, though, and Myung apparently loves him anyway, though we are only told that, not shown. At the end, there is a big reveal of why the two men hate each other so, but this just raises more disturbing questions about them. The exact order of events is never clarified, but either this violent hatred arose from a medium-sized misunderstanding and argument, or someone got raped/abused and the two guys laugh it off as “just something that happened in the past.” This is either somewhat trivial or exceedingly troubling, which may be why the show shies away from clear explanations. Finally, the end of the series fails utterly to resolve the triangle. This was alright by me, though, since I didn’t really care about it anyway.

To sum up: While the Macross franchise is generally seen as a love triangle involving musicians against the backdrop of interstellar war, Macross Plus replaces interstellar war with pilots in a training program. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it focuses the viewer on a character study. Music’s role in the narrative changes also, downgrading itself from a key factor in the end of war to a somewhat relevant plot enabler. Finally, Macross Plus removes most of the silliness from the first series and stays in much darker, more adult territory. How viewers feel about these three factors will likely determine their response to the series. In my case, I enjoy the adult tone, kind of wish that music was restored to its pedestal, and much prefer spaceships blowing up to half-formed relationship quandaries involving people I don’t care about. However, as I said before, as long as the tape was rolling, I was caught up in the story and couldn’t get it out of my head.

Rating: Tottenham Hotspur. The club has moments of high drama, triumph, and pathos, enjoys passionate support of a certain group, and puts a respectable team on the field every match. They don’t win championships though, and I’ve just never gotten into them.

West of Eden

West of Eden
Harry Harrison

The cover blurbs for my copy of West of Eden compare the book first to Dune, then to Clan of the Cave Bear. I’m not sure how a book can be crap, which I always assumed the latter to be, and still measure up to one of the titans of science fiction, but there you have it. If forced at gun point to make a decision, I would place West of Eden closer to sand worms than romancing cavemen, but it doesn’t belong on the same pedestal as Dune. (Very few books do.)

Preparing to write this review, I checked the response to Harrison’s opus on Goodreads. Some of the comments addressed the usual suspects of plot, characters, themes, etc., but a great many said, in effect, “HOLY CRAP HE HAS CARNAL KNOWLEDGE OF A DINOSAUR!!!” I think this does the book a bit of an injustice, though Kerrick (human dude) is indeed molested by Vainte (dinosaur chick) on a couple of occasions. Later on he scores with a human female whose cleft palate makes her resemble a lizard, which is apparently a good thing for Kerrick, so the diddling is not exclusively cross-species. But as I said, focusing on this sort of base, animalistic hoo-haw shortchanges Messr. Harrison and his remarkable world.

If the dinosaur-killing asteroid had not smashed into the Earth some 65 million years ago, we might be living in this very world right now. The Yilane are sentient reptiles that evolved from one or another smaller dinosaur species. The Tanu are stone age level humans, some of whom have figured out agriculture. The Yilane live primarily in Asia (and probably elsewhere), whereas the Tanu live in North America. An encroaching Ice Age is slowly freezing the Yilane out of their homes and forcing migration to the tropical regions of the the Americas. It goes without saying that “There ain’t room in this here continent for the both of us,” so the two species are driven to war.

World building is the real strength of West of Eden. There is enough packed into the Yilane parts of the book for at least a standalone novel, probably an entire series. Harrison figures out ways for the Yilane to have ocean going ships, guns, and even spy planes without the Yilane ever mastering fire. They have a complex and believable culture, and language that is at least partially mapped out in the book, and enough factions, sects and intrigue that the reader could be forgiven for forgetting that humans make up half of the story. There is also no question that the Yilane are the “bad guys,” as we naturally side with humans in this sort of conflict, but Harrison paints a broad enough picture that each race makes claims for sympathy.

The humans are also interesting, though familiar. Kerrick makes his way through several different tribes of differing belief and lifestyle. The main groups are hunter-gatherers, but some budding agriculturalists make appearances as well. It is the hunters that challenge the Yilane directly, so Kerrick spends most of his time with them. It is a shame that the two species can’t work together, as the Yilane society is in many ways better than the human one. In Harrison’s conception, this is impossible though, which is a bit sad.

I’m going to give this book full points for creativity, both for the Yilane world and the crazy notion to have sentient dinosaurs. It does well enough in execution and storytelling, though I don’t rank it among the most immortal stuff I’ve read. (What is it, exactly, that separates amazing books from the merely good? I guess if I knew, I wouldn’t be writing a small-time blog anymore.) Recommended for anyone needing a change of pace, or who thinks that furries just don’t go far enough.

Rating: Gunnersaurus.