Usurper of the Sun
I am slowly working my way through the Haikasoru catalog, as quickly as the library here adds titles. Their most recent acquisition is Nojiri Housuke’s Usurper of the Sun, an expansion of three earlier short stories. The original short story won a Seiun Award in 2000, the book won a second Seiun in 2002. It is one of the first novels that Haikasoru published, and more to my taste than some of their other titles. Why? Because Usurper is the first full-on Hard SF I have read from Japan. No anime, no otaku, no giant robots, no tentacles, just a bunch of scientists and a big mysterious object. It’s probably not the only Hard SF out from Haikasoru, but it’s the only one I’ve found so far.
Nojiri mixes and matches his science throughout. His BMO is a thin ring that blooms out of Mercury, blocking an increasing amount of Earthbound sunlight on its eventual way to becoming a Dyson sphere. Earth is plunged into a catastrophic freeze as scientists worldwide struggle to figure out why the ring is there, who put it on Mercury on the first place, what it is supposed to do, and how humanity is to survive the seeming assault from the stars. The book touches on astronomy (of course), the nature of AI and consciousness, nanotech, first contact and alien communications, climatology, and a bit of the softer sciences as we watch Earth dismantle itself in panic. I have to confess that some of the discussion of introverted and extroverted consciousness sailed above my head, but I caught just enough for the conclusion to make sense. This is Hard SF, so the science is the focus as much as, or more than, the characters, but that’s kind of a subgenre given at this point.
Usurper differs a bit from other Japanese SF I have read in the general exclusion of Japan. The main character, Aki Shiraishi, is Japanese, but she spends most of her time in California, in Texas, or in space. Her interactions are also primarily with Westerners, so thematically there is very little to differentiate Usurper from any other science fiction. This is not a critique of course, just an observation. In the real world, any large scale space effort would be based in the United States as a matter of economic course, so it is entirely natural that Nojiri’s book would also spend most of its time dealing with the US, the EU, and the UN. There are however two points that stand out, though whether they are intentional or just a product of cultural background noise is not a question I am prepared to answer.
There are two responses to the aliens trying to, er, usurp the sun. Many see it as a preemptive attack on humanity, or at the very least blithely ignorant genocide, and agitate to fight back. Others frame it as a big misunderstanding and push for a peaceful first contact. Even if this is a misunderstanding in the same way that, say, the Great Leap Forward was a multi-million fatality economic misunderstanding, it is obvious that the aliens are so technologically superior that “war” would probably be more like “swatting gnats.” “Not so!” argue the militants. “We could probably get a good lick or two in. Besides, we might as well go down fighting.” The pacifists are not convinced by any of this reasoning and take their own steps towards talking with the aliens. Considering the nationality of the writer, I will give readers exactly one guess as to which countries take each position. Give up? Here’s a hint: George W. Bush had just taken over the White House when Usurper was published. (To be fair, this was pre-9/11, so the Invade Iraq drumbeat had yet to begin. Still, we Americans had been seen as warmongers for many, many years before toppling Saddam.)
The second point could be entirely of my own imagining. Midst the discussion of consciousness, there is a lot about minds focused entirely inward, uncommunicative because they either don’t notice or don’t care about anything outside. I don’t think it spoils anything too much to say that the aliens blocking out the sun’s light are doing so because they feel this way about Earth and its inhabitants (or don’t feel, as the case may be). I wonder if Nojiri isn’t offering subtle commentary about Japan, a nation often accused of being uninterested in the outside world and overly focused on itself. I could be making this up, especially in light of recent domestic media hysteria about Japan’s insularity. Still, this is hardly a new topic and I think there are certainly comparisons that can be made. Japan isn’t actively harming anyone else right now (that I know of), but how much more good could the Japanese be doing if they turned outward a little more and engaged the rest of the world? This was the message that lingered for me after I turned the last page; I probably owe it to myself to dig into some Japanese reviews of the book to see if anyone else thought so. Perhaps this is a project for later.
Beyond these messages, Usurper is pretty typical Hard SF. Lots of science, lots of talking about science, a mix of respect for and distrust of the military, awkward romance, and partially developed characters, usually engaged in science. The reader’s reaction to this book will depend almost entirely on preconceived notions of Hard SF; non-fans will probably want to skip it. Anime fans may come away disappointed unless their minds are open to a little more science than giant robots provide. Those who prefer Clarke, Benford, or Niven will likely enjoy Nojiri’s book more than other, squishier Haikasoru titles. I’m a huge fan of both first contact and big mysterious objects, so I hope that more of this sort makes it into English. I’ll be the first to read and review it when it does.
Rating: The Kashima Antlers. Clinical and efficient, they are Japan’s most successful club team.