The Future is Japanese

The Future is Japanese
Ed.: Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington

I have been frustrated trying to find reviews of The Future is Japanese. Google turns up very little beyond a couple of paragraphs in Locus that clearly missed the point. Goodreads has a small selection that ranges from a butt-hurt “I LOVE JAPAN AND THIS ISN’T JAPAN” to “I just don’t get this at all.” Is the target audience here really limited to only me? I hope for the publisher’s sake that people can enjoy this set of short stories without a specialized knowledge of Japan and a taste for wry cliché deconstruction, but if the reviews I’ve seen are any indication, this may not be the case.

I enjoyed this collection a great deal. Not every story worked for me, as is often the case with anthologies, and they are thematically scattered. The stories themselves are not guaranteed to be about Japan, per se, just to have some connection to the country. Several have no connection whatsoever, beyond the nationality of the writer. All told, five of the thirteen stories are by Japanese authors. As far as I know, only one, Tobi Hirotaka, doesn’t have a book out in English, but these stories are all first available here. The remaining eight are by Western authors who either have extensive Japan experience, or are at least smart enough to not say something woefully inaccurate. Many of the stories use one or another Japanese stereotype as a launching point, though none are predictable. I don’t have deep thoughts about all of them, but here are select, spoiler-free reactions.

Ken Liu’s “Mono no Aware” starts things off with a Hugo-winning bang. A cynical part of me wants to hate this story as an embodiment of the smug superiority that I beat my head against so often in Japan. I can’t though, because the Japanese really are that well-behaved in the face of catastrophe, as the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami demonstrated. Further, while I don’t know the details of the author’s ethnicity, Liu is not a Japanese name. In fact, I assume it to be Chinese, which would mean the story is rather like a Frenchman singing the praises of his German neighbors. If “Mono no Aware” was written by a Japanese man, I would despise it. Instead, it is a heroic and thoughtful reminder of why my second home remains so in the face of so much buffoonery.

My big discovery in the book is one Tobi Hirotaka. I am still rooting around for information about him, but his story, “Autogenic Dreaming: Interview with the Columns of Clouds,” is arguably the most mind-bending of the bunch. He manages to combine Silence of the Lambs, literary criticism, the Singularity, and information theory into one dense, knotty short story. I definitely need to read it again before saying much more about it. From what I can piece together of various Japanese language sources, Tobi has only this story available in English and is not terribly prolific anyway. I am hoping to get my hands on another title or two, though I may have to be in Japan before that happens.

I was not surprised to find Toh Enjoe’s story well-nigh incomprehensible. Much of his work appears to be as much about philosophy and metaphysics as SF. I’m going to read the recently translated Self-Reference Engine, but I’m only going to read it in English. Life is too short to punish myself with this sort of thing in Japanese unless I am well paid for it. As a sidenote, I absolutely loath incorrect romanization of Japanese names. This should be Enjo To. No extra letters, last name first. Aargh. However, the author himself seems to have chosen this style, so I have to roll with it. (After all, my name converted to Japanese is an abomination too, leading me to adopt an entirely different identity when there.)

Project Itoh is one angry dude. (There’s that extra “h” again. I hate it.) Of course, if I was a Gen X guy born in Japan, I would probably be angry too. Every generation of Japanese has been beaten down, it’s part of the middle-class social contract, but at least most post-war Japanese had some rewards at the end: job security, a functional social safety net, tacit agreement from the rich to not rub it in everyone’s faces, etc. Not Gen X. The Baby Boomers blew up Japan’s bubble, then kept all the remaining jobs, basically screwing over my contemporaries. If that weren’t all, Itoh was diagnosed with cancer while still in his 30s. He earned his wrath. “The Indifference Engine” lacks the wit and context of Harmony, but is brutal and compelling just the same.

The tour de force of the collection is Ogawa Issui’s “The Golden Bread.” It’s easy to look at this tale of a young fighter pilot from Yamato, who has crash landed in the agrarian expanse of Kalifornia, and say, “I see what you did there! Yamato are carnivorous Westerners and Kalifornia are Asian vegetarians! Very clever!” That’s barely the half of it though. Ogawa isn’t speaking to us here, he’s writing very specifically to his countrymen. Remove the meat from Yamato, and what we basically have are the two halves of the Japanese experience. Any of us that have spent time in Japan will recognize that Yamato speaks with the language of militant Japanese nationalism. On the other hand, the Kalifornians are clearly the pastoralists that some Japanese aspire to be. The former are strident with their faux scientific superiority, their “right” to expand unchecked, and the divine glory of their conquests. The latter are tied closely to the land and maintain a careful balance between their needs and the ecology surrounding them. This being Japan, food is the main showcase and symbol. It’s not particularly subtle, but no other story gave me the same pleasure of seeing modern Japan neatly dissected. One could go further with the oblique takedown of voracious capitalism and recommendation of a static economy, but I think Ogawa was really going after the Japanese right wing. This is probably the number one example of a story that people misunderstand because they’re not Japanophile enough; I wish there was some graceful way to explain it inline.

As a final word, let’s talk a little bit about Bruce Sterling’s contribution. Sterling is completely mad, so is “Goddess of Mercy.” Disaster has left Japan in tatters, split into two countries. The small island of Tsushima has become a lawless home for pirates and criminals. The lunacy that follows is noticeable less for an organized plot than for the hyperactive mess of ideology, technology, and personality that develops on the island. My only real issue with the story is Sterling’s choice of Nagoya as South Japan’s capital. In reality, there is no way that Kyoto or Osaka would relinquish this, unless both were smoking craters. (Maybe they are, in that future.) Other than that, the hilarity of a place so unremarkable as Tsushima becoming the next Somali is far too entertaining to pass up. I hope he writes a full novel about it.

So that’s a look at some of the stories in The Future is Japanese. There are more, of course, covering giant fighting robots, whale consumption, monsters, and more, but these are the ones I felt strongest about. I can’t see any way around the fact that some of this book will fall flat to those not in the know. Still, many of the stories have enough power on their own to pull a reader in; hopefully they will encourage people to find out more. Or better yet, to buy some of the Japanese authors so that Haikasoru and others can bring more over!