Saraba Yurei

Saraba Yurei (さらば幽霊)
Komatsu Sakyo

My participation in the annual Vintage SF party this year has been a bit lacking, in part because I didn’t get a jump on things in December, but also because one compendium I chose turned out to be 900 pages long. Oops. We’ll just file that one for later. Fortunately, I’ll be able to close things off with a bang, or at least with a post not found anywhere else. Since about this time last year, I’ve been hacking my way through a 1974 collection of Komatsu Sakyo’s short stories called Saraba Yurei, or Farewell Spirits. When my reading time cratered mid-last year, the real damage hit Japanese SF as I failed to finish a single book in Japanese for all of 2014. Only about 50 pages remained in Saraba Yurei however, so I was able to wrap this up in time for Vintage SF Month and put the first notch in my naginata for 2015.

I’ve written about Komatsu several times, but here is a quick summary for the unfamiliar. Komatsu was, until his death in 2011, J-SF’s most prominent voice. Isaac Asimov is probably the closest comparison, if Isaac had advanced degrees in literature. In spite of this, Komatsu is very difficult to find in English. (Japan Sinks and the recent Resurrection Day are the notable exceptions.) Saraba Yurei is ostensibly horror, or at least supernatural, though the stories are all over the map thematically. I lack the motivation to track down original publishing details for the eleven short stories, but my copy of the collection appears to be from the first printing in 1974. Considering the impracticality of writing a traditional book review for something that 99% of my readers will never pick up, I’ll stick with explaining some of the ideas contained in the stories and hope people are entertained.

As always, please see previous disclaimers about language limitations, risk of wholesale misunderstanding, and the difficulties of critiquing writing style in a second tongue.

Saraba Yurei contains eleven stories. The opener, “Satoru no Bakemono” (さとるの化物) or “The Enlightenment Monster,” and the title story are “yokai,” or Japanese monster stories. Yokai are different from Western monster stories, at least those in the vampire-werewolf-mummy vein, and even from typical ghost stories. Sometimes yokai involve horror and scary situations, often they are of a more mischievous bent. I get a sense that yokai are natural, or at least spirits tied to nature, more than Western ghosts and monsters. I’ll admit that my knowledge of both traditions is sketchier than we might like, as horror has never really been my bag, so grains of salt must be kept handy when I pontificate. In Komatsu’s case, “Saraba Yurei” is especially off-kilter, as the spirits, or yurei, take the role of tourists in our world and suffer from discrimination analogous to that heaped on immigrant communities. Imagine sweatshops filled with ghosts that have crawled in through the plumbing and one gets an idea of the strange reality in the story.

A couple of the stories follow standard paths. “Kiri ga Hareta Toki” (霧が晴れた時), or “When the Mist Cleared” is the most cliché of the bunch. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but a family goes hiking, sees a clearly inhabited building whose residents are inexplicably absent, some of the family starts eating the food lying around, and a mysterious fog comes in. Can anyone guess what happens next? Especially to the people that ate the food? Another story that hits common Japanese beats is “Hioka Ama no Shi” (比丘尼の死), “The Death of the Hioka Nun.” This was most notable to me because when I started reading, Komatsu’s writing was suddenly completely impenetrable. As the story moved along, I began to understand more and more of what was going on, almost as though the fog from earlier in this paragraph was clearing from the page. I realized halfway through that Komatsu was chronicling the history of this goddess through time, and that his language reflected the era. Clearly, I’m not going to get feudal Japanese anymore than a Japanese reader would understand Middle English, thus the early confusion. Anyway, the goddess is finally defeated by real estate development, a common lament as the Japanese steadily paved their entire nation through the 1970s and 80s. I found both of these stories wholly predictable, though that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the first in particular.

Most others are relatively unconventional. “Umi no Shisen” (海の視線), “The Sea’s Horizon,” is about a woman who had fainting spells in WWII when U-boats were near and was used as a sort of coal mine canary on ships. The story takes place many years later, as she has a fainting spell on a cruise ship and sees alien visitors peeking back at humanity from a future dying Earth, as they stand on what was once the ocean floor. “Hogo Tori” (保護鳥), “Protected Bird,” is about a European village that takes its endangered birds very seriously. VERY seriously. Tourists beware. Finally, my favorite story of the bunch, “Hana no Kokoro” (花のこころ), “Flower’s Heart,” is about a scientist who teaches giant, mobile flowers on an alien planet to appreciate beauty and dance. They reward her and others by eating them and sucking out the aesthetic appreciation.

Analog this is not. I enjoyed the collection, though none of the stories will go down as immortal for me. I started to translate one, but got sidetracked by a translation job that actually pays, so no telling when I will get back to it. If anyone out there is particularly interested in a story, I am happy to give it a go and post for general enjoyment, so please feel free to make requests. Otherwise, this post will stand as a vague summary of what’s out there, just in case someone wants to give their Japanese language skills a test.

2014 Reading Stats

2014 Reading Statistics

For the statistics loving, OCD part in all of us, I too have compiled some data on my reading in 2014. It is taking all of my self-restraint powers to not crank out a pile of Excel-generated graphs and charts here; that seems a little crazed even for SF fandom. The numbers this year are fairly disappointing, on a number of fronts.

Total books read in 2014: 50
At the start of the year, my bus commute was over two hours round trip. In April I started a new job, with a combined bike/bus commute that provided about 40 minutes of reading time. Once rain and dark came, I started carpooling, and now I drive so I can cover afternoon kid duties. For obvious reasons, reading time has fallen off a cliff.

Genre breakdown:
SF: 33
Fantasy: 10
Other: 7
Somehow I thought I read more fantasy this year. It certainly seemed like SF got shafted in favor of swords and monarchs, but I appear to have deceived myself. Most of the “Other” were about baseball and soccer.

White Patriarchy breakdown (SFF Only):
Men: 29
Women: 8
Both: 6
Ouch. This is much worse than I thought. I was thinking it would be a much closer split, but I guess this is what happen when I don’t pay attention.

English: 43
Japanese: 0
Translations: 2
Probably the most disappointing number of all. In my defense, I didn’t finish one Japanese book that I started and am finally very close to finishing a second. Even translations suffered this year though, which is an all-time low for me.

ARCs: 9
New record! I’m not going looking for much, but haven’t said no when things come my way. These are fun, but I have to resist the urge to hunt down more things I don’t have time to read.

Total posts on Two Dudes in 2014: 58
I held steady with a just-over-one-per-week average. A couple of those are throwaways, but my writing kept pace in spite of reduced reading.

Category breakdown:
Reviews: 35
Commentary: 3
Interviews/Guest Posts: 5
Read Alongs: 4
Lists: 6
Misc.: 5
This was a banner year for guests on the blog. Through the kindness and planning of others, I was able to interview two people and host two guest posts. Exciting stuff.

Genre breakdown:
SF: 25
Fantasy: 10

White Patriarchy breakdown:
Men: 19
Women: 13
Both: 10
Japan: 4
This is calculated by the main topic of the post, i.e. author gender/ethnicity, essay subject, etc. Posts lacking an identifying characteristic (announcements, genre-wide topics, etc.) are excluded from the count. Better here than my reading, so that is heartening. Again, the overall lack of Japan or Asia-related posts is an all-time low for the blog and quite alarming. It’s definitely something to pick back up this year.

The challenge for 2015 is to adjust to my new schedule, figure out how best to keep my reading numbers up, and find a way to bump the Japanese numbers back to where they should be. I miss the reading time it provided, but I doubt I will ever go back to the long commute that powered the early days of Two Dudes.

The Voyage of the Space Beagle

The Voyage of the Space Beagle
A.E. Van Vogt

We’re digging into a big name for Post #2 in the 2015 Vintage Sci-Fi Read-a-thon. I had heard of Van Vogt but not read him, and this year’s round of reading old stuff seems like a good time to get to know the man. Van Vogt has a checkered reputation now in terms of writing quality, though he was once a major voice in the genre and almost single-handedly put Canadian SF on the map. Most reviews now tend to agree that he is scattered and bordering on incomprehensible at times, though they concede that he nails the sense of wonder bit more often than not. My experience with The Voyage of the Space Beagle fits those reactions fairly well. It is a strange mix of nuttiness and cracking storytelling that defies simple categorization.

The basics: Space Beagle is four interconnected novellas about the titular ship cruising through space and meeting scary aliens. It is exceedingly Golden Age-y: puzzles encountered and solved by competent, rational scientists with a dash or two of action thrown in for good measure. I wouldn’t call this Hard SF, since the science bits aren’t front and center, but it clearly slants towards the problem solvers rather than the swashbucklers. The writing quality is uneven and Van Vogt’s focus is disjointed. At its best though, Space Beagle is tense and engaging. The third story, “Black Destroyer,” apparently served as the model for Ridley Scott’s Alien, and is the clear highlight of the book. Readers in a hurry would do well to check that one out, but probably skim the second and fourth stories.

Beyond questions of good and bad, Space Beagle is interesting for some of the things it has to say about the genre and the community at the time. It is also an unintentionally hilarious reminder of some of the crackpot science we have left behind. (I say that knowing full well that, fifty years from now, people are going to read our books and shake their heads in disbelief at the idiotic crap we’re predicting.) Van Vogt is utterly a man of his time, so readers have to take everything with a few grains of salt. Maybe best to use seasoned salt for good measure, possibly a Cajun mix.

One of the first things I noticed is that not everyone is a white man! Everyone is a man, of course, because who would send a space ship out into the stars for a multi-year voyage with a bunch of women on board? Think of the chaos. However! The historian Dr. Korita is Japanese, very surprising considering these stories were written between 1939 and 1950. Or maybe not so surprising, since at the time, only Japan had risen to challenge the Western European hegemony and were widely considered “honorary white people.” Still, odd to assign the gentle historian to a people that was then busily engaged in blowing the crap out of us in the Pacific. (The others are not described as white, but have names like Grosvenor and Morton.)

Of most interest to me is the message Van Vogt is sending in the book. Each of the four stories is a first contact, and each contact is a deadly threat to the crew. There are a few fallen civilizations, but no friendly aliens, no galactic commonwealth, and no interstellar trade. There is only the vast, dark abyss and some profoundly dangerous critters. It seems more fearsome than I am used to in SF of the era. Plucky humans naturally triumph with teamwork and ingenuity, but but it’s scary out there and most of these aliens are much stronger, smarter, and deadlier than we are.

Much of my amusement at the book came from the parade of pseudoscience nonsense, though Van Vogt would have done better to leave it in the background and focus on the aliens. At one time or another we get psionics (of a sort), hypnotism, something called “cyclic history,” and “Nexialism,” which seems to be VanVogt’s pet project. A major subplot of the book involves Grosvenor (the Nexialist) battling it out with Kent (the hard-nosed, dictatorial chemist) for scientific supremacy. Grosvenor is clearly superior, because Nexialism’s combination of whacko psychology, subliminal learning techniques, and hypnotism has given him holistic knowledge of everything in a way that simple PhD holders will never grasp. Hearing this, it may surprise nobody that Van Vogt was involved in L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics for a time. If nothing else, Space Beagle is a part of the next stage of human progression trope that people seemed to like back in the day.

Anyway, a typical portion of Space Beagle follows a set pattern. Scientists encounter some fearsome looking, clearly dangerous creature. “Let’s take it aboard for study!” Oddly, few if any offer reservations about this. Said creature goes on a rampage in the ship while scientists grimace and mutter. Dr. Korita, after a grueling and intense period of study lasting about five minutes, pronounces which stage of Cyclic History the alien is in. (“Clearly, he is a peasant and only cares about reproduction and territorial expansion.”) This gives Grosvenor, the super genius Nexialist, the clues needed to defeat the creature. His ideas are inevitably one step further than people want to take, so he has to use extraordinary measures to get his point across. (“Let’s fire atomic death rays and hope everyone ducks in time.”) Scientific Man triumphs, rinse and repeat.

At times it was hard to take this seriously. At one point, Grosvenor actually said something to the effect of, “Yes, I can use my superior intellect and powers to take over the entire ship. Fortunately, I have a strict code of ethics which prevents me from hypnotizing the entire crew to do my will, unless I really think it’s necessary.” GREAT, THANK YOU FOR YOUR MORALS, SUPER SCIENCE DUDE. Also, it was not distracting at all that everyone referred to one cat-like creature as “Pussy” and went around shooting guns called “vibrators” and ummm, errr, say, it’s lovely weather we’re having this week, wouldn’t you agree?

The further I get into this review, the sillier things become. I should say that, at the time, I was reading quite credulously and enjoying myself. “Black Destroyer” in particular is a well-crafted bit of SF scariness. On reflection though, I’m starting to see the strings holding up the cardboard planets and plastic rockets, so to speak. Warts aside, Space Beagle is a worthy piece of SF history and fun on its own terms. Probably best not to think too deeply about it though.

Two Dudes Interviewed

Two Dudes Interviewed

The tables have turned! S.C. Flynn was kind enough to interview me about book blogging, SFF, the challenges of reviewing, and other fun stuff. Check out the post here for more stuff about me and the blog. He’s interviewing a bevy of other bloggers as well and making a handy resource for the SFF community, so poke around and see what else is on offer.

Thanks, S.C.! I’m looking forward to talking more in the future.

Med Ship

Med Ship
Murray Leinster

No matter Baen Books’ other faults, and there are a few, the company has been diligent about collecting and reissuing SF authors that may have otherwise fallen into obscurity. Eric Flint in particular has edited and published many past masters; one of the earliest and most accessible of these volumes is Murray Leinster’s Med Ship. This is a 600+ page compendium of four books first published in the early 1960s and contains, if not “novels,” than at least lengthy short fiction. An afterword identifies Leinster as a major voice in pre-Big Three SF (Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein) and the originator of many now-standard SF tropes, in this case the doctors and medical types of the stars. (What would SF be without “It’s worse than that, he’s dead Jim!”) This was my first foray into Leinster’s work.

This being my first entry for the 2015 Vintage SF party, I should lay out some expectations. I don’t believe we should excuse authors of the day for attitudes that offend now, but we should probably approach Golden Age stuff with a certain air of resignation. I wish it weren’t so, but most of these books are going to portray women, minorities, and other marginalized groups in unflattering ways, if they address them at all. It is also likely that the Competent Engineer archetype will loom large over all proceedings, probably spouting wooden dialogue and solving problems with obsolete scientific concepts. Some books may rise above this, but they are hard to come by. We can raise our fists in the air and shake them in self-righteous rage, or we can take shots every time something giggle-worthy or wildly inappropriate appears. There is no doubt an approach somewhere in the middle that manages to appreciate the old while somehow turning it to educational purposes for the new, though I’m going to concentrate on the drinking end for now. (That will be Dog’n’Suds Root Beer shots for me, thank you very much.)

Disclaimer officially disclaimed, I can say that Med Ship is deeply, gravely patriarchal. Our man Calhoun flits about the galaxy with his pet tormal Murgatroyd and solves all the problems of the little people. (A tormal is a semi-sentient animal that the Med Ships use for antibody creation. They are also coffee addicts and lovers of fine conversation. Said conversation usually involves only the word “Chee,” but they are very serious about it.) Leinster mercifully never assigns a skin color to anyone in the book, but if Med Ship were a movie, Calhoun would be Peter Cushing. He is everything we want our Competent Engineer to be, and I’m certain he has a British accent. He has very little good to say about plebians, the rich, women, young people, old people, or stupid people, but he is altruistic at heart and seeks to right wrongs. In fact, in at least half of the stories, I would have let the morons rot in their own self-made problems, but Calhoun pulls through, sometimes at great personal risk, and saves them. He has my admiration for that. He even, at the very end, bumps into a woman that he (and Leinster) grudgingly admires.

What about the rest of the book? Solid, Golden Age fun. Calhoun solves problems with his wits and with Science, a nice respite from the modern day kinetics that seem to be so popular. He never resorts to violence, being a doctor and all. On the other hand, the stories follow similar patterns that Hard SF readers will be overly familiar with. Problems lead to deep thinking, deep thinking provokes clever resourcefulness, intelligent men then calmly fix the universe and bemoan the silly irrationality that surrounds them. We’ve seen this before, but I guess those of us who don’t, as a matter of course, kick butt will never tire of seeing the smart people triumph over dumb jocks. As with many things, it’s all in the execution. A hot dog done right is still delicious and in this Leinster delivers. (The writing, not hot dogs.) The stories are have pace and momentum, things are complex enough that the solutions are not always clear from the start, and the ending is always gratifying. The outline is visible from start to finish, but Med Ship is still fun reading.

I should note that Murgatroyd steals every scene he is allowed free run in. I’m not a pet lover, but I would probably keep him and his little coffee mug around.

What about The Bigger Picture? Why should we read Med Ship? Well, it’s old, it’s creaky at times, and we’ve already seen this story before. Our standards are higher now and better books abound. Historically though, Leinster is important and his stories hacked out the paths that others trod after him. It is easy to forget that someone had to build this edifice we call science fiction, even if others have since redone the plumbing, changed the wallpaper, and added Energy Star appliances. Leinster was doing this stuff back in the beginning and we serious fans owe it to ourselves and the genre to be at least somewhat familiar. We can be clear about ways it doesn’t measure up now, but knowing where we came from is important.

Also, Leinster’s stuff is fun to read. It’s not Douglas Adams, but it’s amusing. The science is questionable now, but was sincere in its time. I don’t know that I’d recommend scarfing down all 600 pages at once (it took me a couple of years, on and off), much like I wouldn’t tell someone to crush an entire box of Wheat Thins in a single go. A few short stories at a time though, and one can have a good time, learn a bit about our SF heritage, and come to appreciate the joy of tormals.