Self-Reference Engine

Self-Reference Engine
Enjo To (EnJoe Toh)

By the author’s own admission, this one isn’t for everyone. Enjo To (I refuse to endorse improper romanization) is a theoretical physicist turned award-winning, but controversial, author. Self-Reference Engine is his debut novel, critically acclaimed and utterly impenetrable. It is also his first novel in English, though it was preceded by a short story in Haikasoru’s The Future is Japanese. (Also impenetrable.) Enjo fills it with brain melting science and convoluted storytelling, not so much daring readers to follow him as casually inviting them into his post-Einsteinian home. Some will go for this, others will just be confused. Enjo offers no apologies for the craziness. After all, he has said in interviews, if a story is about a fractured space-time, shouldn’t the story itself be fractured?

I’m guessing that most readers will have decided by now if they want to give Self-Reference a try, so rather than write a proper review, I’m going to try to create a framework to help someone who just picked it up the book to make sense of it. (With the caveat that plenty went over my head, and this probably requires two or three attempts before any sort of real clarity can be found.) I will eschew spoilers, but it’s kind of hard to spoil a non-linear narrative where characters share names but not identities, and things are happening in different parts of the multiverse.

First, Self-Reference is a post-Singularity novel. AI’s evocatively called “giant corpora of knowledge” have taken over the show and left humans, with their puny reasoning limits, far behind. (Apparently the Japanese term is an Enjo original, so translator Terry Gallagher was forced to come up with the phrase. I think he did well.) The book goes further though, post-post-Singularity if you will, because the corpora have inadvertently gone so far as to shatter the space-time continuum. This is known as “The Event,” and frames the novel. A more orthodox story would follow the post-Apocalyptic struggle of humanity, or perhaps chart the corpora battle to reunite the fragments of the multiverse. Enjo is anything but orthodox however, so we get flashes and vignettes, but nothing so mundane as a plot.

The twenty-two chapters sketch out The Event, life immediately after, corpora campaigns to fix things, and other seemingly random scenes. They are, indeed, self-referential, though not always obviously so. Names repeat, though the characters may or may not be iterations of themselves. Objects and ideas reappear, but one can’t say for certain that they are the same objects and ideas. The efforts of the greatest minds in existence chase their own tails through space-time, moving in, if I recall correctly, 87 dimensions. More surprises await in the second half as, I think, Enjo actually goes so far as to affirm humanity’s importance. Unless I totally misunderstood that part.

The reader should be prepared for brain damage at every turn. My favorite chapter involved the discovery of 22 unconscious Freuds in grandma’s house, one under each tatami mat in the living room. There is a cameo by Military SF. There is unrequited love. There is possibly requited love between a man (I think) and a transgendered sock. There is first contact, slapstick comedy (of a sort), and furniture invading from another universe. Does it all come together in the end? Um, maybe. Then again, I don’t think it’s really supposed to. Enjo wants to explore a fractured space-time, so that’s what we get. Clearly, this isn’t going to work for some people.

Some of my friends should definitely read this. Others should probably avoid it. I’m guessing everyone will know immediately which side of the fence they are on; I wouldn’t think to change any minds. I won’t have time in the near future to give Self-Reference the reread it deserves, but I’m glad I made it through once. The weirdness sits just fine for me.

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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.

Toshokan Senso (Library Wars)

Toshokan Senso (Library Wars)
Arikawa Hiro

Before all else, I should note that this is a DNF for me. (Did Not Finish) My wife, on the other hand, not only finished, but promptly put the sequel on hold at the library. For some, this is probably all you need to know. For the rest, I will explain. I will refrain from going into too much detail for two reasons. First, this is exactly the sort of book that Haikasoru would translate and publish, since it would no doubt subsidize a couple of more obscure productions. Second, I imagine that certain spin-offs are out in the wild with, at the very least, fan subs available. There may be commercial translations as well; I haven’t looked. Regardless, for those who are interested, I’m pretty sure there’s some English out there.

Some background: Arikawa Hiro is a primarily a writer of mysteries, light romance, and other books allegedly aimed for the female market, or so says the Japanese Wikipedia. As far as I can tell, Toshokan Senso is her first foray into science fiction, though it appears to have comprised a great deal of her recent output. The first volume of Toshokan Senso was published in early 2006; by 2008, the four-volume series won itself a Seiun Award. Manga adaptations followed, then an anime series and live action movie. For whatever reason, Arikawa managed to create a major franchise that attracts both SF types and the shojo manga demographic. (Shojo manga are the romance comics aimed at adolescent girls.) Whatever else I thought about the book, I have to give Japan credit for not pigeonholing its genre authors.

In Arikawa’s Japan, conservative government types have promulgated the Media Improvement Laws, granting broad and arbitrary censorship powers to the Media Improvement Committee. These laws passed with a minimum of public fuss, both because they were cloaked in the usual “protect the childrens” rhetoric and because the Japanese public rarely makes a fuss about anything. Sharp-eyed activists saw the way the wind was blowing and responded with a series of measures granting the library system extraordinary responsibilities to protect free speech. Within a few years, conflict between the two got out of hand and both sides militarized. The heroes of the series are members of library special forces teams, equally adept at blowing crap up and using the Dewey Decimal System.

This is more strangely plausible than one might think. In fact, Japan-based readers probably have little trouble imaging something this bizarre going down with the current Prime Minister running the show. (In fact, we should probably just silence the author now, before the ruling party gets any more good ideas.) Weird as it may seem, the plot setup had nothing to do with me putting the book down. To be honest, I am sorely tempted to put the anime on in the background, just to see what Arikawa does with it all.

So why did I stop? Three reasons. First, and smallest, is the writing quality. My Japanese isn’t good enough to notice the subtleties, but I can tell some differences in prose. Toshokan Senso was a weird mash up of high school girl and legalese, neither of which felt natural to me. (My wife had similar complaints.) I have little patience for teen speak in English, and even less in Japanese. Second, and considerably bigger, is the lengthy training sequence that starts the book. I don’t know how this happened, but kids going to school has quietly moved into #3 on my list of hated tropes. (Long time readers will know that time travel and psionics occupy the top spots.) For whatever reason, possibly related to grad school burnout, I really don’t want to read about adolescents going to school. This is rather irrational and eliminates various popular novels, but I make no apologies. 100 pages of education is about 80 too many.

Third, largest, and perhaps least forgivable in this enlightened age, Toshokan Senso failed to hold my interest because it is a romance. Rather than science fiction with romantic trappings, it’s an unabashed shojo manga that just happens to be vaguely science fictional. This is why my wife ate it up, despite some obvious flaws, and my interest died like a fly ball on the warning track of literature. She has little use for SF, and I couldn’t care less about love. Certain of my friends are fans of both and will probably love the series, but I just couldn’t hack it.

To be totally fair to the book, I probably would have finished it in English. I’m curious enough about big titles in Japan, and intrigued enough by the library army that part of me wants to power through the annoyances and finish the book. In Japanese though, it’s just a bit too much. My reading time has been cut in half since winter and I don’t have time for books that are merely intriguing, all the more so when they take three times as long as English novels. Still, I wanted to highlight this, both because of Arikawa’s popularity and because it’s something non-Japanese speakers can probably dabble in.

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!

Broken Blade

Broken Blade (Anime)

Today’s post digs back into that favorite of topics: Giant Fighting Robot Anime. (Properly called “mecha,” but I much prefer the other.) I finally, two or three years after starting, wrapped up the six-part series Broken Blade and can bring my impressions to all. I was hipped to this back in my movie business days; it was a big new release from Bandai and they were eager to get it into heavy promotional rotation. Curious what I was pimping to my unsuspecting customers, I started watching fan subs online. More recently, the library happened to have the now-available-in-stores DVD set, so I was able to see this through to an officially sanctioned end. As always, I watch my anime subtitled, because the English dubs just never work for me.

Broken Blade started life as a manga than ran for a couple of years before being optioned as a movie series. In Japan, both are known by the more grammatically tortured name Break Blade (ブレック・ブレード). The manga appears to have been translated part way into English, but the publisher went out of business before finishing the series. The movies are backed by slightly more capital, so there was no risk of getting stranded part way. Despite being short, 50 minutes each, all six Broken Blade episodes saw limited theatrical release in Japan, making these “movies” rather than “OVA” (original video animation, I think). I haven’t seen the manga in either language and have no idea if the story has since carried on.

The world shown in Broken Blade is a mix of fantasy and SF, with a sheen of originality painted over a solid collection of tropes. (We will see this technique again later with plot and characters.) Most people in the world of Broken Blade are born with the ability to telepathically manipulate quartz. Our hero, Rygart, was not, and thus is a loser. He has to use actual hand tools to accomplish things, which really sucks when everyone else around him is waving their arms and causing quartz to fling itself through the air. The highest form of quartz manipulation is, naturally, the act of piloting colossal robots in combat. Most of the fantasy stems from the still feudal economies powering the castle towns that everyone lives in and a basic inability of certain rulers to understand trade. The former leads to the requisite kings, warriors, and peasants. The latter drives the conflict, as the Athens Commonwealth invades the Kingdom of Krisna in a bid to get at Krisna’s bountiful quartz mines. (See? We can tell that they’re being subversive because Athens is the bad guy! Get it?) Apparently nobody told Athens that they could just offer to buy some quartz, or maybe swap grain or chickens or something. Much more cost effective over the long haul.

Science fiction makes an appearance when Krisnans discover the “Delphine,” an ancient relic of a battle mech. We all learn what it is when, as is tradition, Rygart falls into the cockpit at a battle’s most desperate hour and miraculously activates it. For whatever reason, nobody but “unsorcerors,” the Special Ed kids of Krisna, can pilot the Delphine. There is no explanation given of whatever fallen nation created the Delphine, but it fills in admirably as the obligatory lost, high tech civilization. This is about the extent of the world building; it’s a bit of a ramshackle collection of cliché and plot convenience, but more or less holds together. I have to keep myself from thinking too hard about the economics of it all and instead just be grateful that the writer at least made an effort. (I realize that it’s not entirely fair to bring my Hard SF-appreciating, Policital Science-oriented brain to bear on what is basically just entertainment for adolescents, but somebody has to do it. Cue the plaintive voice pleading, “Who will think of the electoral systems?”)

Broken Blade is really about the characters though. Rygart, of course, is the focus of things, with his quartz handicap and affinity for a butt kicking giant robot. We are also treated to numerous flashbacks of “high school,” (thanks Japan!) when Rygart attends military school with three people who just happen to become the king of Krisna (Hodr), the queen of Krisna and head giant battle robot engineer (Sigyn), and a military leader in Athens (Zess). Rygart and Sigyn have an unacknowledged, unrequited Thing, Sigyn and Hodr are married, and I have no idea why Zess is even a part of this. In fact, he fades into the background in the second half of the series. Maybe he isn’t important after all. There is also a standard assortment of archetypes: the loyal troops and cannon fodder, the brilliant but unstable ally (or is he??), the do whatever atrocity it takes to win bad guy, the wise mentor, and others. The wise mentor, Baldr, is really the only one who matters, because he looks like this. I would bear Baldr’s children if, you know, he wasn’t animated and if I was a woman. That’s a couple of big ifs.

The love triangle bit has some teeth, though fortunately restrains itself from dripping all over the place. (Perhaps learned a lesson from Macross?) Some of the relationships and conflicts show a surprising depth for this sort of thing. On the whole though, we end up with a lot of angsty teenagers piloting huge and impractical bringers of death. It’s rather like the cast of Dawson’s Creek running an epic Battletech campaign. (Whoops! Just dated myself with that sentence! On the other hand, the thought of James Vanderbeek behind the controls of a battle mech is pretty funny.) The leaders seem totally shocked when the introduction of veteran troops swings the course of the war widely in one or another direction, though in this case, “veterans” means adults more or less in control of their hormones and having a passing knowledge of battlefield tactics, I will give some credit though: the movies are at least sufficiently self-aware to mock Rygart once in awhile for his clueless attempts at fighting.

I’m not being entirely fair I think. The war scenes are visceral and violent; like much of the anime in the Gundam tradition, this is an unflinching look at war. There is very little glory here, just death and pain. Broken Blade is a fairly dark series, with little fun or sunshine to ease the tension. On the other hand, I would prefer to not yell at the screen, “CAN YOU PLEASE JUST STOP FEELING FOR A SECOND? I’M GETTING A HEADACHE FROM THE EMOTING!” If I were fourteen, maybe this would be about right. Hard to say. At least people die here, even if the deaths are telegraphed pretty clearly. No Storm Troopers and their legendary blaster accuracy in this movie.

Speaking of being fourteen, I’m still trying to puzzle out the messages about women here. There are almost as many women in the robots as men. In fact, some of the strongest warriors are women. And then there is Sigyn, who is clearly the smartest person in the room and the only reason Krisna isn’t completely flattened by the more powerful Athens. At the same time, the women in this world have strangely massive and buoyant chests. All of them. Do I really need to say that the fan service is exceedingly awkward? I should hope that’s a given by now. And finally, a little bit of my soul died when one character said to another, “Even if you have giant boobs, you’re still only twelve, so stop acting so old!” Japan, just between me and you, I’m not sure what you’re trying to accomplish, but this whole pederasty thing just makes you look creepy. Also, breathe through your nose sometimes, too.

So, yeah. Two steps forward, one step back, ladies.

How to sum up? The production values here are fantastic – clearly they had a budget to work with. The art and music are both top notch, to my uneducated eye. (I wouldn’t buy the soundtrack necessarily, but it was very functional and professionally done.) If someone were to ask me where to start with Giant Fighting Robots, I probably wouldn’t start them here. I suspect that Broken Blade is better appreciated by those who will spot the tropes and enjoy the tweaks. Still, it’s a decent enough story, with just enough in the tank to give the appearance of being smart. The emotions are a bit overwrought and it certainly has its flaws, but everything holds together. While I doubt it will be remembered decades later as a masterpiece, neither is it an unworthy addition to the mecha canon.

Kamigari

Kamigari
Yamada Masaki

I continue my slow march through Japan’s SF canon. The most recent conquest comes in at #6 on the list of all-time best Japanese SF: Kamigari (God Hunting) by Yamada Masaki. (This is from the the 2006 poll in S-F Magazine. Kamigari is not #6 every year in the poll, but is generally found in the top ten.) Kamigari is part of my small Japanese language collection; it has not been translated despite its renown inside the motherland. The book seems like a possible target for English language release though, particularly as Haikasoru already has three of the above list in their catalog, so I think it wise to keep this review away from serious spoiler territory. Any reader wanting to hear greater detail is welcome to bring things up in the comments, but in the main post I’m going to keep this in a more traditional critical style.

Let’s start with some thoughts about the Japanese language. First of all, because I read this untranslated, my usual caveats apply. I am a slow Japanese reader and lack the patience to plow through these on consecutive morning commutes, so each novel takes a couple of months to read. At most I generally get through 50-60 pages before jumping back to something in English. This naturally leads to a certain amount of discontinuity, name forgetting, plot detail ignoring, and other bad habits. It also means that the page turning momentum is considerably lower than in my easier reads. I don’t ding books for this in my final assessments. Additionally, because I am too lazy to look up every word I don’t know, I am occasionally more confused than is proper. I know what happened, but some of the finer points escape me. This is also computed in my final score, since it’s hardly the author’s fault if I didn’t get the full impact of a novel due to my own incompetence.

That said, I noticed early on that Yamada is much more of a stylist than some other authors I have read. I don’t claim enough expertise to judge the quality of writing, but where some books are dry reports, Kamigari is full of rich, descriptive prose. This is pleasant both because we all prefer interesting writing, but also because it challenges the language student. Yamada also digs into a varied set of disciplines for his infodumps, rather than the usual physics and astronomy. Things start with Wittgenstein, wander in and out of linguistics, take a side trip through religion, dip a toe into metaphysics, and end up grounded in a combination of NASA and psychics. This is challenging in a whole different way than naval battles or spaceships.

Getting back to the mundane, Kamigari was originally published in 1974, with large parts of it appearing in S-F Magazine. The book was was expanded and released in 1975, when it promptly won a Seiun Award (Japan’s version of the Hugo). It was Yamada’s debut novel; he has gone on to long and productive career. The influence of the New Wave is everywhere, and a Phillip K. Dick-ian atmosphere hovers over the entire affair. It also appears to take place in the late 1960s, a fertile backdrop for Japanese fiction, with its student protests and tense relations with US military bases. I have no idea who Yamada’s literary heroes are or what he was reading at the time, but this is not some sort of Golden Age retread. In fact, it is often only tangentially science fictional, something we will look into further.

Our window into the god hunting world is one Shimazu Keisuke, a linguist extraordinaire and generally unpleasant person. He is examining “Ancient Writings,” always written in quotes just like that. (It isn’t capitalized, because there are no capital letters in Japanese, but it probably would be in English.) He has been invited to look them over because of his linguistic expertise, since nobody has any clue where they come from or what they say. Within a couple of pages, there is a terrible accident, his guide is killed, and some strange luminous man-figure is talking to Shimazu. This is pretty weird.

Before we know it, Shimazu is swept up in a worldwide conspiracy-type plot, working in a secret room with a joint US-Japan team to decipher the ancient writings. Kamigari takes a turn into spy fiction in this section, with agents, intimations of past Nazi plots, interrogations where people demand to know “what Odessa is after,” whatever that means, and other shenanigans that our university-bred Shimazu is wholly unprepared for. Apparently these ancient writings have some sort of power about them, though nobody knows quite what. Shimazu tries bravely to translate, but mostly just figures out how many participles the language has.

It isn’t until the second part that we start to get a hint of what is really going on. Shimazu falls in with a motley group led by an old man named Yoshimura. The middle section of the book is spent in their company, arguing theology and actually hunting gods. Yoshimura explains that the ancient writings are a product of a “god” who has tormented humanity for his (its?) own amusement over thousands of years. They are on the god’s trail, pledging to hunt him (it?) down and do away with him (it?). I was never totally clear on how they planned to do this, but it had something to do with tracking the god’s minions with the aid of psychic powers. I thought it sounded pretty dodgy, but Shimazu goes all in.

This is roughly the lay of the land. Saying much more would spoil things, but even this brief summary may explain why the genre assignment is so tricky. Is this supernatural horror? A sort of urban fantasy? Paranoid magical realism? Some explanations in the last quarter of the book start to push this more towards traditional SF, but it remains hard to classify. Certainly the psychic stuff and the contemporary setting would be out of place in an issue of Analog. In the end though, the book claims to be SF, SF fans embrace it as their own, and I am loathe to call it anything else. It feels to me like a Japanese version of a Dick novel, as mentioned at the top, with the sinister conspiracies moving the background and a mostly naïve protagonist. I don’t know that there was any room for gods in Dick’s cosmology, but the powerlessness and pervasive unease are right out of his playbook.

I don’t really know how to sum it all up. My wife is reading the book right now, so there may be a follow up post wherein we discuss how a Japanese reader interprets it. Kamigari was a unique reading experience and something I would very much like to share with US SF fans. Shimazu is never likable and I don’t really understand the nuts and bolts of gods and hunting, but something about the book is hypnotic and addictive. I would recommend it without reservation, except that the majority of my readers will probably have to wait for a translation. For now, I’ll just have to be happy with saying, “Kamigari exists and this is what it’s about. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.”

Mobile Suit Gundam (Novel)

Mobile Suit Gundam (Novels)
Tomino Yoshiyuki

Some time ago, I watched and reviewed the anime series Mobile Suit Gundam in my quest to experience the foundations of Japanese science fiction. I enjoyed it well enough, but expected future installments to wow me more. At the time, I was unaware that a novelization of the first series had made its way into English, though I knew that many books and manga existed in Japan. Lo and behold, Del Rey released a translation of the three original novels in 1990; they quickly went out of print. (I have no idea why Del Rey thought this was a good idea, what with anime’s utter lack of mainstream popularity at the time and the financial difficulty of licensing the Gundam franchise.) Stone Bridge Press released an updated translation in 2004 as a single volume and the series has stayed in print this time around.

Some background for the anime impaired: Gundam is the premiere franchise in the Giant Fighting Robot genre. The first series aired in 1979 (followed shortly by the novelization reviewed here) and the expanded Gundam universe rivals Star Wars or Star Trek, both in size and influence. Tomino Yoshiyuki, Gundam’s creator, began the series in a bid to escape some of the sillier conventions of giant robot anime. These include, but are not limited to, simplistic tales of good and evil, random kids falling into robot cockpits and just happening to be genius pilots, and wholly implausible robots doing stuff that would make an engineer’s head explode. Gundam cannot completely escape the gravity well of cliché, but it does make an honest attempt.

I wonder if this was part of the motivation to write the novels. The anime, while unquestionably dark and mature for its target demographic, makes certain concessions. The book makes none, beyond the inclusion of wholly implausible robotic creations. (I’m sorry, but no amount of detail and planning will ever make 600m tall humanoid fighting machines anything but fantasy.) The world building and setup are identical, but by the second quarter of the books, the plot has diverged completely from the anime. Among the non-spoilery changes: Amuro Rei is a pilot in the Federation, not some whiny punk who stumbles into a conveniently open Gundam, Brite is squawky and insecure, and the civilian refugees are not idiotically forced to remain on a warship heading into combat. (No more scenes of children yelling, “WoooooOOOOOOOaaaaaah,” while the ship makes high-g combat maneuvers that should be turning them into smears of tomato paste on the walls.) The changes are almost universally for the better. Also, the book focuses much more on New Types, with the robots fading more into the background. I found this interesting, as it changes the focus and meaning of the story.

Some things are not awesome, both thematic and technical. Tomino clearly has issues with women. I forgive (barely) the cringe-inducing “relationships,” because I have seen real life Japanese courtship in action. It is not pretty. This doesn’t mean I want to read about 20 year olds acting like it’s 7th grade all over again, but I can at least see where they’re coming from. However, there is an undercurrent of, if not misogyny, at least an obvious discomfort with The Ladies. I think I’ll leave the heavy analysis to someone else, but it was something that occasionally rankled. He was trying, I think, but it’s awfully hard to not be a jerk sometimes. Beyond this, I can tell that Tomino is not primarily an author. Things can be a bit choppy, with sudden info dumping interrupting the flow of action, or random side trips into philosophy. He is a natural storyteller though, and this generally covers a multitude of technical faults.

We’ll wrap up this review with some reasons why people should read Mobile Suit Gundam. (Fans are going to read the book anyway, so the challenge here is to pitch it to readers more likely to be skeptical of Giant Fighting Robots.) The most obvious reason is to experience a canonical piece of Japanese science fiction. There is a lot of SF out there that we never see in English, so when something major like Gundam is translated, serious readers owe it to themselves to take a look. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, attacking Japanese SF without acknowledging Gundam is like looking at American SF without Star Wars. It’s not the most literary, award-winning stuff out there, but you can’t toss rice ball in Tokyo without hitting a Gundam fan. It’s a bit of fiction that has transcended the genre and become part of the cultural background noise of one of the biggest entertainment exporters in the world.

I also recommend Mobile Suit Gundam because it holds up well as SF. (I make no promises for other novels or manga in the universe.) The future history is convincing and compelling. Tomino keeps everything in Earth orbit, with much of humanity now living in “Sides,” or artificial habitats located at various Lagrange points. The war between Zeon, a Third Reich re-imagining based on one of the Sides, and the Earthbound Federation is plausible, with enough internal politics to feed the ever-shifting morality of the sequels. The characters are interesting, if a bit broad, and with enough possibilities that Tomino can use them as archetypes in future stories. Much of the story is wrapped up in the ethical quandary of war: what are we to do when the default human response is violence, despite our collective desire to rise such base instincts? The Japanese are hardly unique in examining this question, but their warlike past and nominally pacifist present give them an oblique take on the subject not often seen in Western fiction.

There is also a moment, more in the anime than the books, that seems a dead ringer for a scene in The Legion of Space, when a Nazi-esque speech and crowd response on Zeon mirrors almost exactly a similar moment in the Purple Hall. I wonder if Tomino read Jack Williamson and other pulp writers in translation, or if this is pure coincidence.

There are plenty of holes to poke in Mobile Suit Gundam, as one would expect for a novelization like this. It’s not perfect, and not even canonical in some crucial points, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. In fact, I enjoyed it more than the original anime, though I have been advised that later series are much better. It inspired me to pick up my occasional viewing of Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam and perhaps read further into the novels. I think it’s definitely worth checking out for those not already initiated into the joys of the Giant Fighting Robot.