Sword Art Online: Aincrad

Sword Art Online: Aincrad

Title: Sword Art Online: Aincrad
Japanese Title: ソードアート・オンライン: アインクラッド
(Sōdo Āto Onrain: Ainkuraddo)
Author: Kawahara Reki (川原 礫)
Translator: Stephen Paul
Illustrations: abec
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 2009 (Japan)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 248

Before I begin this review, I feel I should admit that I only made it through five episodes of the Sword Art Online animated series. The show involves an inordinate amount of yelling and boob grabbing, and watching it gave me a headache. Despite the fact that I am quickly becoming an old woman who has lost her patience with screaming teenagers and fan service, the show was fairly popular in both Japan, where more than 35,000 DVDs have been sold (in a market in which few titles break the ten thousand mark), and in America, where it was hailed as one of the smartest shows to come out in 2012. The Sword Art Online anime is based on a light novel series, which achieved bestseller status in the year the anime was televised. Sword Art Online: Aincrad is a translation of the first novel in the series, which is currently on its fourteenth volume.

Sword Art Online: Aincrad takes place in the fantasy world of Aincrad, an enormous castle with one hundred floors that serves as the setting of an immersive virtual reality MMORPG game called Sword Art Online (SAO). Released in 2022, SAO is the first game of its kind in that players are able to fully enter the virtual world through special hardware called NerveGear, which intercepts all brain activity and leaves the player’s physical body in a dormant state. As might be imagined, the game completely sells out on the day of its release.

As the new players orient themselves on the first floor of Aincrad, however, they receive a nasty surprise. Kayaba Akihiko, the game’s executive producer and head programmer, appears in the sky above the Town of Beginnings and announces that players will not be able to log out of the game until the final boss monster on the top floor of Aincrad is defeated. If someone from outside the game attempts to remove or unplug a player’s NerveGear helmet, the player will die. Even more troubling, if a player dies in the game, his NerveGear will send an electric shock to his brain that will result in death. It is thus in the best interests of the roughly ten thousand players trapped within Aincrad to master SAO and beat the game as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to progress through the game, especially since its high stakes discourage risk taking, and the players have already been in Aincrad for two years when the main story begins.

The novel is narrated from the perspective of a teenager named Kirigaya Kazuto, who goes by the name Kirito in SAO. Kirito was one of the game’s one thousand beta players and, although he was only fourteen years old when he first entered Aincrad, he is already a veteran gamer. He is thus quite adept at the game mechanics and has managed to develop an ability called “Extra Skill Dual Blades,” which is unique to him as a player. Although Kirito wants to be able to return to the real world, he declines to work with the player guilds that have sprung up as collaborative efforts to progress through the game, instead fighting and gaining experience on his own. He gradually warms to a slightly older teenager named Yūki Asuna, who serves as a sub-leader of the Knights of the Blood guild and is popularly known as “Asuna the Flash” because of her high speed statistic. The trust and friendship between Kirito and Asuna gradually deepens over the first half of the novel, which is ultimately less sci-fi suspense or action adventure than it is a fantasy-themed love story.

Although there is plenty of action in Sword Art Online: Aincrad, world building is neglected in favor of establishing a romantic relationship between Kirito and Asuna. The reader is told that Algade, the city on the 50th floor of Aincrad, is reminiscent of Akihabara, and that Collinia, the city on the 75th floor, looks like ancient Roman city, but that’s about all there is in the way of description. What, specifically, does it mean that these cities “look like” other places – what are their styles of architecture, how are their streets laid out, do they any public monuments? How big are these cities? How big is each floor of the castle beyond the cities? What sort of trees and other plants grow on each floor? Are there pets or other domesticated animals? What sort of monsters do the players fight? What do the dungeons look like? We know the players can eat in the game, but what do they eat? We know there are healing potions, but what do they taste like? When magical crystals are used as items, what does it feel like? Can the players smell things? Can they feel temperature and humidity? Are certain textures pixelated or repetitive, and if so do the players notice? The reader is provided with few details that might serve to make the world of the novel more (or less) real.

Some visual detail is provided by eight color illustrations at the beginning of the book and ten black-and-white illustrations interspersed unevenly throughout the chapters, but these illustrations have a strong emphasis on character design. The illustrator abec, whose special skill seems to be depicting the springy softness of braless breasts through school uniforms (the link to his blog is not work safe, by the way), seems to be especially enamored of Asuna, who gets a full two illustrations in nothing but her underwear, one of which is overlaid with text in which she asks Kirito/the reader not to look at her. Even without such illustrations, the novel feels more than a bit like an extended romantic fantasy for straight adolescent males. It goes out of its way to objectify Asuna, devoting an undue amount of text on when and how many times and under what circumstances its male protagonist is able to hook up with her. Although Asuna is supposed to be an exceptionally skilled player, her strength and abilities are only shown in relation to male characters, such as when she fights beside or cooks for Kirito. As Asuna is the only female character in the novel, Sword Art Online: Aincrad doesn’t even make it past the first portion of the Bechdel test (there are other female players in the game, but Kirito is not interested in them, stating simply that they’re unattractive and thus unworthy of attention).

Aside from its casual sexism, the narrative emphasis on Kirito’s pursuit of Asuna results in missed opportunities with other male characters as well. For example, the least utilized but perhaps most interesting character in the novel is Heathcliff, the leader of the Knights of the Blood. Why is this older man playing the game (which is something I wanted to know more about even after learning his real-life identity), and why does he act as he does? Where does his strength of character come from, and how does he honestly feel about the deaths of the players under his command? What are his motivations, and what is he escaping from in the world outside the game? Who is caring for his physical body? Unfortunately, all such questions are ignored in favor of Heathcliff acting as a vaguely defined father figure who prevents Kirito’s immediate access to Asuna.

Another potentially interesting male character is Kuradeel, a member of the Knights of the Blood who is eventually revealed to be a former member of a guild called Laughing Coffin, whose members specialize in killing other players. I am always interested in PvP (player versus player) mechanics in MMORPGs, and I’m doubly interested in what rationale might lie behind PvP conflicts in a game that can easily result in real-world death. About two-thirds of the way through the book Kuradeel snaps and allows the reader a fleeting glimpse into the depths exposed by his ebbing sanity, which would be an excellent chance to explore the negative psychological effects that would doubtlessly be engendered by the situation in which the players find themselves. But alas, Kuradeel’s role in the story is merely to act as a barrier to Asuna, and the section in which he traps Kirito and then delivers his limited exposition is only fourteen pages long. The male characters who don’t come between Kirito and Asuna, such as Kirito’s friend Klein and the shopkeeper Agil, have few speaking parts and no backstory at all.

My favorite part of Sword Art Online: Aincrad is a quiet twenty-page segment towards the end of the book that serves as a bridge into the power metal chorus of the finale. After Kirito and Asuna finally get together, they run away from the whole business of dungeons and guild politics to go on a honeymoon of sorts to the 22nd floor of Aincrad, a sparsely populated wilderness distinguished by its lakes. Between bouts of dialog that feels lifted from shōjo manga targeted at the elementary school crowd, the lovers encounter a middle-aged man named Nishida, a technician employed by Tohto Broadband, the network management company responsible for the internet access lines leading to SAO’s servers. While testing the game’s connections on its launch day, Nishida was trapped along with the players, and now he spends his time fishing. By chatting with Nishida, Kirito and Asuna are able to reflect on what their time in SAO has meant to them and why exactly they still want to leave. These conversations are also the only point in the novel at which the reader is able to pick up hints concerning what the lives of players not directly involved in Kirito’s personal drama might be like. This is as close as Sword Art Online: Aincrad gets to addressing what could have been its most interesting theme, namely, whether there is any quantifiable difference between lived experience in the real world and lived experience in a virtual world. As a sixteen-year-old boy and reader stand-in character, however, Kirito is not the least bit concerned with such matters, and the novel quickly makes an awkward leap back into fighting and yelling territory.

Although I can’t make any judgments about the anime, I can say with relative certainty that the first volume of the Sword Art Online novel series is little more than an extended romantic fantasy for straight adolescent males. In other words, if you’re a straight adolescent male and you want the girl of your dreams to fall in madly love with you because of how awesome you are at level grinding, then this book was written for you. Enjoy yourself!

If you are not in the target demographic for the series, however, you might want to give the novel a pass. Although I am given to understand that more female characters are introduced as the series progresses, there is also a fair amount of damseling. In the second volume, for example, Asuna is apparently stripped of her powers, kidnapped by a male villain, and threatened with sexualized violence in order to provide Kirito with renewed narrative impetus. That sort of ridiculous bullshit aside, however, Sword Art Online: Aincrad is a fairly entertaining read that draws the reader in with a well-blended mixture of sci-fi and fantasy elements and a compelling series of crises. Chapters are short, about ten pages on average, and the translation is smooth and meets the high standard of quality one would expect from the team at Yen Press. Whether the admittedly enjoyable “lightness” of this light novel can counterbalance the nagging sexism is up to the individual reader, however.

A good distaff counterpart to the “virtual world romance” scenario presented in Sword Art Online: Aincrad is Vivian Vande Velde’s 2002 Heir Apparent. In this short young adult novel, a teenage girl finds herself trapped in a virtual reality game with strong RPG elements, which she must escape through her own cunning and the help of the handsome teenage game developer. Since the game resets every time its player-character dies, the reader is also able to enjoy a type of The Edge of Tomorrow scenario, only with fewer explosions and sexy pushups and more political maneuvering and backstabbing. Deadly Pink, Velde’s 2012 follow-up to Heir Apparent, focuses on the love between sisters instead of romance and manages to be smart and funny while treading carefully around some surprisingly dark themes. While much of the intended appeal of Sword Art Online: Aincrad may not be of interest outside of the novel’s target demographic, I can wholeheartedly recommend Heir Apparent and Deadly Pink to any reader interested in young adult fiction and themes relating to the pleasures and perils of virtual worlds.

Ring

Ring

Title: Ring
Japanese Title: リング (Ringu)
Author: Suzuki Kōji (鈴木 光司)
Translators: Robert B. Rohmer and Glynne Walley
Publication Year: 2004 (America); 1991 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 282

In Nakata Hideo’s 1998 film adaptation of Ring, the point-of-view character for most of the story is female. This is an effective casting choice, as cinematic audiences are primed to experience danger and vulnerability through female protagonists in horror films. Suzuki Kōji’s original novel is less about thrills and chills than it is about hardcore investigative journalism, however, and its hero, Asakawa Kazuyuki, is male. The female lead in the Ring film’s husband, Takayama Ryūji, is Asakawa’s friend in the novel, which sees the two men travel across Japan in an attempt to save Asakawa’s wife and child from a deadly curse apparently connected to a mysterious bootleg videotape.

In the opening pages of the book, two creepy things happen: a teenage girl dies suddenly in her family’s apartment in Yokohama, and a boy on a motorcycle falls down dead on the road in front of a taxi. A month later, the taxi driver reports the latter incident to a random passenger, who happens to be the journalist Asakawa, whose niece happens to be the teenage girl involved in the former incident. Asakawa, upon realizing that these deaths, as well as two others, all happened at the exact same time on the exact same day, tracks down the connection between the teenagers to a cabin in the woods near the seaside resort of Atami, which is a two-hour train ride southwest of Tokyo. It is there that he encounters an unmarked videotape upon which a surreal series of images has been recorded. White letters at the end of the sequence warn that the viewer will die in a week unless a certain “charm” is performed, but the four dead teenagers recorded over the actions needed to perform this charm as a prank.

In order to figure out the charm before his time is up, Asakawa enlists his college professor friend Ryūji to help him figure out as much information concerning the origins of the tape as possible. What follows is a surprisingly unsuspenseful series of adventures in which the two men eat things, drink things, and leisurely chat with all manner of people as they gradually puzzle out the life story of Yamamura Sadako, the beautiful young woman whom they believe to be responsible for the cursed videotape. Although Ring is structured around a quest for Sadako, the novel, unlike the film adaptation, is a man’s world. The primary female characters are offstage and only glimpsed through the recollections of various male characters, who are far more interested in localized histories of science and medicine than they are in the supernatural.

The reviews excerpted on the back of the novel promise that it is “very frightening” and “an engine of disquiet” and “shocking” and “so creepy your hair will literally stand on end;” but, to be honest, I don’t think the book is that scary, and the fright factor is only a marginal portion of what it has to offer a reader. Instead, Ring unfolds as a mystery in which clues must be painstakingly tracked down one at a time as the principal players struggle to draw connections between them. It’s the search for these bits of information, as well as the thrill of hard-won eureka moments, that will keep the reader entertained, and the paranormal elements are for the most part examined in a rational and pseudo-scientific manner. The true horror of Ring does not lie in its ghosts or shocking imagery, but rather in the absolute inability of human beings to comprehend the vast and menacing world that lies outside the realm of our control.

Ring is set in the same decade in which it was written, and the condominium high-rises, mass media publications, and corporate culture of the late 1980s saturate the background of the novel. The primitive fear of disease still haunts the advanced society that provides the backdrop of Ring, however; and, although the science and technology of the age strive to contain natural forces, some things cannot be controlled. The author is able to accentuate this anxiety by continually linking the actions of Sadako’s curse with images of the natural world at its most hostile and overwhelming. For example, one of the greatest of natural forces, the sea, is a constant presence in Ring, and it only appears under the cover of darkness and in contrast to human constructions, a juxtaposition which creates an impression of a dark, brooding malice lurking beyond the boundaries of civilization. The novel opens with an image of the highly developed industrial area which lines the bay fronting the city of Yokohama:

Off to the south the oily surface of the ocean reflected the glittering lights of a factory. A maze of pipes and conduits crawled along the factory walls like blood vessels on muscle tissue. Countless lights played over the front wall of the factory like insects that glow in the dark… The factory cast a wordless shadow on the black sea beyond.

Suzuki equates the factory with humanity as he compares its bulk to a human body, endowing it with “blood vessels” and “muscle tissue.” The multitudinous lights of Yokohama at night also metaphorically dot the surface of the factory, but none of this light has any effect on the “black sea beyond.” Instead, the factory as a symbol of humanity and its ingenuity merely “cast[s] a wordless shadow” over the silent ocean, which almost seems to mock its presence.

Even with our incredible advances in technology, contemporary societies still have trouble coping with the facets of existence that lie beyond the explanations offered by science and ordinary experience. We are all insignificant and ephemeral points of light flickering on and off somewhere in a dark, callous, and unfathomably large universe. While the film and graphic novel adaptations of Ring delight in the uncanny horror of the female demonic, the horror of the original novel is more Lovecraftian. The protagonists of Ring are ultimately punished by the narrative not because they don’t strive tirelessly for information, but rather because they believe the achievement of knowledge has the capacity to help them in any way.

A reader should not come to Ring expecting the same sort of jump-horror at which its cinematic adaptations excel; there are no creepy little girls stuffed in closets or climbing out of television sets. Suzuki’s novel instead rewards intellectual engagement and curiosity, which it subtly mocks and discredits in the most terrifying of ways.

The Lord of the Sands of Time

Title: The Lord of the Sands of Time
Japanese Title: 時砂の王 (Tokisuna no Ō)
Author: Ogawa Issui (小川一水)
Translator: Jim Hubbert
Publication Year: 2009 (United States); 2007 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 196

Sometimes you get to the end of a book and wonder what just happened.

The Lord of the Sands of Time was like that for me.

Allow me to spoil the ending:

The weakness of the aliens attacking the earth is salt water.

There is also time travel involved. Androids with highly advanced artificial intelligence are sent back in time to fight seemingly mindless mechanical extraterrestrials who for some reason are bent on wiping out the human race, and it takes the best among the androids several sweeps of human history to figure out that sea water kills the aliens.

I’ll be the first to admit that premise of the novel is kind of silly, but it’s still an engrossing tale of adventure across alternate histories.

The Lord of the Sands of Time is about Orville, an android who was created on Triton, one of the last outposts of human civilization in the year 2598. Orville is one of many Messengers, who were engineered with the purpose of going back in time and saving the humanity from destruction at the metallic tentacles of an alien force from beyond the solar system, which is collectively referred to as ET.

The novel begins in Japan in the year 248, a destination at which Orville has arrived after many timestreams of trial and error. With the cooperation of Himiko, the ruler of the Kingdom of Wa, Orville tries once again to rally the human race against the ET, but the situation is dire. The ET have already overwhelmed the Asian mainland, and many of Orville’s Messenger comrades have fallen over the course of their long journey. Even worse, the ET are also capable of time travel; and, unlike the Messengers, they have the capacity to attack from space.

Every alternate chapter tells a segment of Orville’s backstory. The Messengers first came to Earth in the twenty-second century, but humanity was too busy bickering with itself to launch an effective resistance against the ET. After failing to rescue humanity in that timestream, the Messengers try again, transporting themselves to the eve of the second World War. Once again, however, humanity is too busy bickering with itself to fight the ET. The Messengers thus try again, and again, and again, their numbers decreasing as the ET use their own version of time travel to thwart them.

Although it first appears that the humans of Himiko’s timestream will also fall victim to internecine warfare and thus prove incapable of marshaling a united front against the ET, Himiko is strong willed and politically savvy enough to keep the peoples of the Japanese archipelago from killing themselves long enough to realize the full extent of the threat the ET pose. Even though Orville lends Himiko his superhuman strength and knowledge of technological advances, the outcome of this timestream seems bleak as well, and the fight will be a close one.

For the first half of the novel, tension builds steadily as Himiko deals with political machinations and Orville comes into his own as a character. The descriptions of Japan in the late Yayoi period are just as fascinating as the descriptions of the doomed yet utopian society on Triton, and Himiko’s growth as a ruler is just as compelling as Orville’s blooming love affair with Sayaka, a human woman in the Triton Defense Force, as he learns about what he is trying to protect.

Unfortunately, things begin to fall apart in the last quarter of the novel. As the narrative rushes toward its conclusion, world building and character development are neglected in favor of battle scenes. In the midst of this fighting, Orville trips and falls into bed with Himiko. This is not quite as epic as it could be. In two short paragraphs, Orville tells Himiko about Sayaka, Himiko calls Orville by his first name, Orville cries, and Himiko hugs him. There’s a page break, and then the narrative is back to talk of fighting and armies.

“From that night on, Miyo [Himiko’s personal name] and Orville shared the same bed” is about the extent of the romance between them, but Himiko undergoes a startling personality shift after she begins sleeping with Orville. She becomes a background character in her own story and spends most of her time panicked and helpless. The following “newsflash,” which has been making the rounds on Tumblr recently, states:

If a strong, independent female character falls in love, it does not automatically mean that she has lost her values or that she’s become less strong and independent, and does not necessarily change her story into an anti-feminist one. The idea that all women should fall in love and get married IS sexist, but a woman actually falling in love and getting married of her own free will is NOT sexist. Thank you and good day.

Sometimes, however, a female protagonist will fall love with a male protagonist and suddenly cease to be a protagonist at all, and that’s what happens in The Lord of the Sands of Time. Himiko is barely even fully conscious throughout the final quarter of the novel, and Orville is too busy kicking ass and taking names off camera to have any real input in the story. With the two main characters out of the picture, the novel gears up for its big reveals – what the motive of the ET is, how time travel works and doesn’t work, how the ET will be defeated – but these big reveals are rushed don’t really make any sense. The weakness of the aliens is water, the power of love plays a role in this discovery, and the aliens don’t have any real motive for attacking the earth. The time travel mechanics are especially disappointing. To be fair, time travel never makes sense, but it’s as if the author got around all the problems implicit in time travel by simply pretending that they don’t exist.

The last sixty pages of The Lord of the Sands of Time thus pass by in a flurry of tropes and battle scenes that might have worked better if they were filmed instead of written. In the novel’s defense, though, the buildup to these last sixty pages is strong enough to carry the reader all the way to the end. Sure, the love story between Orville and Himiko/Miyo never goes anywhere, and sure, this flaccid non-relationship diverts the narrative focus away from the relationships between Orville and the other Messengers (which are infinitely more interesting), but the reader is still curious to see how it all ends (and don’t worry, I didn’t spoil everything).

The Lord of the Sands of Time is not high art or epic romance, but it’s a fun novel, especially if you have a soft spot for science fiction. Jim Hubbert’s translation doesn’t call attention to itself and allows Ogawa’s prose to flow quickly and seamlessly. (In fact, I’m so impressed by the eighties American sci-fi feel of Hubbert’s translation that I’ve already ordered a copy of his other translation for Haikasoru, Hayashi Jyōji’s The Ouroboros Wave.) As much as I make fun of science fiction tropes, I can’t get enough of them, and The Lord of the Sands of Time fully satisfied my holiday craving for a sci-fi novel of manageable length to chill out with over a relaxed weekend.

Speculative Japan 3

Title: Speculative Japan 3: “Silver Bullet” and Other Tales of Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy
Editor: Edward Lipsett
Publication Year: 2012
Publisher: Kurodahan Press
Pages: 270

In my review of Speculative Japan 2, I said that I loved the anthology and couldn’t wait until the next installment was released. Speculative Japan 3 is finally here, and it’s everything I hoped it would be: a diverse collection of intelligent and beautifully translated short stories.

Speculative Japan 3 opens with several shorter pieces. These shorter pieces, which range in length from five to twenty pages, run the gamut from hard science fiction to magical realism to fantasy with a sci-fi twist to elegiac horror. Fujita Masaji’s “Angel French” is about the romance between two deep space robotic probes who began life as two college students hanging out in Mister Donut. “To the Blue Star,” written by Ogawa Issui (whose novels The Lord of the Sands of Time and The Next Continent are published in translation by Haikasoru), is another story about a self-aware technological entity. This entity, whose name is X, is a collective intelligence made up of a fleet of robotic star cruisers that represent the last remnants of human civilization. X tells its own story as it travels through the universe, watches civilizations rise and fall, fuses with other advanced life forms, and finally meets God. Matsuzaki Yuri’s “The Finish Line” is a thought experiment in the form of a short story and features a quiet but chilling scenario of the end of all life on earth. Kamon Nanami’s “A Piece of Butterfly’s Wing,” which is probably my favorite story in the collection, is a beautifully creepy ghost story in the literary tradition of writers like Kurahashi Yumiko and Kanai Mieko. Like the work of these masters of the poetics of horror, Kamon’s story is filled with beautiful, atmospheric imagery and resonant symbolism. It also features a delightfully disturbing twist at the end.

The longer stories of Speculative Japan 3 shine just as brightly as the shorter pieces. Even though none of these stories are more than thirty-five pages in length, they’re long enough to allow nuanced character development as they explore their premises in greater depth. Suga Hiroe’s “Five Sisters” is about a woman named Sonogawa Hanako who meets four clones of herself that have all been raised in different households. Each of these women has a different personality, and it’s fascinating to see how each has lived her life with the knowledge that she is a clone created to be harvested for organs. Ueda Sayuki’s “Fin and Claw” is a window into a future where humans have been genetically modified to be more adaptable to an environment covered in seawater. “Fin and Claw” is sort of like Jurassic Park with enormous sea creatures, and the moral of the story is the same. The last three pages of Ueda’s nightmarish vision are particularly terrifying in their visual imagery.

The title story, Yamada Masaki’s “Silver Bullet,” is a Japanese Cthulhu mythos story (more of which are collected in Kurodahan’s Night Voices, Night Journeys). In my experience, there are two main types of Cthulhu mythos stories: pseudo-Victorian and classy, and unabashedly pulpy. “Silver Bullet” belongs to the latter category. Its protagonist is sufficiently hard boiled, and the story contains more cheap sexuality than you can shake a flagella at. Still, all of the story’s thematic elements mesh together nicely, the ending is well earned, and the method used to summon Cthulhu is awesome (as is the instrument used to stop the summoner).

If there’s one story in the collection that feels out of place, it’s “Green Tea Ice Cream,” which is written by Mark Schultz. Perhaps it feels out of place because it’s merely good instead of excellent, but perhaps this is also because it bears the traces of awkwardness that often afflict stories written about Japan in English (a few of which have been recently collected in The Future Is Japanese). It’s difficult to pinpoint what the exact causes or sources of this awkwardness are, but it probably has to do with the writer feeling the need to explain certain “Japanese” things to the reader, as well as with the unstable balance between Japan as a real place and Japan as a fictional creation in these stories. “Green Tea Ice Cream” also revolves around a science fiction trope that I personally find silly and boring, namely, the unnecessary sexualization of a young woman who embodies fears concerning the changing relationship between human beings and technology. If the non-consensual impregnation and subsequent abduction of mindless machine girls is your cup of tea, though, knock yourself out. There are also some uncomfortably sexual father-daughter issues on display, if you’re into that sort of thing. That being said, the unsavory nature of the scenario and the characters of this story gives it greater depth and impact as a speculative commentary on contemporary bioethics.

To counter the sour taste of “Green Tea Ice Cream,” Mori Natsuko’s “It’s All Thanks to Saijō Hideaki” is made of pure sugar. To give a summary would be spoiling the fun, so let it suffice to say that this is one of those stories that you can’t believe you’re reading while you’re reading it and then can’t believe you’ve read once you’re finished. The experience of reading this story filled me with joy. If you’re a fan of yuri or bara stories (or brilliant parodies of such stories), then this is the story of the elegant, fabulous apocalypse you’ve been waiting for.

As in Speculative Japan 2, the translation is smooth and even throughout, with each story retaining the individual characteristics and quirks of its author. It’s a pleasure to read the stories in this anthology not just for the freshness and wonder of their ideas but also for the high quality of their writing and translation. As both an anthology of contemporary science fiction and an anthology of contemporary Japanese literature, Speculative Japan 3 succeeds brilliantly in collecting not the newest or the most popular, but rather the most interesting and the best written. Speculative Japan 3 is an excellent collection of short stories, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for intelligent and exciting new fiction, speculative or otherwise.

Review copy provided by Kurodahan Press

Kieli: The Dead Sleep in the Wilderness

Title: Kieli: The Dead Sleep in the Wilderness
Japanese Title: キーリ ― 死者たちは荒野に眠る
(Kiiri: Shishatachi wa kōya ni nemuru)
Author: Kabei Yukako (壁井 ゆかこ)
Illustrator: Taue Shunsuke (田上 俊介)
Translator: Alethea Nibley and Athena Nibley
Publication Year: 2009 (America); 2003 (Japan)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 228

Kieli is one of those hauntingly pretty girls whose special blood and pure heart allow her to see things unnoticed by others. Harvey is one of those chiseled copper-haired boys who is seventeen and has been seventeen for a long time. When their paths cross seemingly at random, Harvey finds himself charmed by Kieli, and Kieli finds herself dazzled by Harvey… Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.

What’s special about this novel isn’t its love story, however, but rather its setting. In her “Afterword,” the author says, “Wasted planets, steampunk, old-fashioned radios, rusty machines, old oil. It would make me as happy as I could be if all of you who like dilapidated things and react to that kind of vocabulary like this book.” I hope the author is indeed as happy as she can be, since her book is perfect for anyone who enjoys the atmosphere conjured by such words. Kieli is set on a dying planet where society still functions to a certain degree as life crumbles to dust in stages. This decay pervades every corner of the novel:

The next morning, when Kieli opened her eyes she was lying on a sofa with broken springs in the waiting room, wrapped in her coat and a dusty old blanket.

The clinic had completely fallen to ruin. Yellow sand and dust had settled below the crisp, clear, cold morning air, and the once clean, white paint on the walls had faded to yellow and peeled off in places, showing the concrete wall underneath.

Kieli spent a while walking through the deserted house, looking for Harvey, the floor creaking with every step she made. When she went up to the second floor, the plants that decorated the balcony had withered to nothing, and only the cracked pots remained under the nebulous morning light.

Everything in Kieli’s world is slowly falling apart. Isolated cities are separated by vast stretches of desert, small villages that serve as way stations along the side of railway lines are slowly shrinking in population, and the wasteland outside habited areas is still littered with the detritus for a war over natural resources that petered out a hundred years ago. Kieli is strangely suited to life in this world, as she possess the unusual ability to see and interact with the ghosts of the dead, who are seemingly more numerous than actual living people. Through the mischief of her dead roommate, Kieli encounters Harvey, who used to be a soldier in the war. Harvey is a creation known an as Undying, a class of artificial beings powered by mechanical cores of pure energy. Aside from his bad attitude, Harvey seems mostly harmless until he unwittingly drags Kieli into a conspiracy concerning the Church that governs Kieli’s world. The two are accompanied by the ghost of an older man known as the Corporal, who resides in the shell of an old radio and provides both insight and comic relief. In an environment where everything is dead or dying, Kieli and Harvey shine brightly as they find adventure and new life in each other’s company.

Since Kieli is a light novel, it receives the full graphic treatment, with eight full-color anime-style illustrations at the front of the book and a number of black-and-white illustrations scattered throughout the book’s chapters. The tropes of the novel are not specific to Japanese popular media, and they should appeal to a wider audience for young adult fiction. Kieli is an orphan who lives in a boarding school, where she is misunderstood and unappreciated by her peers. Harvey is an angsty, brooding badass who has a soft side that he keeps hidden in order to survive in a harsh world. The spirit of the Corporal residing in Harvey’s radio is a grumpy old man who cheerfully dispenses humorous complaints. The Church is mysterious and sinister, and its agents are genuinely frightening.

A shortcoming of many light novels published in translation is that their language is more manga-like than literature-like, by which I mean that its primary purpose is to shoot the reader forward as quickly as possible through a series of increasingly improbable events. Kieli occasionally suffers from this style of narration, but it usually allows the reader time to linger over events and absorb the story’s atmosphere. The translation of Kabei’s prose is lucid and engaging, inviting the reader to enter Kieli’s world without fussing over translation notes and awkwardly translated dialog. Occasionally a character will bow to another character, but the novel otherwise has very little “cultural odor.” Because of the quality of the translation, I found myself reading not just for the story but also for the pleasure of reading such straightforward and well edited language. I also feel the same way about the translation of the Spice and Wolf light novels, and I can’t help but offer my most profound thanks to the editorial staff at Yen Press for doing such an excellent job with their releases.

Kieli ends with a bit of a cliffhanger, but its sequels have already been published by Yen Press, which seems to be keeping up a steady release schedule. I don’t know why I waited so long to start reading this series, because it’s really quite good. I can’t wait to read the next volume!

Speculative Japan 2

Title: Speculative Japan 2
Editor: Edward Lipsett
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Kurodahan Press
Pages: 269

Speculative Japanese 2 (subtitled “‘The Man Who Watched the Sea’ and Other Tales of Science Fiction and Fantasy”) is a collection of thirteen stories ranging in length from four to forty-eight pages. Half of the stories are from the late seventies and eighties, and the other half are from the past decade, with the most recent being published in 2007. These stories, which were selected for translation based on a Japanese SF magazine reader survey and the editor’s own taste, range from fantasy to magical realism to hardcore science fiction. In fact, the stories are so varied in genre that “speculative fiction” does indeed seem to the only label capable of describing them.

Speculative Japan 2 is an excellent anthology without even a single dull story. The premise or idea behind each story in the book is uniquely fantastic. In Enjoe Toh’s “Freud,” a family gathers at the house of the narrator’s recently deceased grandmother only to find twenty clones of Sigmund Freud hidden under the tatami mats and beneath the floorboards. In Issui Ogawa’s “Old Vohl’s Planet,” the inorganic life forms inhabiting a planet with an extremely volatile atmosphere are threatened with annihilation and must rely on the vast reserves of their hereditary memory to send a distress signal to the stars. Kajio Shinji’s “Emanon: A Reminiscence” tells of a man’s brief encounters with separate incarnations of a woman who is able to remember all of her former lives. Kobayashi Yasumi’s “The Man Who Watched the Sea” describes a world in which time flows differently at different altitudes from the perspective of two time-crossed lovers. Nakai Norio’s “Mountaintop Symphony” chronicles the tribulations and victories of an orchestra tasked with the performance of a piece of music that spans dozens of years and requires instruments that haven’t been invented yet.

The longest story in the collection, Tani Kōshū’s “Q-Cruiser Basilisk,” is told from the perspective of a petty officer on a spacecraft with a five-man crew. In the dead of space, the narrator’s ship encounters a much larger craft that seems to be a remnant of a war that ended two hundred years ago. The vessel is, as the narrator puts it, a “ghost ship,” and, despite his trepidation, the narrator finds himself recalling classic adventure tales by the likes of C.S. Forester and Robert Louis Stevenson. Despite the narrative static generated by detailed descriptions of naval battle maneuvers executed in space, the story is genuinely creepy as the narrator and his fellow crew members board the empty ship. As the narrator reads the captain’s log, the reader is drawn into an even stranger tale of uncertain fates and eerie distortions in space. Along with its echoes of the adventure tales alluded to by the narrator, “Q-Cruiser Basilisk” resonates with the plots and themes of postwar American space fiction, as well as with classic existential speculative fiction such as Nelson S. Bond’s “And Lo! The Bird.” The story is satisfyingly old school but fresh enough to feel like a plot from a contemporary animated short film.

My two favorite stories in the collection were more fantasy flavored. In Ōhara Mariko’s “The Whale that Sang on the Milky Way Network,” a young man on a backwater agricultural planet waits eagerly for a circus that visits a certain seaside town once every four years. When the circus finally comes again, the young man befriends one of its performers, a whale who can supposedly fly through space. He confesses his love for a local politician’s pop star daughter to his new friend, and he and the whale hatch a plan to leave the planet and become famous together, which succeeds spectacularly. Takagi Nobuko’s “Melk’s Golden Acres” at first seems like a normal work of realist fiction, as it opens with a Japanese traveler’s impressions of the Austrian countryside and the abbey above the town of Melk. The narrator recounts the history and treasures of the abbey, especially those of its library. After touring the library himself, the narrator is addressed by an old man who had been gazing at one of the room’s stained glass windows. The old man claims that his wife is in the window, and the narrator, intrigued, follows him to a nearby restaurant where he learns more about the old man’s life. The story then takes a slow turn towards the surreal before closing in an entirely unexpected fashion. Whereas I enjoyed “The Whale that Sang on the Milky Way Network” because of its whimsy and sense of adventure, I loved “Melk’s Golden Acres” for its grounded yet beautifully descriptive language and the way it toes the line between realism and fantasy, leaving a multitude of possibilities open to the reader.

Each of the stories in Speculative Japan 2 is worth reading, and each writer represented in the collection has a unique and engaging style of storytelling. The quality of the translation is uniformly excellent, and the goofiness and genre allusions and creative language of each respective writer comes through in sharp focus. The efforts of the editor have ensured that the overall readability of the translations maintains a high standard, so even the more interesting linguistic experiments of the original authors are conveyed in solid English that is fully aware of the idioms of Anglophone speculative fiction. As a result, a reader of Speculative Japan 2 can effortlessly jump from one world into another, and the experience is thoroughly enjoyable.

Speculative Japan 3 is slated for publication at the end of the year, and I’m already looking forward to it!

Review copy provided by Kurodahan Press.

Speculative Japan

Title: Speculative Japan: Outstanding Tales of Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy
Editors: Gene van Troyer and Grania Davis
Publication Year: 2007
Publisher: Kurodahan Press
Pages: 290

As a short story collection, Speculative Japan is a strange book. 200 of its 290 pages are comprised of short stories, and the other 90 pages are mainly short non-fiction essays about the book itself. These essays involve topics such as how the stories appearing in Speculative Japan came to be selected, edited, and translated. 20 of these 90 pages are author and translator biographies, and another 20 pages are filled by a translated essay by Shibano Takumi, the editor of the Japanese sci-fi magazine Uchūjin. For a reader who starts the book at the front cover and progresses in a linear fashion, Speculative Japan gets off to a somewhat rocky start with pages and pages of metatextual material.

Gene Von Troyer’s introduction jumps from topic to topic before finally summarizing Yamano Kōichi’s “three phases of Japanese science fiction” and settling into speculation concerning what makes Japanese science fiction “Japanese”:

We can’t say definitively, but can only point to trends and tendencies. Viewed through one facet of the jewel, we can say, as Tatsumi [Takayuki] does, that “what with the imperative of American democratization and the effect of indigenous adaptability, the postwar Japanese had simultaneously to transform and naturalize themselves as a new tribe of cyborgs” as reflected in the images from manga and anime. Japanese SF leans (or has leaned) more on robots and cyborgs than on stars and planets.

This generalization is certainly interesting, but I wonder if it’s really true. For example, the advertisements in the back of the book for Mayumura Taku’s Administrator (a collection of four short novels about “Terran colonies far from Earth”) and Night Voices, Night Journeys (the first of a series of collections of “Tales in the Cthulu Mythos from Japan”) seem oriented more towards “stars and planets” stories, and I can’t help but think of the “spaceships and galaxies” imagery of popular 1970s series such as Takemiya Keiko’s To Terra and Matsumoto Leiji’s Space Battleship Yamato, but perhaps it might simply be better to read Troyer’s introduction as an initial attempt to sketch a map of a huge and understudied body of literature.

In any case, the stories contained in Speculative Japan have less to do with either cyborgs or space than they do with hypothetical concepts. Toyota Artisune’s “Another Prince of Wales” concerns the question, “What if, in the future, war were a popular sport played on an international stage?” Yamano Kōichi’s “Where do the Birds Fly Now?” is an expansion of the question, “What if birds could fly between dimensions and take people with them?” Very few of these stories have serious, in-depth plots; but, then again, very few of these stories are more than twenty pages long. A reader familiar with the type of tightly plotted sci-fi stories published in Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine is in for a surprise with Speculative Japan, which – as its title suggests – is more about “speculative fiction” than “science fiction.”

Five of the stories in the collection are recycled from the out-of-print The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories. Of these five, Tsutsui Yasutaka’s Orwellian fable “Standing Woman” and Yano Tetsu’s “The Legend of the Paper Spaceship,” a lyric tale of a woman deep in the Japanese mountains who may or may not be an alien, are excellent and definitely worthy of republication. Making an appearance from the out-of-print Monkey Brain Sushi anthology is Ōhara Mariko’s “Girl,” a sex-saturated story of love and body modification in a decaying city on the eve of an apocalypse.

Three stories that have appeared for the first time in book form in Speculative Japan that really jumped out at me were Kajio Shinji’s “Reiko’s Universe Box,” Kawakami Hiromi’s “Mogera Wogura,” and Yoshimasu Gōzō’s “Adrenalin.” In “Reiko’s Universe Box,” a young woman copes with her negligent husband and failing marriage by becoming absorbed in a box containing an entire galaxy in miniature form. Like many of the stories in this collection, “Reiko’s Universe Box” is driven by strong elements of allegory, but its concept is delivered with cleverness, darkness, vivid description, and humor. When compared to the other stories in the collection, Kawakami’s “Mogera Wogura,” a description of a day in the life of a mole-like creature who lives among humans in contemporary Japan, is in a class of its own in terms of its gentle magical realism, its playfulness, and its removal from the themes and narrative style of more traditional science fiction and fantasy. “Adrenalin” is not a story but rather an abstract poem filled with evocative imagery conveyed through variations of a handful of short and catchy refrains, such as “To you, children of spirits, I send an immediate telegram / To drink milk / To memorize the names of flowers / Some day, I will return / That day, I will start fire.” I’m usually not a fan of Japanese poetry in translation, but I found myself captured and moved by Marilyn Mei-Ling Chin’s translation of Yoshimasu Gōzō’s verse. Each of these three selections stands on its own not simply as an illustration of a speculative concept but as a piece of writing that is fun to read, thought-provoking, and capable of multiple interpretations.

Of the collection’s fifteen stories, four were written in the sixties, eight were written in the seventies, and another was written in 1981. These thirteen stories, written during the period between 1962 and 1981, are all by men. The two more recent stories (published in 1985 and 2002) were written by female authors, but one can still say that this collection is mostly representative of science fiction written by men in the sixties and seventies. In the author biography section at the end of the book, the editors attempt to canonize many of the male authors (“without a doubt a Grand Master of Japanese science fiction and fantasy,” “one of the three pillars of Japanese SF,” “often referred to as ‘The King of Japanese SF,'” and so on), but I wonder if perhaps there wasn’t a hint of personal politics at play in the selection of authors. This suspicion seems to be corroborated by the collection’s metatextual essays, which detail the personal relationships between the authors and their translators.

Speculative Japan sometimes reads like a sci-fi literary fanzine in which the editors and regular contributors are just as concerned about themselves and their relationships with each other as they are with the fiction itself, and the essays in Speculative Japan demonstrate a certain geeky fixation on metatextual marginalia. If you happen to be outside of the small circle of authors, translators, and editors who all know each other and worked together on this collection, you might find these essays confusing and off-putting. If you’re already used to the style of the front (and back) material included in SF-themed literary magazines and fanzines, though, you’ll more than likely be able to see past (or even appreciate) the many pages of essays included in Speculative Japan.

The actual stories in the collection are interesting and well worth reading, and a few of them are truly excellent. Still, I want more work that doesn’t belong to a set clique of authors, more contemporary work, and more work by women. To be honest, I found Speculative Japan somewhat disappointing as a compilation. That being said, I am intrigued enough by the stories themselves to consider giving Speculative Japan 2 a shot in the near future.