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.

Crest of the Stars

Title: Crest of the Stars: Princess of the Empire
Japanese Title: 星界の紋章:帝国の王女 (Seikai no monshō: Teikoku no ōjo)
Author: Morioka Hiroyuki (森岡浩之)
Translator: Sue Shambaugh
Publication Year: 1996 (Japan); 2006 (America)
Publisher: Tokyopop
Pages: 212

I am a great lover of books, and I spend a great deal of my time reading. I genuinely enjoy almost everything I read, no matter what the genre, and rarely do I dismiss something as absolutely not worth reading. It is very easy for me to explain why I like a particular book, or what is valuable about a particular work, but I think that sometimes it’s important to also discuss what is mediocre, and what can be done better.

Morioka Hiroyuki’s Crest of the Stars series was recently held up to me as a paragon of Japanese science fiction. I wasn’t impressed with the translation of the first book in the series, Princess of the Empire, when it was released in the fall of 2006, but I decided to try it again. The series is massively popular in Japan, and it has quite a dedicated fan base in America as well. I have heard it described as a masterpiece of Tolkienesque proportions in several reviews; and, in my mind, there is no higher praise. Perhaps I had misjudged it four years ago.

Unfortunately, upon re-reading the book, that turned out not to be the case. Princess of the Empire starts off with a wonderful prologue, which briefly introduces the main character of the series in an interesting and beautifully described setting before launching into a short but fascinating account of the space journeys that led to the present moment. This history is then interrupted by action! intrigue! betrayal! and emotion! Unfortunately, this prologue is only sixteen pages long. What follows is 161 pages of utter garbage.

The teenage hero of the series, Jinto, arrives at a spaceport, where he is met by a beautiful blue-haired space elf named Lafiel. Lafiel takes Jinto to a space elf ship which will transport him to the space elf academy (Jinto, although genetically human, is politically an honorary space elf). The ship is attacked by a human group that seeks to oppose the space elf empire, and only Jinto and Lafiel escape. The ship is destroyed, and the unlikely pair (well, actually, very likely, considering that there are no other characters) is stranded on a small backwards planet. The end. Oh, and if you guessed that Lafiel is the princess of the space elf empire, you win a cookie.

You might be thinking, well, if Morioka spins 161 pages out of relatively nothing, then he must be a fairly talented writer with an eye for detail and a talent for dialog. Wrong. The Crest of the Stars series is known for its world building, and what Morioka has given us is 161 pages of almost unmitigated world building. The space elves are called Abh, they have a space empire, they have strange breeding practices, and they are genetically engineered to be beautiful, blue-haired, and psychic. That’s right, they are psychic space elves – which would perhaps be forgivable if there were more to them. Unfortunately, Morioka’s world building reads like a world history textbook written for fourth graders. Even when delivered in speech, the tone of this information is uniformly dry, essentialist, and uninteresting. Population statistics and general government details are provided, but nothing is said about culture, religion, art, lifestyles, political factions, diversity, philosophy, attitudes towards technology – or anything that the reader might actually care about. The clunky constructed language that annoyingly pervades the text is substituted for any real imagination. The almost complete lack of any visual imagery makes the book seem almost sterile, which I don’t think is a deliberate choice on the part of the author, whose writing is incessantly puerile:

Sure, Jinto had experience interacting with girls – he’d made a point on Delktou, in his own way. However, older women were still a complete mystery to him – especially gorgeous older women who were commanders of interstellar battleships. He couldn’t get his heart to stop racing.

In other words, instead of building a fictional world gradually while pulling his readers deeper into said world through plot thickening and character development, making them increasingly curious about the universe in which the characters live as they become increasingly attached to the characters themselves, Morioka completely forgoes plot and character development in order to construct his setting, which quite frankly feels like a cliché mix of Star Wars empire-and-princess driven space opera and Star Trek alien-culture-of-the-week episodic exploration adventure. The fact that the Abh are long-lived, pointy-eared, and dismissive of humans does not make Crest of the Stars Tolkienesque, unfortunately. In his postscript, Morioka states that he hopes “to make shameless sci-fi fans groan.” I’m pretty sure “groan” is the operative word here, since even Troy Denning’s novels set in the Star Wars universe are better written. Alas.

Princess of the Empire is everything I hate about the genre of young adult fiction, which tends to presume that its readers can’t handle complex plots, three-dimensional characters, figurative language, or middle school vocabulary. It could be argued that Japanese light novels are an entirely separate medium than young adult fiction; but still, there are infinitely better light novels out there. One of my personal favorites is Ono Fuyumi’s The Twelve Kingdoms series. A translation of the fourth installment, Skies of Dawn, was recently released a week or two ago, and I am happy to report that the series is only getting better with each successive book.

If it’s Japanese science fiction you’re looking for, then popular mainstream writers from Abe Kōbō to Ōe Kenzaburō to Miyabe Miyuki have successfully tried their hands at hard science fiction at one point or another. If you’re looking for the epic adventure and unparallel world building of Frank Herbert (or China Miéville), then check out Murakami Haruki’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which benefits from one of the most artistic and creative translations I have ever read. If you’re more in the mood for the intellectual short fiction of someone like Ray Bradbury (or Tim Pratt), then check out Tsutsui Yasutaka’s collection The Salmonella Beings from Planet Porno. If you’re in the market for lighter fare, I have been especially impressed by several of the translations I have read from an upcoming press called Haikasoru, which is an arm of Viz Media, an established publisher of manga intended for a slightly more mature audience than that targeted by Tokyopop.

In any case, to return to Princess of the Empire, it’s a morass of weak writing and tired stereotypes. Perhaps the Crest of the Stars series deepens in the second and third books, which are also available from Tokyopop, but I would rather spend my time reading all the cool new stuff that seems to be coming out almost every month. For those who want to know what all the fuss is about but don’t have the stomach to brave the light novels, there is always the Crest of the Stars manga trilogy (also published by Tokyopop). The manga are just as mediocre as the books – but at least the female characters provide the service of bending over to reveal themselves every few pages. Which, I suppose, is always a welcome distraction from heavy-handed world building and the overuse of a constructed language.