The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories , edited by John L. Apostolou

the-best-japanese-science-fiction-stories-edited-by-john-l-apostolouGenre: Science Fiction Anthology
Publisher: Barricade Books
Published: 1997
Reviewer Rating: threestars
Book Review by James Michael White

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The cover offers Analog Science Fiction’s praise; “Buy it. Buy it in such quantities that the editors and publisher will bring us more.”

Here’s a qualified, “Well, yes, okay, but … er … how about some better ones next time?”

It’s not that all of the thirteen stories are awful, or even that any one of them is an absolute stinker, but that many of them are simply odd, and odd in ways that make you wonder what the authors were up to, and is it a cultural matter dull Westerners will never understand, or is it simply a matter of things, style for one, getting lost in translation?

There are obvious indications that something different, indeed something cultural, is at work here, and at least part of it appears to be the transformation of cultural mythos through the ready transmogrifier of science fiction. The resulting tales, although sometimes fresh and sometimes trite, just as often remain baffling of intent.

Still, I’m inclined to agree with those at Analog Science Fictio who’s quotation made it to the book’s front cover: if there is more of this stuff, get it translated and get it here. Some is bound to be just as good as the best of this lot, and some of it may be even better. To wit:

The Flood, by Kobo Abe
Transformation figures as the central conceit in this story in which people inexplicably become liquid — or perhaps “amoebae-like” is a better description — without other apparent ill effect beyond the angst of those unchanged who do not want to change, who can’t prevent it, and who can’t prevent the world from suffering the titular inundation.

No reasons are offered, nor solutions, but there is fronted a seemingly curiously-Japanese speculation about the potential curative effects of nuclear energy.

I say “curiously” because in this tale that provides no central character with whom to identify, the sense of approaching doom becomes universalized: great and terrible change is coming, seems inevitable, and offers hope for something new at the end, as if the whole of Japanese society might be re-formed by a disaster misunderstood.

So is this a Marxist metaphor about an imperialistic and self-preservationist rule (take your pick: it might be imperialist Japan, it might be a modern dollar-slave — oops, make that Yen-slave — society) finally meeting its match? Maybe. Just look at who transforms first, “workers and poor people.”

Or is this a wild “what if” game drawn to an unexpected conclusion?

Well, maybe that, too.

But it might simply be a piece that doesn’t rise above its oddity despite a few nifty turns.

Cardboard Box, by Ryo Hanmura
I can’t help thinking that if this story were about a person and not a living, thinking, emoting cardboard box I would like it much more because of the way it ends, which strikes a nice note amid seeming gloom.

But this is about a cardboard box, after all, and what life must be like from beginning to (possibly) the end. If you’re interested in such anthropomorphic matters, read this one as the secret truth of animism, or read it as its sub-title suggests: “Contemplated in allegory is the fate of ordinary working people.”

Oh allegoric Yorik, you were more fun when you lived. So as long as Ryo Hanmura was writing about boxes, why didn’t he spin a yarn about B.F. Skinner’s infamous one? After all, doesn’t the public more enjoy a good shock than soak?

Tansu, by Ryo Hanmura
The sub-title gives this one away as, “A strange story concerning an old wooden chest.” Strange is the operative word. See, a fisherman by the name of Ichisuke has a large family, and one by one this family does something, well, strange. It all starts with his little son squatting atop an old wooden chest at night, which creeps him out though the wee son exhibits no other abnormality. Things progress from there until Ichisuke seeks the most romantic of remedies — which is to run away.

Ah, but the story of Ichisuke is but a narrative within a narrative, as told by “the old woman in her rough country dialect” — which seems to raise issues of narrator reliability, which itself makes the tale all the more interesting, though no less inscrutable, because she relates this tale in a house filled with tansus, those old chests.

Thus we have the appearance of a folk-tale, though one I don’t know, cross pollinated with something vaguely creepy or moderately surreal, depending on your literary proclivities.

Bokko-chan, by Shinichi Hoshi
A very short tale of at least two kinds of frustrated love revolving around a swell-looking home-made robot jiffied up by a do-it-yourselfer barkeep who unwittingly runs afoul of a thwarted swain, “Bokko-chan” takes a stand against beauty (okay, perhaps the stand is against “prissy” beauty) and its deleterious effect. Then again, perhaps the message is less “beauty is as beauty does” and more “beauty is as beauty is done to.” In any event, an amusing and amusingly told tale.

He–y, Come on Ou–t!, by Shinichi Hoshi
Deep hole discovered in small town. Exploited. Unexpected consequences.

A Freudian critic might experience a fit of nerves right about now, but Shinichi Hoshi’s second offering seems so clearly eco-minded that we might rather wish for a penetrating exploration of its yonic symbolism than read this a second time. Not that what he has written is awful — in fact, the mania for exploitation exhibited by the townsfolk is related with hyperbolic glee — but that it stands already in allegorical shadow, and in this collection we have one too many allegories already.

Nonetheless, the more-speculative-than-declaratively- scientific ending offers up an interesting Moebius riff that, like the nonexistent philological examination, makes us wish Hoshi had carried things just a little farther.

The Road to the Sea, by Takashi Ishikawa
Theodore Sturgeon wrote this a long time ago and called it “The Man Who Lost the Sea.” Perhaps that one never made it into Japanese, so Ishikawa may be excused for reinventing the wheel, but Sturgeon’s version was better, albeit longer.

Ishikawa’s trick is to engage us in the plight of an ostensibly six-year-old boy who sets out hiking to find the sea, but somewhere along the way we realize that all is not as it seems and that this situation may arise from hallucination, melancholy longing, or as the result of impetuous youth ignoring age and wisdom.

The result? Once you’ve made up your mind about the underlying nature of the kid’s plight, you’ll probably feel the same way you do after watching a Wes Craven movie. Had.

The Empty Field, by Morio Kita
A stylistic eye-catcher whose style quickly annoys, “The Empty Field” appears to be the SF version of “Waiting for Godot” told in a hop-skip-jump stream-of-semi-consciousness fashion interweaving present time with memory, and not always clearly, as a collection of children and adults wait in a field for something to arrive from above.

You can read this one as straightforward narrative and wonder what the hell’s going on, or you can imagine a psionic or clairvoyant twist and arrive at a whole other possible understanding. But what’s really afoot is a literary examination of childhood’s wonder, dashed by the grotesquerie of adulthood’s existentialism, being redeemed again by change. This conflict is embodied in the name of our central character, Youngman, who consorts with neither youth nor adulthood, but aged wisdom instead, appearing here in the guise of an old man who fed his grandchild fish sausage, much to the disdain of his daughter in law.

It is this latter interaction, Youngman with the old man, that provides the story its sine qua non, and provides Youngman what he has lost. But getting there is a bit like listening to a stutterer with attention deficit disorder.

The Savage Mouth, by Sakyo Komatsu
Some years ago there was a low-budget black-and-white Japanese movie that reminds me a whole lot of this story which, copyrighted 1979, may indeed have inspired it. Or not. That 1989-vintage movie was Tetsuo: The Iron Man.

Why do I mention that cyber-splatter-schlock? The point of similarity between the two is that the protagonist in each is nuts, thereby rendering unnecessary any reasoning for what unfolds, namely one man’s salmon-swimming-upstream urge to self-destruction — or is it superordinate technological integration? The first line of “The Savage Mouth” in fact says, No reason at all, and we are admonished that some things can never be explained. Such as the protagonist’s motivation.

Okay.

So what we have here is splatterpunk before there was splatterpunk crossed with gadget-conscious science fiction and a raging appetite for human flesh. Must have been a kick to read in the original Japanese back in ’79, but now it seems a bit thin although the introduction of a homicide Inspector briefly makes matters more interesting, despite his spectator role and a seemingly too Japanese appeal to order and conformity.

Take Your Choice, by Sakyo Komatsu
Philip K. Dick has a Japanese counterpart in “Take Your Choice,” which seems strikingly akin to his own fiction in that it touches the same conspiratorial and paranoid cords. Our nameless protagonist — just call him “everyman” — visits a time-travel company for reasons initially unclear but soon all-too-humanly apparent. The end result makes for a satisfying commentary regarding the nature of ambition and reality and the function of society in each.

Triceratops, by Tensei Kono Godzilla!
No, just a triceratops crossing a bike path one day to the astonishment of father and son bikers who seem to exist in a world in which Godzilla was never invented but elaborate explanations about superimposed time were, never mind the absence of why father and son seem to be the only ones who can see these superimposed slices of the Cretaceous period.

That aside, the story appears to reach for some sort of meaningful commentary in the lines, If you eat that crud, why’d you kill us? and, If there’s too much to eat, why did you keep on butchering us? Yet for whom are such lines intended, and to what purpose? Neither question seems adequately answered. Maybe vegetarians know.

The aforementioned matter of superimposed time seems more a marketing ploy than an absolute necessity; otherwise, this might have sold as fantasy. The result is a story that that doesn’t quite come together on scientific grounds because those grounds seem an excuse for what has happened, and it doesn’t work philosophically because it doesn’t make a strong enough statement about past or present.

Fnifmum, by Taku Mayumura
For some reason Italo Calvino got pegged as a fantasist when he wrote the same thing years ago in his Cosmicomics (Le cosmicomiche, 1965), and here Taku Mayumura’s “Fnifmum” is sold as science fiction.

But just as Dan Quayle once heard, “You’re no JFK,” Mayamura’s Fnifmum is no Qfwfq.

Tales of sentient universes are nothing new, so what makes them new is what’s done with them. Mayamura provides an interesting explanation of Fnifmum’s life cycle that sounds suspiciously like the eschatological heat-death theory, adds a familiar element of war observed and love lost, then tosses in a different kind of love, this time for beings of a kind Fnifmum has never before seen, which gives him hope for a future he cannot see.

Nonetheless, what begins seemingly well enough ends in 1950’s-science-fiction-theater fashion, thus begging for a new descriptive term, such as lit-pulp, with which to identify ambition collapsing under the supergravity of hackneyed sub-plotting.

Standing Woman, by Yasutaka Tsutsui
Johnny Carson used to torment Barbara Walters with a question she once asked an interviewee: If you were a tree, what kind would you be?

His point was the absurdity of such a non sequitor, but in his day people couldn’t turn into trees. Not so in Tsutsui’s future in which a whole host of things living may be turned into shrubbery, a penalty meted out by a totalitarianistic government for the slightest infractions.

Perhaps Tsutsui is making a point about the dehumanizing effects such governance has upon its people in general — in which case we’ve all read this before, most famously in George Orwell’s 1984 — but the narrative is largely concerned with issues of free speech in particular because it is free expression that leads many to their arboreal fates.

The irony here is that in a future where people still read words printed on paper, the dissident greenery could conceivably be used to produce said paper, simultaneously raising the creep-out factor and creating a sense of narrative urgency.

Philip K. Dick fans should be pleased, as well as anyone who infers the Soylent Green people-as-paper possibility.

The Legend of the Paper Spaceship, by Tetsu Yano
Amid a remote mountain village of Wolf God worshippers, a Japanese soldier assigned there “halfway through the Pacific War” attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding the madness of an ageless and perpetually naked woman whoring about the village’s outskirts.

The plot takes on Joseph Campbell-like mythic proportions by making us wonder if the beautiful naked woman, Osen, is nothing more than the latest literary embodiment of the Ophelia myth — I’ll go mad, mad I say!, without my Hamlet! — or is she really a lot more like Campbell’s underworld goddess, full of secrets only waiting for the right man to set them free in the most juvenile of golden age SF esprit?

Yano has something to say about human interest in sex, which sounds rather Schopenhauer-like, “you are an instrument of your will, and in this case your will is filthy” — but there’s more up the literary sleeve here than easy jabs and sexist (perhaps even speciest?) stereotyping, making “The Legend of the Paper Spaceship” one of the richer tales of short SF to appear in any language.

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