Monday, December 9, 2013

JSF!

Hey, friends! This past semester I took a number of interesting courses, most of them related to Japan, which is why my blog has been so Japan-centric lately. One of the courses that I found particularly neat was Japanese Fiction and the Nation, in which we were forced, against our will, to read . . . oh no, it's too terrible to say . . . Japanese science fiction! Aarrgh!!! (I'm being silly. I love good sci-fi, and having to read it for marks is pretty much a perfect situation.) We were tasked with reading a number of novels written by prolific Japanese writers and relate them to theories about nationhood, history, politics, and all manner of interesting things relating to the Japanese experience/

I figured I'd take the time to highlight some of the books I read for that course, as many of them are fairly new translations and were all interesting reads! Let's dive in!

1. Virus: Day of Resurrection (Sakyo Komatsu)


The apocalypse cometh -- but this time it's not strictly because of nukes or angry deities. Written during the Cold War, Virus imagines a future in which an extraterrestrial microscopic organism has killed off the entire population of the world, save for 10,000-odd people living in Antarctica, where it is too cold for the virus to survive, apparently. The book jumps around from character to character, introducing bits of narrative through individual accounts, news reports, and conversations between characters. The novel focuses not so much on the destruction of the human race as on people's reactions to it and humanity's attempts to live on and survive through the crisis. It's a story of survival, though quite a depressing one.

Pros

  • interesting angle on the popular post-apocalyptic narrative, as it shows how the crisis happened step by step and cites a virus as being the cause, though it is still brought on by human folly
  • multimedia-style storytelling makes an interesting and varied narrative while adding a sense of cohesion to the overall setting
  • features some rather profound Cold War commentary
Cons

  • major info-dumping
  • occasionally dry writing (this is a translation, after all)
  • entire chapters dedicated to explaining microbiology sound like techno-babble and might turn off some readers
  • lack of discernible main character may take away from relatibility


2. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Yasutaka Tsutsui)


I assume many of you have seen the excellent anime of the same name, which was based on this book. This is one of those rare occasions in which the book actually has less content than the movie. The story follows a female high-school student who after a strange incident realizes she has the ability to travel more or less freely through time. Mostly she does fairly minor things like warn her friend of a future house fire or go back in time to study for a test. There is a sort of twist ending, though, which hints at something much more amazing -- which won't be a surprise to anyone who's watched the anime. Still, the anime and the book are quite different, so I'd recommend reading this one even if you've seen it. The book comes coupled with another story called The Stuff Nightmares Are Made Of, which I'm embarrassed to say I haven't actually read yet, since I had limited time.

Pros

  • an easy and light read
  • amusing characters and situations
  • Tsutsui's writing style is delightfully in-your-face and quirky

Cons

  • not a whole lot going on until the end
  • fans of "hard" sci-fi will likely not find this all that enthralling



3. Death Sentences (Kawamata Chiaki)



I really liked this one. The concept is that a poem written by a mysterious writer who was closely tied to the surrealist movement in France (1920s to '40s) is killing people after they've read it. This has led to a future in which a special police force is dedicated to hunting down "poem traffickers" and executing them in order to stop the spread of the killer poem. The plot spans from the time when the poem was created in postwar France to the present, which shows how the poem was spread, and concludes in a future in which the poem is heavily monitored and controlled. The truth behind the poem is totally not what you'd expect; I won't ruin the ending here. Just know that it's pretty intense.

Pros

  • excellent translation that doesn't miss a beat (very readable)
  • immediately engaging
  • character-driven plot that twists and turns in directions one wouldn't expect
  • great use of magic realism

Cons

  • pacing is somewhat inconsistent
  • certain plot points get way more pages than other, potentially more interesting ones
  • genre switching may cause some readers to detach themselves from the story



4. Harmony (Project Itoh)


Imagine a future in which, following a near apocalypse referred to as "the maelstrom," the World Health Organization has taken over most of the world. The WHO has made it mandatory for people to inject themselves with nano-machines so that their health and personal information can be regulated and maintained. No one gets sick and everyone is content, or so it seems. Harmony imagines a world where humans need not worry about their health; however, alcohol, tobacco, and even most fatty foods have been outlawed, one is expected to share information with everyone, and everyone is forced to be excruciatingly nice to each other. This book depicts a utopian nightmare, a society so perfect that it almost ceases to be human. The story follows a female protagonist who has grown weary of this overbearing society but is forced to protect it when it becomes threatened by a most unexpected force.

Pros

  • very accessible and almost cinematic
  • features a badass heroine
  • lots of action and adventure
  • a great example of future cyberpunk, no-nonsense sci-fi
  • good translation, making it very accessible

Cons

  • conforms to the usual tropes
  • unique setting, but the story beats and characters may seem familiar if you've read any William Gibson or Philip K. Dick


There you have it. These four books are all worth reading; this was an attempt to bring them to light for anyone who's a fan of literary sci-fi like me. Just about all these translations have been released within the past five years or so, so they're fairly recent. I definitely recommend giving them a read if you have space on your "to read" pile. They should all be available at your local bookstore and online. (I'm not being paid by the publishers; I just thought these were pretty awesome.) Happy reading!      
   

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