The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories. Edited by John Apostolou and Martin H Greenberg

Barricade Books, 1997, 176 p.

This is what it says on the tin – a book of SF by Japanese authors. Whether this is the best of Japanese Science Fiction I can’t say because my knowledge of Japanese SF is restricted – shamefully, perhaps – to this book. This was one of my main reasons for picking it up and handing over money for its contents. Most SF published is written from either a US, a UK, or other Anglophone perspective or else is European. Japanese culture is so distinctive that Japanese SF may be something other.

The book carries on its cover an encomium from Analog, “BUY IT. Buy it in such quantities that the editors and publisher will bring us more.” Sadly people must not have bought it in quantity as I believe no such follow up ever appeared. Below are potted comments on each story.

The Flood by Kobo Abe, translated by Lane Dunlop.
Narrated in the style of a fable, this story features the mass liquefaction of people and the consequences of that transformation.

Cardboard Box by Ryo Hanmura, translated by David Lewis.
Imagine all the existential pleasures and angst of living as a cardboard box that is aware of itself and its surroundings. The joys of being filled; the emptiness otherwise. You don’t have to. This story does it for you.

Tansu by Ryo Hanmura, translated by Shimizu Mitomi, Joel Dames, Stephen Davis and Grania Davis.
A man is driven to distraction by his large family one by one taking to spending their nights on an old wooden chest.

Bokko-Chan by Shinichi Hoshi, translated by Noriyoshi Saito.
Bokko-Chan is a robot in the form of a beautiful woman, built by a bar owner to increase his trade. Her enigmatic responses lead one customer into folly.

He-y, Come On Ou-t by Shinichi Hoshi, translated by Stanleigh Jones.
After a typhoon a seemingly bottomless hole appears where a shrine had been. The hole becomes a dumping ground for unwanted material of all kinds, nuclear waste, incriminating evidence, compromising diaries. An allegory of the dangers of over-consumption. For where does it all go? This is reminiscent of Ted Chiang’s Tower of Babylon but predates it considerably.

The Road to the Sea by Takashi Ishikawa, translated by Judith Merril and Tetsu Yano.
A boy who has never seen the sea goes in search of it. An old man tells him it is in the sky. He carries on regardless, meeting no-one in his trudge across a desert land. To reveal more would be a spoiler.

The Empty Field by Morio Kita, translated by Kinya Tsuruta and Judith Merril.
Told in a disjointed style with non-standard punctuation and many newly coined compound words this concerns a once green and pleasant field, now empty, where excited children and an old man await the coming – or not – of a flying saucer.

The Savage Mouth by Sakyo Komatsu, translated by Judith Merril.
Using an operating machine a man starts to replace all his body parts with artificial ones. What he does with the removed portions reveals the savage mouth in us all.

Take Your Choice by Sakyo Komatsu, translated by Shiro Tamura and Grania Davis.
A man pays a fortune to choose his future from the three available at a seedy “time travel” shop. Like others before him he chooses the world doomed to destruction. The process is a con but that isn’t the point of the story.

Triceratops by Tensei Kono, translated by David Lewis.
The title rather gives this one away. A father and son see a triceratops on their way home one night and subsequently dinosaurs pop up all over the place. Everyone else seems to ignore the manifestations. To explain the sudden appearances there is mention of dimensional faults and time-lag universes but these seem more of a sop than anything else.

Fnifmum by Tensei Kono, translated by Katsumi Shindo and Grania Davis.
Fnifmum is a creature who grows through time, expanding into the future while contracting more slowly from the past; but he can access all the points along his body. Losing contact with his gene partner in the past he moves to the future and encounters two humanoids. The translation in this story has one awkwardness. What it terms “carbonic acid gas” is more usually known in English as carbon dioxide.

Standing Woman by Yasutaka Tsutsui, translated by David Lewis.
Mammals can be planted in the ground as dog- or catpillars, eventually turning into dog- and cattrees. A writer who has just finished a short story sets out to post it in a manpillar, who used to be a postman, and talks to him/it. Conversations like this are against the law. The writer then goes on to talk to his wife.

The Legend of the Paper Spaceship by Tetsu Yano, translated by Gene van Troyer and Tomoko Oshiro.
An apparently mad woman flies a paper aeroplane while naked. She is Osen, whom all the men of the village come to for sex, even when she has a son. The child, Emon, is burdened with telepathy and eventually blows away the cobwebs in Osen’s mind, discovering the cause of her madness and his inheritance.

Is there anything here that bespeaks difference? That we can point to as Japanese? Well, the style of a lot of the stories tends to parable or fable but that’s not unknown elsewhere. There is a certain distancing, of us being told things rather than shown them but some of this may be due to the filter of translation. What is present is a sense of the slightly altered, the askew, the not-quite-right. By contrast with most US SF the protagonists tend to be reactive or passive rather than proactive. There is also a tendency to take life as being contingent and prone to oddnesses. While no individual story would appear too out of place in any SF anthology, as a whole the collection definitely has a different feel from an Anglophone one.

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