The Future Is Japanese: Science Fiction Futures and Brand New Fantasies from and about Japan

Editor: Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington
Publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421542232
Released: May 2012

I have been impatiently waiting for The Future Is Japanese: Science Fiction Futures and Brand New Fantasies from and about Japan, edited by Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington, ever since the anthology was first announced. I already adore Viz Media’s Japanese speculative fiction imprint Haikasoru and will buy and read anything it publishes. However, I was particularly excited about The Future Is Japanese because it is Haikasoru’s first original publication. (I also hope that it isn’t the last.) I was thrilled when the book was finally released in 2012. The anthology collects thirteen stories from creators both East and West (primarily Japanese and American). All but two of the stories were being published for the first time. Just looking at the table of contents I was very pleased with what I saw. Most of the contributors to The Future Is Japanese are already award-winners in their own rights; those whose works with which I wasn’t already familiar I at least recognized by name. As an added bonus, the book’s cover illustration is by Yuko Shimizu, one of my favorite artists. The Future Is Japanese had a lot going for it from the very start.

After a foreword by Masumi Washington and an introduction by Nick Mamatas, The Future Is Japanese begins strongly with Ken Liu’s short story “Mono no Aware,” a meditation on impermanence wrapped in a science fiction tale of humanity’s survival at the edge of space. The next two stories were probably my least favorite in the collection although there were moments in each that I enjoyed tremendously. “The Sound of Breaking Up” by Felicity Savage starts as one story and ends up being an entirely different one. This frustrated me because I was more interested in the first. David Mole’s mecha tale “Chitai Heiki Koronbīn” ends too abruptly for my taste and seemed like it should be the introduction to a longer work. (Granted, one that I would like to read.) These are followed by “The Indifference Engine” by Project Itoh which explores war, hatred, and prejudice. Originally published in 2007, the story confirmed the fact that I want to read everything written by Itoh. The next story was one of my personal favorites in the anthology, “The Sea of Trees” by Rachel Swirsky, a haunting tale about death, ghosts, and letting go. Toh EnJoe’s story “Endoastronomy,” which follows next, has a philosophical and intellectual bent to it, something I enjoy about and have come to expect from his work.

The next selection, “In Plain Sight” by Pat Cadigan deals with the complications caused by artificial and augmented realities. The Future Is Japanese continues with “Golden Bread” by Issui Ogawa. I happen to be fond of Ogawa’s longer works and was not disappointed with his short story. Next is Catherynne M. Valente’s contribution, “One Breath, One Stroke” which is about yokai that live close to the human world. Written in a delightful but fragmented style, the work creates more of a mood rather than a cohesive story. Ekaterina Sedia’s near future and slightly melancholic tale “Whale Meat” follows. Next in the anthology is a selection from the extremely prolific Hideyuki Kikuchi. I actually preferred “Mountain People, Ocean People” over many of the other works of his that I have read. Following next is “Goddess of Mercy” by Bruce Sterling, one of the longer stories in the collection it is about the pirates and darkness that settle on Tsushima island after Japan is destroyed. The Future Is Japanese concludes with “Autogenic Dreaming: Interview with the Columns of Clouds” by TOBI Hirotaka. Originally published in 2009, the story won a Seiun Award in 2010. A complex story featuring a digitization project that has unexpected consequences, “Autogenic Dreaming” particularly appealed to my information science background.

As with most short story collections, how much a reader will enjoy each individual work in The Future Is Japanese will depend on personal preferences. Although I wasn’t blown away by the anthology, personally I found The Future Is Japanese to be a very satisfying read. The short story can be a difficult form to master, but even the works that I found problematic had their strong points. The stories do all tend to be serious in tone, but the collection covers a nice range of speculative fiction from fantasy to science fiction to horror. The Future Is Japanese also has a good balance between Western and Japanese authors. Appropriately enough for the anthology’s theme, even the Western works show Japanese influence, whether stemming from the writers’ personal interests or from the creators having lived in or visited Japan. Overall, The Future Is Japanese is a solid anthology that was well worth the wait.

Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights

Author: Ryū Mitsuse
Translator: Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421539041
Released: November 2011
Original release: 1967

Ryū Mitsuse’s Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights is considered to be one of the greatest Japanese science fiction novels to have ever been written. As a lover of both science fiction and Japanese literature, I knew I wanted to read it without any hesitation. I was thrilled when Haikasoru, Viz Media’s Japanese speculative fiction imprint, released the English translation by Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander in 2011. Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights was originally published in Japan in 1967 but Mitsuse slightly revised the book in 1973. Haikasoru’s edition is based on this revision. Very little of Mitsuse’s work is currently available in English. The only other two works that I know of are Andromeda Stories, a manga collaboration with Keiko Takemiya which I have read and enjoyed, and his short story “The Sunset, 2217 A.D.” which was included in Best Science Fiction for 1972, edited by Frederik Pohl, which I now plan on tracking down.

Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights begins with the birth of a planet. It ends eons later. From the deepest depths of the sea to the farthest reaches of space, from a time epochs before the existence of humanity to an age beyond its downfall, the journey is epic in its scale. There is the city of Atlantis, its brilliance and its destruction as incomprehensible to its population as it is to those outside. There is Plato and his search for the long lost city, leading him to unexpected places and revelations. There is Prince Siddhārtha, destined to become the Buddha, whose quest for enlightenment changes him completely. There is the unprecedented influence of Jesus of Nazareth, whose presence changes the world. And there is the final confrontation between incredible forces at the end of it all.

The translation of Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights is phenomenal. The prologue is especially stunning in addition to being one of the more immediately accessible portions of the novel. The prologue actually happens to be one of my favorite parts of the book; I’ve already read and reread it several times on its own. Mitsuse’s writing combines the real and the fantastic in wondrous ways. Particularly impressive in Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights is his layering of Buddhist and scientific cosmologies. However, some of the chapters may be a little overwhelming to a reader who does not already have some familiarity with Buddhism. The same is true for Christianity as well, but to a much lesser extent. Granted, after four chapters of setup, more than half of the book, Mitsuse lets loose and challenges readers to reconsider everything they thought they knew, anyway.

Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights is not an easy read. The story is not just there to be consumed passively. Instead, it demands thought and contemplation; the reader is required to make an effort in order to fully appreciate the novel. While reading Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights, I was constantly struck by a heady sense of vertigo, adrift with complete understanding seeming to be just beyond my grasp. It’s a feeling that the characters, too, must deal with. But throughout the novel are threads that tie everything together, so thin that they might not even be noticed at first, but serving as a tenuous anchor. Seemingly unrelated events are shown to be connected and carry a greater significance than might be initially assumed. It is only after finishing the entire novel that things will really begin to fall into place and sink in. I’ve been thinking about Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights ever since I finished the book and my admiration continues to grow. I want, and need, to read it again.


Author: Otsuichi
Translator: Terry Gallagher
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421525877
Released: September 2009
Original release: 2006

Zoo is the second prose work by Otsuichi that I’ve read. It was published by Viz Media’s Japanese speculative fiction imprint Haikasoru in 2009 with a translation by Terry Gallagher, making it one of the earliest releases to come out of the division. Haikasoru was actually a little worried that Zoo wouldn’t do well; general horror doesn’t sell as much as many other genres in the United States. Happily, Zoo ended up becoming a finalist for the 2009 Shirley Jackson Award for a single-author collection. The short story collection was originally published in Japan in 2006, which makes it the most recent of Otsuichi’s works currently available in English. Even though another of his collections, Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse (also published by Haikasoru) received a later English release than Zoo, the stories are from earlier in Otsuichi’s career. Having been impressed by his award-winning novel Goth, I was looking forward to reading Zoo.

Zoo collects eleven of Otsuichi’s horror short stories, beginning with the titular “Zoo.” There isn’t really an overarching theme to the stories, per se. In fact, there is a rather pleasant variety. “The White House in the Cold Forest” has a fairytale-like feel to it while “Song of the Sunny Spot” easily qualifies as science fiction. Some, like “In a Falling Airplane” and “Wardrobe” are firmly placed in the real world. “Find the Blood!” has a humorous, albeit dark, bent to it while there is nothing funny about “Words of God” at all. Familial relationships are often important in the stories collected in Zoo, but that is especially true for “Kazari and Yoko” and “SO-far.” Even the length of the stories vary. “In a Park at Twilight, a Long Time Ago” is just barely over two pages while the books finale, “Seven Rooms,” is the longest at thirty-nine.

While the eleven stories are very different, they share some similarities as well. All of the situations and settings that Otsuichi has created are bizarre and disconcerting. The stories are also all told from a first person perspective (except for arguably one) and the narrators aren’t always the most reliable. If the circumstances that the characters find themselves in are strange, they themselves are just as abnormal. It is frequently difficult to determine just where the border between fantasy and reality lies, or even if there is one. Another characteristic that the stories share, and I think this must be one of Otsuichi’s signatures, is that they all feature a twist of some sort in their plots. Sometimes there are even multiple twists. Even though I have come to expect this from Otsuichi’s work, the actual plot developments can still be surprising and quite effective.

The variety in the stories collected in Zoo is one of the book’s strongest points. Each story has a unique feel to it and each narrator has a distinct, individual voice. My compliments go to the translator for capturing this aspect of Otsuichi’s work so well. As with any short story collection, there will be a range in the quality of the individual works. The enjoyment of each story will also differ from reader to reader and will depend on personal taste to some extent. I, for one, didn’t particularly like “Find the Blood!” until I realized how funny it actually was. But once I did, I enjoyed the story very much. Overall, Zoo is a great, creepy collection. I’m not at all surprised that it received an award nomination. If I wasn’t a fan of Otsuichi already, I certainly am now. Currently, there are only two books by Otsuichi still in print in English, Zoo and Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse. I hope to see more of Otsuichi’s works translated in the future.

The Lord of the Sands of Time

Author: Issui Ogawa
Translator: Jim Hubbert
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421527628
Released: July 2009
Original release: 2007

The Lord of the Sands of Time was the first work by Issui Ogawa to be released in English. Originally published in Japan in 2007, Viz Media’s Japanese speculative fiction imprint Haikasoru released Jim Hubbert’s English translation in 2009. In fact, The Lord of the Sands of Time was one of Haikasoru’s debut titles along with Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need Is Kill. I find it interesting that both novels deal with alien invasion and some sort of time travel, but their approach is very different. In addition to The Lord of the Sands of Time Haikasoru has also published the only other work by Ogawa currently available in English—his Seiun Award winning The Next Continent. Haikasoru has become one of my favorite imprints so I was interested in reading The Lord of the Sands of Time not only on its own merits, but because it was one of Haikasoru’s first publications, too.

Toward the end of the 26th century, humanity is nearly wiped out by an alien invasion force and if the fighting continues they are sure to lose. But when humans develop the capability to send a group of people back in time, hope is restored. A temporal army made up of advanced cyborgs with highly sophisticated AI systems is built for this purpose. In addition to being weapons, the cyborgs, known as Messengers, are sent into the past to warn humanity of the imminent invasion. They soon discover that the alien force also has the ability to time travel. The Messengers are forced into a deadly game of leapfrog, finding it necessary to travel further and further back into human history. Winning some battles and losing others, their resources can not and will not last forever. Even the Messengers continued existence is at stake as they fight for humanity’s survival.

Although it isn’t explained in any sort of depth, time travel is extremely important in The Lord of the Sands of Time. Granted, even Orville—one of the primary characters—admits he doesn’t understand it. The only thing that matters to him (and for the sake of the story) is that it works. Unfortunately, the time travelling concepts that Ogawa does introduce don’t always seem to be as cohesive as they could be. In order to avoid confusion, I simply tried not to think too hard about the specifics and mechanics and trust what Ogawa was doing. Travel into the past, or upstreaming, is readily practiced, but once there there is no way to return; the Messengers must simply wait and hope they can survive long enough for the future to catch back up with them. The chapters in The Lord of the Sands of Time alternate between 248 AD and other time periods. The structure is interesting because 248 AD acts as the present and the future becomes the history. The narrative style also changes to emphasize this; the future is described very matter-of-factly while the present is told in a more immediate, active, and chaotic fashion.

The Lord of the Sands of Time is not a long book but the story it tells is satisfyingly complete. I really enjoyed the novel. I did find the first chapter a little difficult to get into at first, but after a slow start the pacing picks up nicely. Orville is very charismatic, both to the reader and to other characters in the novel, and I enjoyed learning more about him immensely. The other primary character, Himiko, is also interesting. She also happens to be based on a historical shaman Queen from the Yayoi period. I enjoyed how Ogawa legitimately incorporated anachronisms with events and people from history. The integration also felt natural—it wasn’t as though people were running around with laser guns in the 3rd century. Rather, their technology was more advanced within their own capabilities and resources. Since I enjoyed The Lord of the Sands of Time, I look forward to reading some of Ogawa’s other works, beginning with The Next Continent.

Mardock Scramble

Author: Tow Ubukata
Translator: Edwin Hawkes
U.S. Publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421537641
Released: January 2011
Original release: 2003
Awards: Nihon SF Taisho Award

Mardock Scramble by Tow Ubukata was originally released in Japan in 2003 as a three volume series, granted with a month of one another. Also in 2003, Mardock Scramble won Ubukata the 24th annual Nihon SF Taisho Award. The three books—The First Compression, The Second Combustion, and The Third Exhaust—were published in an English translation by Viz Media’s Japanese speculative fiction imprint Haikasoru as a single, massive tome. Haikasoru’s edition of Mardock Scramble was released in 2011 with a translation by Edwin Hawkes. Mardock Scramble is the first of Ubukata’s novels to be made available in English although at least two of his manga series, the first three volumes of Pilgrim Jäger and the entirety of Le Chevalier d’Eon, have seen publication in English. The manga adaptation of Mardock Scramble is scheduled for English release in August 2011 from Kodansha Comics and an anime adaptation was released in 2010.

Rune-Balot was fifteen when she was murdered by her benefactor Shell-Septinos. Balot’s life was a difficult one; she was abused as a child and forced into prostitution. A part of her wanted to die, but another part wanted to live. Two PIs investigating Shell at the time of Balot’s death were able to rescue her. Eager to prove their usefulness to society, they initiated the life preservation program Mardock Scramble 09. Balot’s body is combined with highly advanced and normally illegal technology, giving her her life back along with super human abilities. She, who had been powerless for so long, could now fight back. Along with the support of the PIs, Dr. Easter and Oeufcoque, who have some interesting capabilities of their own, Balot is eager to get her revenge. But shell isn’t completely defenseless. His extremely powerful and brutal bodyguard Boiled, who also happens to be Oeufcoque’s old partner, is more than prepared to nullify Balot’s existence.

I find Mardock Scramble difficult to classify. It’s definitely speculative fiction, and most likely science fiction although it doesn’t always feel that way. I’ve also seen the series referred to as cyberpunk, which almost fits. But whatever it is, Mardock Scramble is a lot of fun. For the most part. The action sequences and gun fights are exciting and easy to follow; the characters are likeable and interesting, each with their own quirks and unique personalities. The frequent egg puns and references were a bit odd, but fit well with the vague strangeness of the story. The technology might not always be believable, but some of it is, and even if it’s not it’s still pretty cool. I didn’t quite understand some of the worldbuilding; the bizarre legal and law enforcement system is still a mystery to me, which is unfortunate since it’s fairly important to the story.

I am very glad the Haikasoru decided to publish Mardock Scramble as a single volume, otherwise I’m not sure I would have finished the series and that would have been a pity. I loved the first book, enjoyed much of the second, and thought the action packed ending of the third was great. But in the middle of the quickly paced story, there’s a lengthy scene that takes place in a casino that slows things down tremendously. I didn’t mind this at first, and even enjoyed it and found it interesting to some extent. But after one hundred eighty pages of Blackjack, I was getting impatient. Maybe if it was a gambling game that I actually cared about, like Mahjong, I would have been okay. But I don’t give a damn about Blackjack, even if it was necessary for the story. Overall though, I did enjoy Mardock Scramble: I liked the quirky characters, I liked their captivating backstories, I found the twisting plot to be entertaining. And Hawkes’ translation is fantastically smooth. With the creativity displayed by Ubukata in Mardock Scramble, I wouldn’t mind exploring some of his other works.