The Future is Japanese: Nick Mamatas, Masumi Washington (eds.)

I’m not going to lie: the reason I bought this book was to read the lone Toh EnJoe story contained in its pages. Because although I liked the idea of a collection of short stories by Japanese speculative fiction authors, The Future is Japanese features only five Japanese authors—the “from” part of the “science fiction futures and brand new fantasies from and about Japan” in the subtitle—leaving the other eight authors in the collection to fill out the “about” part. And whenever I see stories “about” Japan, I get a little wary of the possibility of fetishization. (I say this as the non-Japanese author of a book set in Japan. Oh, the irony!)

To be honest, the other stuff Haikasoru, the fiction imprint of Viz Media publishing Japanese science fiction and fantasy, hasn’t really grabbed me with its releases. Maybe just because none of their stuff seems to make it to my local bookstore shelves for me to take in hand and flip through? Maybe because I just don’t like the type of “space opera. dark fantasy. hard science” that they publish? 

Whatever the reason, I put my amorphous almost-prejudice aside when I heard about The Future, and I made sure to order it from that local (and independent! Support your indie bookseller!) bookstore. Because I really, really wanted to see what someone other than me would do with Toh EnJoe in English, and this is, as far as I know, one of the only stories of his in English that I did not translate. (The other one is in Kurodan Press’s Speculative Japan 2, which I am very much looking forward to reading, especially after reading this review) (Oh, and you can read my translations here and here.) He is so much awesome and I devoured his work in Japanese (I will write about his longer works one of these days, I promise). But translation is tricky and I love seeing what other translators do with the same author.

“Endoastronomy” translator Terry Gallagher did not disappoint, not that I thought he would. I have seen his name here and there in connection with other translations and never had a grumbling thought about those works. I especially like the way he handled a tricky gender issue (that I won’t give away. You’ll know it when you see it!). And EnJoe keeps up his end of things with a thoughtful glimpse of a world where subtraction and division are forbidden, and a city on the moon blinks at you like a giant black eye. Like a lot of EnJoe stories, there’s not a lot of “story” of the narrative, forward-looking type, but a lot of contemplative philosophy and casual, small moments. (And we all know how much I love a small moment.)

I found the other stories a bit hit or miss, and often in need of a firmer editorial hand. I know, I should get it tattooed on my forehead: needs an editor. But editors exist for a reason, and books really are better when the editor tightens everything up and gives the author the tiny pushes that she or he might need. A couple of the translations, in particular, really need someone to go through them with a finer-toothed comb. Stumbling upon a very obvious verb tense error is the kind of distracting mistake I don’t expect in books that are not stapled together.

That said, a couple of the stories stuck with me in very real, very thoughtful ways. The lead story “Mono no Aware” by Ken Liu really got into my head and hung around there for days. Before the world is destroyed by “the Hammer”, eight-year-old boy Hiroto boards the only ship to sail away to the relative safety of the void, the only Japanese person in a sea of Americans and a smattering of other nationalities. A grown-up when the story begins, at the moment disaster strikes in its quiet way, he is the only one who has a chance of saving the fragile world of the space ship and the last of humanity within. It’s pretty beautiful, moving back and forth between Hiroto’s memories of Earth before the disaster and life on the ship. And finally his journey into the deep.

“The Sea of Trees” by Rachel Swirsky was also perfect in unexpected ways. A woman ravaged by the ghost of her lover spends her days in a forest filled with ghosts, knowing full well that one day, she will not be strong enough to resist their tempting assault. The narrator is Japanese in a very matter-of-fact way, the same way that her hair is black, and the cultural references feel natural and unforced, free of the fetishization I feared.

I can’t say the same of all the stories. More than once a Japanese word was used as is by an English author with no gloss of any kind, as if it was an English word that the casual English reader would know. And I realize that this volume is likely not intended for the casual English reader, but I’m not so in love with the forced elitism of using a foreign language as English. Because you know, that’s pretty offputting to the English reader who does pick up the book thinking to read more stuff outside their usual sphere.

But let’s not end on a sour note! Take a look at “One Breath, One Stroke” by Catherynne M. Valente and rejoice! This may be my favourite in the whole volume, filled with Japanese cultural and folklore reference that read well even if you know nothing of either. It’s more an atmosphere than any sort of straightforward narrative, an enumerated list of properties and characteristics of the inhabitants of the House of Second-Half Carnelian, which is half in the human world and half in “another place”. It’s so factual with its listing of details, but leaves room to imagine the ideas and feelings inhabiting those details. And the closing story “Autogenic Dreaming” by Tobi Hirotaka is a slippery story of an enormous artificial intelligence with its own Moby Dick to take down that made me want to read it again as soon as I finished it.

So maybe get this one from the library? I’m not sure it’s a keeper, but there are definitely a few stories that merit more than one read. Which means it probably gets to stay on my shelf a while at least.

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