I was all set to rant about how Shinichi Hoshi is totally underappreciated and how amazing his work is and what a damned shame it is that there is no information on him in English, and then I did a search on him. Oh. Apparently, it is just everyone I know who totally does not appreciate/know about Hoshi. Although his last book in English was published over twenty years ago, so I guess I can still pout about that.
If you are one of the people that I do not know personally who does not know Hoshi and his large body of work, however, allow me to introduce you. Stranger on the Internet, meet prolific Japanese science fiction writer Shinichi Hoshi. Shinichi Hoshi, meet—Oh, you died in 1997. Never mind. …So uh, this is awkward. Let’s just talk about the book.
It is green! So green! One of my favourite shades of green and actually what drew my eye to it in the bookstore. And then I saw the name Shinichi Hoshi and knew that I had to have it. Hoshi has written some of my favourite stories ever, like “Sneeze” in which a man sneezes inspirational bees, or “The Man Who Came From Earth”, which features a man who believes he has been exiled to a planet that is exactly the same as the earth he longs to return to, right down to his wife and child.
All of which is to say that I had high hopes when I opened up Akuma ga iru Tengoku (Demons in Heaven). And the book both did and did not disappoint. It is one of those books. I might recommend another collection of his work like the one named after the aforementioned “The Man Who Came From Earth”, but I think it is more me than Hoshi that led to the disappointment, so at this point, I can’t say that I wouldn’t have the same mixed feelings after re-reading that collection.
But let’s talk about what makes Hoshi great for me. He has a very dispassionate, uncomplicated style, almost like he is watching the whole thing unfold from off in the distance somewhere. His protagonists almost never get names. They are almost always “the man”, “the professor”, “the scientist”. And details are generally ignored in favour of the story at hand.
So you end up with amazing moments like in “Uchu no Kitsune” (Space Fox). A man just shows up at the door of a space research centre. Yes, because you know, there are space centres everywhere and just anyone can go to them. And when the scientist inside answers the door, because it is a homey kind of operation without secretaries, the man suggests that the space peeps use this fox in space. Because it is a shape-changing fox and you could eat it in space and it would be in the shape of a pig, and hence be ham on your plate, if you want. But the space fox has other ideas! Foxy ideas!
So many of Hoshi’s stories feature this total lack of any kind of bureaucratic structure which would hinder the story at hand. He just gets straight to it. There’s an alien and it’s landing at the airport. Accept it. Don’t bother wondering where everyone in charge of everything is. And I guess that’s why his stories tend to fall on the short short side of the short story box. When you look at the table of contents and see thirty-six titles for a book that is only 257 pages long, you know you are in for some short shorts. There are a few longer stories in here, especially towards the end, but for the most part, they are three or four pages long, perfect for reading in quick breaks from work. (Yes, this is how I read most of this book.)
All of this is not to say that he couldn’t whip out the details when he needed to. Like in one of the longer pieces “Peter Pan Island”. Human beings have gotten super scientific and killed any remaining pieces of magic in the world. And yet some children persist in believing in fairies and the like. So these freaks are sent off to a school in the middle of nowhere so that they don’t infect others with their irrational thinking. But then it turns out there really is magic?! Or rather it turns out Hoshi loves a twist ending. Before the twist ending, though, he has a lovely description of the lights of the disappearing shore growing more and more distant until they became a single firefly dancing above the ocean surface before finally sinking below the horizon.
The thing I kept noticing, though, as I read this collection was that all the protagonists are men. Men going to space, men doing science, men selling machinery, men trying to live forever. And a writer writing her stories about one sex or the other is nothing particularly shocking, but there are almost no women in these stories. When women do pop up, it is always in the most sexist way: the nagging housewife, the compassionate nurse, the little girl prone to flights of fancy. There is also a real Nice Guy™ thing happening, as various men seethe about showing those bitches. All of which left a bitter taste in my mouth and made me wonder if I wouldn’t notice the same thing if I went back and re-read the older work of his that I have loved now that my Japanese is better and I think about the problems in the things that I read more.
These stories are from the eighties, so definitely later in his career, which might account for the Nice Guy™ thing. Like maybe he turned into a bitter old man. But him being a man from an older generation in a country that does not have the best record when it comes to the ladies, the sexist representations of women are probably going to still be hiding in there no matter how you look at it. This doesn’t mean I/we can’t enjoy his work, Stranger on the Internet. After all, there is a story about a space dog circus negotiating with alien dogs in here. Space. Dog. Circus. Diplomacy. It just means it’s problematic and we should probably keep that in mind while we read about those space dogs.