As part of my mission to expand my reading horizons, I’ve been dipping my toes into the shallow end of the Japanese science fiction/fantasy pool. Ever so tentatively. I’ve been reading SFF in English since I was a kid, thanks to the reading proclivities of my nerd dad, but I read almost no SFF in other languages. The barrier for entry just seems too high. After all, SFF is basically the one genre where everything is totally made up. Sure, there’s some more grounded stuff, closer to magic realism than science fiction, but for the most part, this is a genre where authors delight in creating new worlds, new cultures, and new words even. And when you’re reading that in a second language, a language in which you are lacking the full vocabulary you have in your native tongue, all that newness can send you spinning off into a literary blackhole of doom. Is this unfamiliar word just one you don’t know or is it one the author made up? Should you look it up or just wait and see? Not to mention when the story is set in some entirely imagined world, you lose all the context you normally get from the world around you to help you decipher difficult passages and concepts.
So SFF is a daunting read for the non-native speaker. But from the peeks I’ve gotten here and there, through work in translation or the Japanese magazines I pick up from time to time, I know the world of Japanese science fiction is full of exciting and interesting stories that I want to read. So I have been mustering up my courage and prowling around the SFF sections of the bookstores I frequent, trying to find something really great and challenge my language skills at the same time. Some of the books I’ve stumbled upon have been hugely disappointing (I’m looking at you, Mirai e by Motoko Arai!), but I’ve happened upon a few treasures, including, of course, Sayuri Ueda’s recently published short story collection Yume Miru Ashibue.
I first came across Ueda’s work in the Haikasoru anthology Phantasm Japan with the story “The Street of Fruiting Bodies” (which Wikipedia tells me Viz is making a movie of, and I’m not sure that is the greatest idea, but I guess?). I totally loved the story—it was probably my favourite in the anthology—so naturally, I wanted to check out more of Ueda’s stuff. But when I hunted her down at the bookstore, I was faced with the multi-volume, hard SF-looking Ocean Chronicle, and I quickly walked away. I was not ready for this waterworld of artificial intelligence.
But I kept hanging around the SFF section, and all my loitering paid off when I spotted this collection of short stories earlier this year. Even if they were all hard SF, short stories seemed doable. If nothing else, I would only be confused and frustrated for thirty or so pages before I would get to leave the confusing and frustrating world behind and tackle a new possibly confusing and frustrating world. But I should have had more faith in Ueda’s skill as a writer. I was not confused or frustrated by one of the ten stories collected here! In fact, I basically fell deep into the worlds she created in them and was sad to reach the end of almost every one of them.
The first story, though, the titular “Yume Miru Ashibue”, was the one I couldn’t stop thinking about, long after I finished reading it. It’s one of those stories that slowly shifts the reader from the real world into a weirdo world, and performs this feat so smoothly that this new world of sea anemone singing aliens seems totally plausible, something that could really happen in our world. Aki is on her way to see her ex-bandmate Kyoko play in a club when she encounters a white, human-shaped thing with no eyes, nose, or mouth and tentacles hanging down from its head. It makes this music that delights the crowd gathering around it, but Aki is deeply disturbed by this song and flees. She thinks it’s just a street performer, but no, no, that is not how this plays out.
This story is also quietly and unabashedly queer in a way that delighted me. It’s not until you’re a few pages in that you find out that Kyoko is not only Aki’s ex-bandmate, but her ex-girlfriend too. This is revealed to zero fanfare. Ueda gives us this back story by casually dropping an “again” into a sentence informing us that the two women start sleeping together. The relationship between Aki and Kyoko simply exists and forms the backbone of the story. Through this relationship and the intrusion of the sea anemone people, Ueda examines the nature of creativity and the artist, the difficulty of creation and the importance of non-corporate, individual art.
She picks at this thread of the value of art in other stories here too, like in “Ishimayu”. A salaryman on his way to the job he hates comes across a white cocoon on a telephone pole. It looks just like one an insect would make, but it’s human-sized. At first, he thinks it’s an art piece by one of the art school students, but when he happens upon it again on his way home that night, it cracks open and spills jewels at his feet. Precious gems. He scoops them up, thrilled. He’ll be able to sell them and quit his job. But an enticing smell wafts up from a red one, the scent of tomatoes and olive oil and basil. Without thinking, he puts the gem in his mouth and is instantly transported to an unfamiliar Italian restaurant where he enjoys an incredible pasta dinner before being returned to his apartment. He then eats the other jewels and lives through all kinds of unexpected experiences. The shortest story in the collection, it’s weirdly beautiful.
But she doesn’t stick to magic realism leaning works like this. In fact, the majority of the stories are set in space, like “Hyouha”, in which a collective artificial intelligence on the moon Mimas helps a digital copy of a famous artist surf the rings of Saturn. Or in “Purio no Chi”, where the denizens of a tower world must swing from tower to tower on ropes and pulleys, being careful not to fall into the dangerous swamps below, teeming with all kinds of horrible creatures. The protagonist in “Puteros” explores and catalogues alien worlds, knowing he can never go to earth, a planet he has only seen in pictures.
And the other stories that take place in our world take a sharp SF tack. In “Kanzennaru Nozui”, after nanomachines used in war nearly wipe out the human race, scientists manage to grow human body parts with brains in the lab. But they can’t manage a head or torso, so these body parts are attached to mechanical brains and given artificial bodies. And thus the world is divided into “sims” and “natras”. The sims are not just AI, but sentient, and the sim police officer that is our protagonist is not happy to be treated like a second-class citizen. There’s a rumour that if a sim links enough sim brains with their own, they will develop a human-level intelligence and be able to break free from the rules programmed into their sim brains.
A couple of the stories in here dragged a bit at first, when Ueda was more concerned with setting up the world for her protagonists first, rather than giving us a protagonist to care about. But even when the story was bogged down in world-building at the start, after a couple pages, it was back on track, and I was completely immersed again.
And the book itself is a lovely creature! I often roll my eyes at Japanese book design because there are so, so many ugly books on Japanese shelves, but this book is a treasure. The cover is just so soothing and inviting with its shades of blue, and the English font is not actually the default English font in Japanese that too many publishers are okay with using. And then under the cover and inside the cover, the most beautiful lacquered black with the English title printed tiny and neatly on the edge. I wish all books got this kind of loving treatment. This is also the first book I’ve gotten that has an obi over the original obi. The new obi was clearly quickly thrown together to capitalize on Ueda being ranked the best domestic SF writer of the last year. And that “No. 1” in gold is indeed very enticing. Almost enticing enough to make me think about tackling her long-form SF. After this collection of stories, I feel like my non-native Japanese won’t be the barrier I feared it would be. But that’s probably because Ueda’s writing is so sharp and clear, even when she’s creating worlds out of whole cloth.