Fall is still for science fiction, friends, so I hope you’ve been devouring some of the many great books being released these days. Or maybe you’re digging deep into the backlist of SF pubs like Tor or Angry Robot or Haikasoru and finding new treasures you missed the first time around. Or perhaps you are building a little fortress of all the great SF comics in the bookstore. (You should ask the clerk if it’s okay before you do this, though.) (It will be, of course, and the clerk will join you in this mission gladly, but it’s always polite to ask first.) I am over here lamenting the lack of SF manga not only in translation, but in Japanese. I think the fantasy part of SFF is pretty well represented in both Japanese and translation, but where is all the SF?! And I don’t mean mecha stuff. I mean, giant robots are great and all, but I want the science fiction of dystopian/utopian futures, distant planets, and cultural criticism couched in alien manners.
Basically, I want Yumiko Shirai. And fortunately for all of us, hot on the heels of her being the third manga artist to win Japan’s version of the Nebula, the Nihon SF Taisho, for the masterwork that is Wombs, she is trying her hand at shojo manga. SF isn’t unheard of in the shojo world—Moto Hagio and Keiko Takemiya both gave us some fine shojo SF back in the day—but I feel like I don’t see too much of it these days. (Please feel free to loudly correct me in the comments if I am just blind to a rich variety of shojo SF being published right now.) We all know how much I love Shirai and also how I am on a sort of mission to expand my reading in women/girl-oriented genres, so you can only imagine my great delight upon hearing about the release of Iwa to Niki no Shinkon Ryoko. “A true force in the world of SF takes on shojo manga!!” the obi declares, and I am excited.
I was hoping that Iwa was a single story about the mysterious honeymoon promised by the title, but it turned out to be a collection of five short stories. These end up being somewhat loosely tied together, however, so it feels more like the single long story I was originally expecting. Five hundred years ago, the earth was invaded by an alien empire and after wars and battles all over the place (details omitted), the empire takes control of the earth and decides the best way to rule the place is to make use of local mythologies and religions to create stable governments. So each story in the book brings together ancient religion and futuristic technology in a seamless and original blend of science fiction and myth. Shirai even has a couple pages at the end of the book to tell the reader about the original myths and characters in them.
First up is the tale of Japanese god Iwanaga-hime. Originally sent off to be the wife of Niniki together with her younger sister, she alone is sent back for being too ugly. In Shirai’s “Iwa to Niki no Shinkon Ryoko”, Iwanaga-hime is now a giant rock monster, once a self-regenerating AI soldier, and the first prince of the land must marry her, in an arrangement designed to ensure the control of the alien invaders. But the first prince commits suicide only days before the scheduled nuptials, and so second-in-line Niki heads out to do his duty as the new eldest son in the royal family. There’s a Beauty and the Beast-ness to the story, obviously, but with space war and gene harvesting and betrayal and lies, all the drama every shojo story needs. It’s surprising at every turn and weirdly heartwarming. Shirai digs into Greek mythology next, first with “Shintaku to Haiiro no Kami no Shonen” and then with “Andromeda-go de Joshikai wo”. Greek mythology is probably the one I’m most familiar with, having gone through a period in my teens when I was determined to study Classics, but the way Shirai incorporates these stories into her future empire surprised me in a good way. And I kind of want her to tell more ancient Greek-based stories if only so she can draw more flowy robes. Shirai’s work has always been stunningly full of movement, but putting robes on the characters seriously takes that to the next level. And “Shintaku” puts dance front and center, giving her even more opportunities to show off the vitality of her lines.
Here, the empire sets up an AI Apollo, complete with Oracle at Delphi and a Musaeum that controls all the art produced in the land. The AI has scanned all the art humanity has ever made and now seeks something original, outside the prescriptions of the algorithms it’s developed. Naturally, it is genetically engineering humans to be artists to that end. A family of stone sculptors tries to create the original something, but one of them is drawn to dance, even though the AI hasn’t accepted a work of dance in generations. There’s a nice underlying comment on the commercialization of art and the danger of unregulated art, how it has the power to change lives and topple governments. The last two stories come from Chinese mythology, the consciousness of an Imperial princess banished to computer networks, guarded by the terracotta warriors of her burial site in a virtual Shangri-La. Here, we get men on horseback, beautiful ink wash vistas, and earth-swallowing dragons, along with another bridge connecting all the stories to each other. Shirai’s work in this book is just as gorgeous as ever, but fully embraces the emotional elements that define shojo manga. Which is not to say that Wombs or Rafnas were heartless; those books hit their own emotional notes. But Iwa gives readers the drama of star-crossed love, the turmoil of finding your own way in the world, and the joy of a good friend at your side. Shirai may have started off in seinen, but her contribution to shojo is a delight, and I can’t wait for someone to let her do a longer story in the genre.