Viz have been very savvy in their selection of novels to translate and publish in the English-speaking world, with the end result of the Haikasoru imprint being a range of books that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed so far. Admittedly, some were more impressive than others but each and every one of them has been deserving of reaching a wider international audience.
Which brings us to the first short story collection (not counting the excellent Stories of Ibis), which showcases some shorter pieces whose length wouldn’t justify stand-alone releases. Tellingly, these are not comprised purely of Japanese writers: the selection appears to be based on general cultural themes rather than the basis of the contributors’ nationalities. It’s an unusual move for the publisher, but I daresay it makes the end results even more interesting and their rationale makes sense when you read the stories themselves.
The expected highlight for me was the contribution from Issui Ogawa, and Golden Bread didn’t disappoint. It has a combination of hard science (crop cultivation in zero gravity, cultural evolution/cross-pollination) and good old human sentimentality that I really appreciated. After Lord of the Sands of Time and The Next Continent (the latter being one of my all-time fave SF novels) it’s pure Ogawa: Clarke-ian speculative fiction of the highest calibre with some optimistic warmth thrown in for good measure. I loved it.
There is also a striking effort from the late Project Itoh, which I suspect is closer to reality than many of us are willing to admit. The Indifference Engine feels chillingly convincing and vividly written but lacks the black satirical humour of his full-length dystopian novel Harmony (except, perhaps, the pun in its title) so I found it to be a bitter pill to swallow. Still, it’s testament to Itoh’s sharp eye and makes me realise what a loss to the literary world his premature death was.
The aforementioned pun would be familiar to anyone who’s read a certain classic of steampunk, which was co-written by another SF heavyweight represented here: Bruce Sterling. I must confess I’ve not read a great deal of Sterling’s work, but Goddess of Mercy is another eerie and all-too-possible vision of the near-future; it’s another pessimistic view of the world, but again that pessimism has solid grounding and the prose is, again, vivid and true-to-life.
Ken Liu’s Mono no Aware – its title coincidentally being the same as the namesake of this blog: a reference to the concept that’s so specific to Japanese culture – doesn’t paint an optimistic picture of the future of our species either, but its resolution offers some glimmering light of hope. Liu’s presumed intentions, and the reasons for its selection in this anthology, seem to be an attempt to explain the Japanese way of thinking through a domestic (if rather rose-tinted and patriotic) lens trained on an extreme natural event.
These are of course very SF- and fantasy-orientated but Whale Meat by Ekaterina Sedia felt very grounded in reality to me…unless it’s alternate history. The setting is an unusual one: that of a region whose possession is a bone of contention between Russia and Japan. The prose has a wonderfully wistful Haruki Murakami-esque vibe, and what it lacks in terms of science and speculative fiction it makes up for in terms of cultural/geopolitical questioning. I’d like to learn more about the background to that one.
What’s also interesting about the stories here is the fact that the Japanese authors do not tend set their stories in their home country and vice-versa, so the overall experience of this anthology is that of foreigners looking in and Japanese people looking out. The Sea of Trees by Rachel Swirsky for example could pass itself off to my English eyes as a bona fide Japanese ghost story but by the end I didn’t care about Swirsky’s nationality; it’s just a brilliant short piece of supernatural creepiness, with hints of love and loss.
The strength of short stories lies in the succinct conveying of one or a few concepts and ideas that may not have the mileage to sustain a full novel. Mountain People, Ocean People by Hideyuki Kikuchi (of Vampire Hunter D fame) gives a brief snapshot of a fantastical and alien future but as fleeting as this foray in the worldview was, I wanted to read more about it by the end. Its concept has, I think, tantalising potential to be a longer piece.
The drawback of a short story collection is, of course, the fact that since it’s a varied assortment it may not necessarily pack the same punch every time. Some of the pieces, for a number of reasons, didn’t work so well for me. Chitai Heiki Koronbin is, I think, a pastiche of the classic mecha SF anime-style stories; because it’s so short it was hard for me to immerse myself in its worldview and I felt like I’d read one chapter of a longer piece of work. I suspect it’s another that deserves the ‘full length rewrite’ treatment.
Catherynne M. Valente’s One Breath, One Stroke is a very ephemeral and poetic little piece but I think that my lack of appreciation of poetry prevented me really appreciating it. The prose is fantastical and all, but it doesn’t really deliver on plot. Three of the others - The Sound of Breaking Up by Felicity Savage, In Plain Sight by Pat Cadigan and Autogenic Dreaming: Interview With The Columns of Clouds – didn’t resonate with me either, mainly because I didn’t trust my own intelligence to grasp what was going on. I think the latter deals with what may happen if computer software becomes self-aware and runs amok…interesting if only because the likes of Google and Facebook are becoming so large in terms of the amount – and nature – of data they contain.
Overall then I enjoyed this short story collection. From a personal point of view it’s a chance to sample the work of a lot of different writers without going to all the trouble of reading loads of full-length novels from names I’m not familiar with, so for that reason alone I’d recommend it. The selection is as fascinating as it is eclectic, and is a change of pace from the rest of the Haikasoru line so I’d like to see them release more collections like this in the future.