Yesterday I finished China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station. It’s a prime example of his ‘New Weird’ brand of fantasy fiction, and my opinion of it reminded me of an old draft of a post I had languishing since way back when. That article was concerned with two of Miyuki Miyabe’s novels, The Book of Heroes and Brave Story; I’ve read her Ico: Castle in the Mist as well, but since it was an enjoyable but rather pedestrian videogame-inspired adventure I can’t think of much to say about it.
BS and BoH on the other hand deserve quite a bit of discussion because, like PSS, they seem to be conscious attempts on the part of their author to break away from the traditional and predictable types of fantasy fiction. This in itself is a good idea and makes for a more interesting read, but comes with its own problems. I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum here because these three books are rewarding in their own right.
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.
Super Dimensional Fortress Macross and Good Luck Yukikaze are two offerings in the diverse and well-trodden region of speculative fiction in which humanity tries to come to terms with, and survive, an alien invasion. Although they have not directly influenced one another as far as I know, they do share a similar level of care and attention devoted to showing how the events affect individuals.
Macross is renowned for being a character-driven romance rather than a political space opera; for all the loving detail lavished on the hardware and military tactics Yukikaze still has plenty of time for humans and their relationships (even when the relationships are with machines!). The war is of course for the whole of humanity, but often for the combatants very personal issues are what matter.
I was planning to write a bit about Lord of the Sands of Time but as engaging and imaginative as it is, the whole affair is a bit short so I can’t really think of much to say about it. It’s an interesting take on the time travel and alternate history concepts and doesn’t take long to read either, so I recommend you read it. I suspected that it wasn’t the best showcase for Ogawa’s writing though; The Next Continent proved my suspicions right.
The upbeat vs. downbeat divide in SF is quite stark to me: many of the former are warnings that depict us as a species on a path to self-destruction. In our environmentally-conscious and cynical times I guess it’s not surprising that this is currently holding sway over the optimistic ‘inspirational’ type that speculates about how we could make our outlook brighter; I personally prefer a mix of both, but The Next Continent thrives on the latter.
I must admit that getting through a 700+ page novel in little more than a week is a rare thing, even when it’s something I really enjoy. This time I think it was because I’ve been impatiently waiting to read the English version of Tow Ubukata’s Mardock Scramble ever since the first part of the animated adaptation formed the high point of my recent Leeds Film Festival experience.
Another reason is that cyberpunk is a ‘comfort food’ genre for me in that every now and then I feel the need to come back to the William Gibson- and Blade Runner-style neo-noir futuristic thrillers. With a few little quirks and cultural peculiarities aside, this is one of the most intelligent and gripping examples of the genre I’ve had the pleasure to read.
Imagine walking up a high, steep hill on a hot summer’s day to reach a bar or restaurant: the journey’s long, dry and arduous but if what’s on the menu is your thing, the hard slog is worth it in the end. Reading Loups-Garous is a lot like that. I’m reluctant to recommend it despite how effective it is in depicting the themes and ideas it addresses, because in all honesty it’s a book that’s easy to admire but perhaps hard to like.
I foolishly chose to read it in a crowded room full of other people talking, which gave me that annoying experience of repeatedly losing your place and reading the same line(s) over and over. The problem with Loups-Garous is that it isn’t very accommodating towards the reader in terms of making its food-for-thought easy to digest so that was probably the worst way for me to approach it.
Science fiction doesn’t have to be big or even outwardly clever to be effective. A lot of what I enjoy involves original or elegantly neat ideas that give the “I never thought of that…” reaction but sometimes a simple concept does the job in its own way, although this simplicity turns out to be deceptive. Even when I gave Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need Is Kill a modest three out of five stars rating on Goodreads I wasn’t suggesting that it was a mediore effort, nor was I implying that I didn’t enjoy it.
As a matter of fact it’s a fast-paced, immersive and highly readable account of a futuristic battle waged by humanity against an alien invader, and on that alone I recommend it. The nature of the narrative – that of a soldier trapped in a time loop of his last day on the front line, and his attempts to understand and hopefully escape from that situation – makes it a challenge for the writer to keep the repetitive proceedings engaging, but Sakurazaka succeeds admirably. In that sense it feels a lot like some unholy combination of Groundhog Day and Starship Troopers.
Maybe I’m stating the glaringly obvious here, but since it wasn’t obvious to me until recently I might as well set out my thoughts on it. I’m not saying that the Unlimited Blade Works is a great movie but it’s worth stopping to think about the broader context or what the movie itself is trying to accomplish. Similarly, there are a few things I could say about the Yukikaze OAV but now I’ve read the original novel I feel a bit different about it. Feelings concerning the motives behind, and effects of, adapting stories from one medium to another mostly.
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An extreme example of the importance of context that I stumbled on is William Gibson’s Neuromancer. It’s an enjoyable enough cyberpunk novel but not as enjoyable for me as I expected: I’m finding it tedious in places but when I remind myself that it was written before any of that stuff related to the internet, VR and even the cyberpunk genre itself were commonplace, I admire it more. Not that it makes the book itself more fun, but it makes its limitations at least understandable.
The social science-fiction and futuristic dystopia themes have been covered by some very well-known works of fiction: two that stick out clearest in my mind are those of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. As with other novels in the Haikasoru line I’ve read so far, the novel Harmony borrows a lot from the old SF but is no worse for that.
To his credit, Project Itoh has given these subgenres a thoroughly modern kick up the backside by updating the tech to reflect recent advances and drawing inspiration from contemporary issues that weren’t around back then. Some are of course still relevant but there are other, more recent, ones that are worth addressing and Itoh goes out of his way to bring these new ideas to the table.
In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Harrison Ford’s character explains to a class of students how the search for ‘facts’ is not the same thing as the search for ‘truth’. In the sense of studying archeology versus philosophy that’s certainly the case, but real-life documentation of history is also subjective so it’s often difficult to tell where fact ends and fiction begins. The Stories of Ibis is, among other wonderful things, a clever reminder that facts can be falsified or lost…which ironically makes the significance of fiction all the more significant.
This isn’t a family-friendly blockbuster adventure movie of course: as a piece of thought-provoking futuristic SF though, Ibis is one of the best books I’ve read in months. Part of its premise hinges on the nameless protagonist, a wandering storyteller and amateur historian, and his problematic search for the facts – or the truth? – behind historical events that chart humanity’s downfall at the hands of robots and A.I.. Enter Ibis, a beautiful android who wants to do nothing more than tell him stories.