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Unfractured folk tales, and fantastic fables

by David Cozy

SPECULATIVE JAPAN 2: “The Man Who Watched the Sea” and Other Tales of Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy. Kurodahan Press, 2010, 269 pp., $16 (paper)

A good anthology, particularly one that aims to provide an overview of an unfamiliar subset of a nation’s literature, should not please all its readers all the time.

This is certainly true of an anthology that takes as its subject “speculative fiction,” a term that, as Edward Lipsett notes in the preface to “Speculative Japan 2,” “has never really been nailed down.” Lipsett mentions: “science fiction, fantasy, horror, ghost and other supernatural stories, and alternative history” as just a few of the genres that might, in speculative fiction, come into play, and most of those genres — sometimes more than one to a story — are represented here.

All the stories are good of their kind, but are of so many different kinds that it’s hard to imagine a single reader who will revel in them all.

The anthology begins at what might be considered one end of the speculative spectrum with Naoko Awa’s “A Gift from the Sea,” a story that reads not like the sort of fractured fairy tales we’ve come to expect when modern authors try their hands at traditional narratives, but rather with the simplicity of unfractured folktales at their best. It’s the story of a young girl too poor to honor her generous impulses, and how her encounter with “the old woman from the sea” changes her fortunes.

The story following “A Gift from the Sea” begins “we were on the verge of demolishing Grandmother’s house when a crowd of Freuds appeared under the floor.” It’s clear that we’ve left the world of fairy tale fishing villages and entered one of surrealist whimsy. Such whimsy is, all too often, leaden, but author Toh Enjoe gets it right. He understands that fantastic events are most effectively presented in everyday language and against a backdrop of the mundane. He’s also aware of the possibilities for comedy such juxtapositions throw up.

It’s the contrast between the wacky situation and the all too ordinary manner in which the family deals with it that elicits laughter. Worrying about what to do with the Freuds, for example, an uncle wonders: “should they go out with the oversized trash?”

Any story that involves Freud will inevitably inspire readers to try, in the manner of the master, to peek beneath the surface in search of what’s really going on. To interpret a fantastic tale, though, is inevitably to reduce it, to supplant the apparent fantasy, the surprising surrealism with something duller. Enjoe, who seems to understand the danger of this reductionist road, has a character remind us that: “Just because there are a bunch of Freuds lying around doesn’t mean there’s a Freudian meaning hidden somewhere.”

The tales discussed above, neither of which uses science to inspire its speculation, might give the impression that this collection slights science fiction. Such is not the case. Issui Ogawa’s “Old Vohl’s Planet,” for example, “could,” as Darrell Schweitzer notes in the introduction, “have appeared in the Japanese equivalent of Analog Science Fiction and Fact.”

It is always a challenge for a writer to enter the consciousness of a person very different from him or herself. Thus one admires Ogawa for making his main characters not just different people, but life forms so different from people — they’ve evolved from “tiny creatures with silicon shells and metallic-fiber nervous systems” — that it is impossible for him to entirely anthropomorphize them into folks more or less like the ones we encounter here on earth. The meeting with which this story closes, between one of these extraterrestrials and a human being, is refreshing in that it is devoid of the fear, suspicion and hostility that mar too many cross-cultural encounters, fictional and otherwise.

Akira Hori’s “Open Up” draws on physics, in particular the mind-bending notion that different and apparently contradictory states can coexist: Schrodinger’s Cat can be, until observation resolves it into one state or the other, both alive and dead. One needn’t understand exactly how this works — this reviewer certainly doesn’t — to enjoy Hori’s humorous take on it. Begin with his refreshing irreverence: “After accelerating to 3Gs … and switching over to inertial drive I sometimes feel the urge to go take a crap. It’s an annoying quirk of mine.”

Annoying though it may be, take a crap our hero must, and once he’s locked himself in the toilet the fun, with a knock on the door, begins. The protagonist, you see, is alone on the spaceship.

The list of contributors provides information not about the authors, but about 12 of the 13 translators. Translators are the unsung heroes of literature, so it’s wonderful to see them recognized, but it would have been nice to learn about the writers, too. Google can go a long way toward addressing that lack, though the pleasures these stories afford may eclipse it altogether.