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Japanese story anthology shows fiction truly a transnational affair

by David Cozy

SPECULATIVE JAPAN 3: “Silver Bullet” and Other Tales of Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy. Kurodahan Press, 2012, 292 pp., $16 (paperback)

One pleasing quality of the third volume of Kurodahan Press’s “Speculative Japan” series of anthologies is that it exists at all.

Generally, an anthology of translated stories, especially if it is devoted to genre fiction, is a one-off, a snapshot of a particular literary culture as it existed a year or two or five before the anthology was published. It’s rare that we get another snapshot of that culture and genre until a decade, at least, has passed.

Kurodahan, however, appears to be committed to giving us regular updates on the state of speculative fiction in Japan. Hats off to them for that.

Edward Lipsett, in the introduction to the second volume of this series, reminded us that the term “speculative fiction” encompasses, but is not limited to, “science fiction, fantasy, horror, ghost and other supernatural stories, and alternative history.” Excepting alternative history, all are represented here, and if one takes horror, ghost and supernatural stories to be a subset of fantasy, then the collection can be broadly divided into two: science fiction and fantasy.

Fans of science fiction sometimes object to the magic that is possible in tales that fall on the fantasy side of the line, feeling it’s a bit of a cheat that, when characters (or writers) get in trouble, a simple wave of a wand can get them out of it. The action in a science fiction story, on the other hand, should be bound by the rules of science, even if it’s science that has been imagined, or tweaked, for the purposes of the story.

Two of the more interesting tales on the science-fictional side of this sometimes fuzzy line, both first published in the 2000s, deal not with physics or the interstellar travel that future physics might make possible, but with genetics.

The first of these, “Five Sisters” by Hiroe Suga, has a premise not unlike Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel “Never Let Me Go,” though in Suga’s story the clones exist to provide body parts for one particular person, their biological source. The twist is that this woman has never had to make a withdrawal from these human organ banks, so the tale turns around how the clones have lived their lives and how they relate to the source of their DNA.

More fantastic is Sayuri Ueda’s “Fin and Claw,” though a couple of lengthy but skillfully integrated info-dumps — also known as “as-you-know-bobs” — reveal that the fantasy is grounded firmly in evolutionary biology. It’s a pleasure to get a look, in this tale, at what we now know about genetics even as we enjoy the author’s extrapolations from that knowledge.

Much of the fun of science fiction, and one of the reading protocols that set it apart from what has been called mundane fiction, is that we’re less focused on trying to figure out what happened — the events of the narrative — than on the world in which the events are happening. “I was seven years old when I saw a feral ship for the first time,” Ueda’s tale begins, and right away we’re wondering what a “feral ship” is, and why, as the first-person narrator goes on to tell us, she would never forget it. The answer is surprising, and it would do readers a disservice to reveal it here.

The standout story on the fantasy side of the line, Masaki Yamada’s “Silver Bullet,” reminds us, with its links to H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional world, the Cthulhu Mythos, that, whether Japanese or not, whether speculative or not, fiction is a transnational affair. This is driven home by the distinctly Raymond Chandleresque tone of the narrator, a device also employed to good effect by William Gibson.

“Speculative Japan 3″ is, like all good anthologies, various enough that it is unlikely that every story in it will appeal to every reader. One feels confident, though, that among its 15 tales, there’s something to delight everyone.

In a collection that contains stories about lovers who are disembodied and digitized, stories where “heart of darkness” is not a figure of speech, stories where Tsugaru shamans intersect with cutting-edge science, and a great deal more, there must be something for everyone. That’s only speculation, though. You’ll enjoy confirming it for yourself.

David Cozy is a writer and critic, and an assistant professor at Showa Women’s University in Tokyo.