The new face of Japanese sci-fi chases an augmented world

by

Special To The Japan Times

Japanese science fiction has a long history. The genre could be considered to stretch back as far as the eighth-century tale of time traveler Urashima Taro or 10th-century story of moon-princess Kaguya-hime, but it was the rapid changes brought on during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) that generated one of the nation’s first pieces of speculative fiction with Shunro Oshikawa’s “Kaitei Gunkan” (“Undersea Warship”). Over the decades since, Japanese sci-fi has foreshadowed changes in society, predicted wars and anticipated the emergence of new technologies. One Japan’s newest sci-fi writers to write about — and through — the latter is Taiyo Fujii.

Gene Mapper, by Taiyo Fujii, Translated by Jim Hubbert.
304 pages pages
Haikasoru, Fiction.

Born on Amami Oshima, an island between Kyushu and Okinawa, Fujii was working as a software developer when digital platforms and open source programming began causing a revolution in publishing. Embracing the new world of digital self-publishing, he released his first novel, “Gene Mapper: Core,” as an e-book. It sold more than 10,000 copies and as a result he was contacted by a renowned publisher of Japanese sci-fi, Hayakawa Publishing, and asked to write a full-length novel, which has now been translated into English. (He has since published a second novel, “Orbital Cloud,” as well as a number of short stories and novellas. “Orbital Cloud” won the 2014 Japan SF Grand Prize but as yet there are no plans for it to be translated into English.)

Fujii’s debut novel, “Gene Mapper,” is a high-tech thriller set in 2036, a time when the genetic modification of food has given way to whole crops being manufactured from scratch to eradicate world hunger. Mamoru Hayashida, the titular gene mapper, is a designer responsible for programming the DNA of rice crops. When mutations appear in a Cambodian plantation Mamoru programmed, he is sent to solve the problem before a backlash against genetically engineered crops spreads through the world’s media and brings down the company that employs him. As Mamoru digs into the mutating genes, it becomes clear their changes are no accident.

With Fujii’s appreciation of emerging technology, why did he abandon the self-publishing route and partner with a more traditional publisher?

“If I was an experienced author I might continue self-publishing, but I wasn’t,” he says. “In a publishing company, there are many veteran editors who are ready to discuss the next novel. This helps me a lot.”

“I really hope my novels will be read by many people, but the popularity of e-book readers hasn’t grown enough in Japan,” he says.

For many debut novelists, selling 10,000 copies would seem like an enormous success, but sci-fi is big business in Japan. Fujii thinks its success here is due to the connection many writers make with the lives of their readers.

“I think a lot of Japanese science fiction writers are keen on personal speculative ideas rather than hard sci-fi,” Fujii says. “In Japan, there has been a harvest of good science fiction novels because of two large new awards,” Fujii explains, referring to the annual Seiun Award and Nihon SF Taisho Award (Japan SF Grand Prize).

“The writers are really good — Toh EnJoe, Yusuke Miyauchi and Denpo Torishima, these young writers’ works will still be read in 10 years,” he says.

The way we interface with technology is a central theme to all of Fujii’s work, and in much other contemporary Japanese sci-fi. In “Gene Mapper” the characters interact with the world through virtual spaces, via chips implanted throughout their bodies — avatars stand in for them at meetings, and behavioral software masks reflex responses and nervous tics. It sounds like a recipe for a technological dystopia but Fujii is far more positive.

“I think a world with augmented reality is a better place to live,” he says.

Doesn’t he worry, like many commentators, that technology is forcing people apart?

“My world is the same as the current world where everyone looks at their screens, updating their profile on social media. Even so, we keep in touch with people physically,” he says.

Fujii feels that augmented reality “will cover our physical life soon” — it’s just a matter of time.

The world of “Gene Mapper” is one in which technology has solved world hunger and brought nations closer together, but it hasn’t changed fundamental human impulses toward greed and selfishness.

“I live in a world where things are getting better, but where we are struggling to feel happy,” he says. “Technology is just technology. Do you remember the phrase ‘test-tube baby?’ In the 1980s my junior high school teacher made us fear this word by using terrible illustrations. And now, who fears IVF? I believe human beings have the power to make tech into a good partner to open doors for a better future.”

And, of course, this includes a better future for Japan. In the novel, Japan is at the heart of a progressive global economy, its workforce is multilingual and all signs of the “Galapagos syndrome” are gone. Is this perhaps a naive utopian vision of the future?

“I don’t know if I believe this future,” Fujii confesses. “I think Japan is going to be isolated. We should change. I think the Olympics — when thousands of foreigners will come — is a chance. I hope we break the isolated country idea.”

In a time of rising nationalism and the increasingly obvious effects of climate change on the most vulnerable landscapes around the world, Fujii’s view of a future liberated by technology is seductive. But it’s not the technology he has hope in — it’s that we will make the right choices about how to wield it.

  • danbloom

    BRAVO