Open Mariko Ohara’s science fiction classic, “Hybrid Child,” and experience a fusion of genre and gender that challenges narrative expectations. This imaginative, operatic saga forces readers to question norms on religion, motherhood, time and what it means to be human.

Hybrid Child, by Mariko Ohara, Translated by Jodie Beck.
304 pages

Ohara, born in Osaka and educated in a Catholic school, showed an early fascination with otherness in society: animals, monsters and outcasts, and as a young writer even dabbled in yaoi, slash fiction detailing the relationships between two male lovers.

“Hybrid Child,” winner of the 1991 Seiun (Nebula) Award for the best science fiction book of the year, follows the tradition of widescreen baroque, a subgenre of science fiction that is marked by a fast-paced plot, epic characters, violence and intrigue among futuristically detailed settings.

It is a rare, feminist consideration in the male-dominated world of speculative fiction, a genre that includes sci-fi, fantasy, supernatural, apocalyptic and futuristic narratives. Throughout, Ohara weaves interlocking themes of mother and child, creator and destructor and body and mind, and includes wide-ranging allusions to works from the Bible to “The Adventures of Pinocchio.”

Separated into three sections, the novel requires both an open mind and narrowed concentration. The narrative follows the journey of Sample B #3, a shape-shifting, nuclear-weaponized cyborg created to fight the Adiaptron Empire, a machine race threatening to mount an insurrection against the remaining human civilization. As the book opens, Sample B #3 has rejected that destiny, instead assuming the shape of a repair technician by consuming a scrape of his cells and walking undetected from the laboratory to embark on a quest for freedom.

We follow Sample B #3’s adventures as the creature assumes various shapes by consuming cells from willing or unwilling victims and traverses the galaxy in a quest to survive. The journey is a challenging one, for Sample B #3 and the reader.

As translator Jodie Beck explains: “One of the challenges in translating or even in just reading this book is to put aside our urge to always try to find connections or continuity in the narrative. When working on the translation, I found myself wanting to create a timeline to make sense of everything: ‘When did this happen? How is this point connected to that?’

“But I realized I needed to step away from a linear way of thinking. Perhaps this novel is less concerned with a linear plot than it is with the development of a certain kind of affect. There is a tension between connection and alienation, the urge to come together is juxtaposed by a fear and terror of relationships: Creation vs. destruction, beauty and horror — that tension is much more important than a logical, linear narrative.”

An early example is when Sample B #3 takes on the form of “Mama,” an author who adopts Sample B #3 as a pet while it is under the guise of an alien creature. Forty-three days after it finds temporary sanctuary with the author, Mama falls down the stairs and dies. As its pursuers from the military close in, Sample B #3 morphs into Mama’s murdered daughter, buried under the floorboards in the basement. The tangled, tragic story of Mama and her daughter, Jonah, unravels as Sample B #3 uses Jonah’s form to once again escape into the universe.

Beck admits the translation provided numerous “enjoyable challenges” to overcome. “On both a literary and linguistic level, I had to work through several tough choices for translation,” she says. “Ohara created many new words, and her dialogue is formatted in a strange style for English readers (that is) intended to keep the shifting of perspectives ambiguous, as well as sometimes maintaining deliberate ambiguity for a character’s gender. But where a lack of pronouns works in Japanese, for example, the demands of English require a specific pronoun. How to work through those types of issues for a natural translation was a challenge, but I ultimately found it an enjoyable struggle.”

Reading the book can also be called an enjoyable struggle. With Sample B #3 morphing into different forms, with characters reappearing and disappearing, with violent descriptions alongside poetic prose, with timelines skewed and relationships uncertain, the entire process flings the reader fully into Ohara’s exhilarating universe.

By giving up on the familiar signposts of a linear plot progression, Ohara’s novel can be experienced as a different type of journey for the reader, one that is ultimately satisfying despite the challenge.

This feeling of unfamiliarity is what drew Beck to the novel in the first place. “It was something I had never seen before. It was so distinctive, truly unique in style and substance. The explorations of gender were also different to anything I’d seen, and to think it was written over 25 years ago was especially impressive to me.”

The translation became the basis of her PhD in East Asian studies, and was published as one of the novels in the Parallel Futures series at the University of Minnesota Press.

“There is both an interest and a need to bring this type of work to a wider audience,” says Beck. “It’s important to have all kinds of women’s writing read and it’s important to show what women were writing in the past that was not given the international attention it deserved at the time.”

For any fan of speculative fiction, “Hybrid Child” presents a sprawling, imaginative excursion into the unknown that also predicts current familiar thematic questions of gender politics and weaponized robots.

As Beck concludes: “The feminist questions raised by the novel are important but the exploration of gender here really adds another layer of consideration, never giving a definite answer on gender but allowing us as readers to think in different ways. No matter how many times I read it, there is always something fresh to be discovered.”

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