Since coming to California to edit the Haikasoru line, I’ve been asked one question more often than any other: What is the difference between Japanese science fiction and the American stuff? (Which, oddly, is often assumed to include material by Canadian and UK authors too.) It’s a good question, one that I am usually limited to a sentence or two in answering. That short answer is, “Oh, there’s not that big a difference.” Now, for the long answer.
Like most long answers, this one starts with a caveat. I am no expert on Japanese SF. I’ve read what’s been previously made available in English, and of course I read what we acquire here, the related manga when available, and at least sample chapters of a whole bunch of the books we contemplate acquiring. I do read a fair amount of American SF, but with hundreds of new titles being published each year, I certainly don’t have a definitive overview of that genre either.
However, as this is both a blog post and about science fiction, I will now give a definitive answer despite my lack of expertise (yay Internet!)—Japanese SF is fresher and more enthusiastic than American SF. One of the great concerns of the US science fiction community is attracting new readers, and “new readers” almost always means young people. Most current SF readers started as kids, after all, but what is the new generation reading? (Manga, as it turns out!) There is an unspoken assumption in a lot of the concern over the graying of SF’s readership—there is no reason for an adult to start reading SF. There are obstacles to picking up one’s first science fiction novel as an adult. Science fiction as a genre is definitely a “grand conversation” of sorts; if you haven’t been steeped in the stuff, you can very easily get lost in the sea of references, terminology, traditional tropes and conventions, etc.
Naturally, some authors try to recapture their own personal golden ages of science fiction by writing the stuff they liked when they were twelve. These books are certainly more accessible to the lay reader, but in my own reading, I can often sense the huffing and puffing of someone trying to fit into the clothes worn in junior high. A lot of the accessible stuff feel a bit reactionary, a bit too in-your-face with its attempt to appeal to the kiddies. “We’re gonna have a fun adventure in space,” I hear the author saying, with teeth gritted and face red, “and you’re gonna like it!”
Japanese SF, and Japanese popular fiction generally, is heavily influenced by Western material. Rampo Edogawa is one of the Japanese mystery writers to make it over the ocean—his pseudonym is a Nipponization of Edgar Allan Poe. In SF proper there is Asakura Hisashi, whose pen name was a riff on Arthur C. Clarke. I might start writing under the name Murray K. Amy! This is not to say that authors and critics haven’t problematized the issue of influence, and that Japanese authors don’t have their own themes and concerns. But, for what is coming into the office, at least, I get the sense that Japanese SF is as fun and accessible as the stuff we all read as kids, without the embarrassing bulges and split seams of the sometimes poor fits of the new-old SF. Haikasoru SF is similar to the American SF of my youth, without the baggage of trying to be self-consciously fun. It just is fun. My goal with Haikasoru is to acquire books that SF fans will like, and that will also appeal to the younger readers who grew up on manga—the “manga graduates” as I call them.
Of course, like American SF, there is plenty of excellent SF that might be called more literary. Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe has written SF, and Japanese SF authors are beginning to win some of the more prominent Japanese literary awards—as in the US there traditionally has been a split between awards for literary product and awards for genre product, and as in the US slowly but surely that split is being healed. Haikasoru is looking forward to bringing over some of the more “literary” SF—the sort of thing that appears in hardcover original in Japan—as well in 2010.
Japanese SF (and other popular fiction) is also heavily influenced by manga, even down to the level of the sentence. The single image is often the predominant method of propelling the action. In one non-Haikasoru book I recently saw, the translator had produced these two sentences: “A dark something sprang out and attacked the gunman. It was a monkey!” Sounds silly, eh? (Well, that’s why we have editors. I fixed it up.) But those sentences presented as two panels in a comic would work very well. And US popular fiction is, of course, isn’t some set of pure and artful constructions of the written word— American authors have simply integrated the camera angle rather than a comic panel. Check out these lines from The da Vinci Code:
A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.”
On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.
Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils.
A close voice from someone fifteen feet away? A silhouette and we can see his pink irises? What’s going on? A movie is what is going on—clearly the dialogue would be presented as a voice over, we’d cut to the silhouette, and then cut again to a close-up. Personally, I’d rather have a dark something revealed to be a crazy attack monkey! But I am sure Dan Brown will weep over my criticism all the way to the bank…
Finally, there are some other, more minor, differences. Japanese SF, especially the near-future material, is somewhat more interested in expressing hopes for international cooperation than is American SF. Short fiction continues to predominate in Japan, and thus even many of the novels are shorter. Of course, both countries produce enough science fiction each year that any vague generality about each will be just that—a vague generality.
Japanese SF is definitely fiction in the popular mode, the way American SF was in the days of zap-guns and slide rules. Much of it is published as bunkobon originals, analogous to the mass market paperbacks that kids used to have to hide from their parents and teachers. It’s the sort of fun pulp excitement that lends itself to the visual imagination while also engaging the brain and the adrenal gland. It’s high-concept, action-packed, and often offers more romantic subplots than its notoriously nerdy American counterpart. And some of it is literature of the highest quality, created by some of the most acclaimed authors on the planet.
It’s good stuff, and I can’t wait to share some with you.