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Japanese SF and English-language original SF

by nickmamatas

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.

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24 Responses to “Japanese SF and English-language original SF”

  1. Turner says:

    I’ve not read LOTS of Japanese genre fiction in translation: Rampo Edogawa and Murakami Ryu are about it. I’ve noticed a ‘fresh’ quality to Japanese mainstream fiction, though: the same ‘having fun’ without being self-conscious about it. Murakami Haruki does this, so does Ishiguro Kazuo. They both bring a brightness to their narrative that seems lacking in a lot of Anglophone writers.
    Might it just be a characteristic of something that’s going on in Japanese fiction in general, rather than genre fiction in specific? Might it be related to the apparently imminent demise of the newspaper that we keep hearing flogged about? These are probably questions for a different blog post altogether.
    Nice article- I’m glad I read it. Thank you!

  2. Silviamg says:

    I hear you about the excitement in Sci-Fi. I think I hadn’t had pure blissful fun with a sci-fi movie in years until I saw the new Star Trek came out. Manga and anime are very much like that. Giant robots, battles in space, Martians in mini-skirts and who cares if it’s realistic or not? Stuff just happens. Goody.

  3. AB says:

    Interesting entry. I’m looking forward to the immediately upcoming Haikasoru releases, as well as the 2010 material mentioned. I wish I had something more interesting or informative to add, but alas, I am only a fledgling nerd.

  4. James Davis Nicoll says:

    ([American SF], oddly, is often assumed to include material by Canadian and UK authors too.)

    I can’t comment on the UK authors but not only are (Anglophone) Canadian writers usually writing for a US market but a startling percentage of them turn out to have some close personal connection to the US, like having been born there [1] [2]. I’d be curious to see if blind testers could detect a difference between Canadian SF and American.

    I personally don’t think there’s much point in talking about Anglophone Canadian SF as though it was reliably distinct from American SF.

    When I was a kid in South America, the locals drew no distinctions between Canadians and Americans: they were all Nortamericanos.

    1: Canadian citizens born abroad are still Canadians.

    2: And the ones that don’t often turn out to be foreign-born Canadians [1] by choice from the UK or sometimes France.

  5. Bruce Lewis says:

    Great article.

    My love for Japanese SF is based upon the fundamental optimism it displays. Western SF is so very, very dark — either deliberately, in the case of the tired noir pastiche of the cyperpunk cliche, or the glib nihilism of the Singularity set. Indeed, Vernor Vinge’s Singularity is in literary terms itself the Singularity it predicts: by positing a “future” in which the state of things is taken beyond human comprehension by godlike AIs, the SF Singularity has proven to be a limit past which SF cannot see. What we do see are smirking tales of meaningless things being done by affectless characters who are (or might as well be) 8-bit sprites in some pointless virtual reality game. This is the future we want the kids to shell out their money for? Oh boy — a few years from now we’ll all be virtual reality ghosts fluttering around the innards of some supercomputer! Whoopee! Here’s my debit card, Mr. SF writer — sign me up for the ride!

    On the other hand, the Japanese see the future as a place where people — flesh and blood people — can live, not as some virtual reality nightmare a la mode Americiane. One thing that never fails to charm me is how the future in many Japanese SF works is just modern-day Japan, only with robots and hyperdrives stuck on. Now, I’m not talking about American Flintstones-Jetsons-style satire here; what I mean is the very Japanese idea that a given society can allow technology to flower without throwing out the cultural soil from which it sprang. Examples are too many to list; the GUNBUSTER franchise is as good example as any. (I would love to see — or better still make — a live action GUNBUSTER film…) Unlike the inhuman and nihilistic futures being depicted as inevitable in Western science fiction, Japanese SF assumes that no matter what gadgets we dream up, they are going to be shaped to fit human needs in a world humans can understand. This retro-futuristic spirit is, I think, what gives Japanese SF its “freshness”.

    (Bearing this in mind, it’s ironic that the Japanese birthrate is far below replacement level; every Japanese child that is never conceived, never born is a vote against the bright future displayed in Japanese SF. We here in the pessimistic USA are at least still having kids…)

    In many ways, SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO is the quintessential example of the future/past spirit of Japanese SF: an ancient battleship, shattered in a fratricidal war, rises literally from the ashes as a sleek starship to save the human race. It is perhaps instructive to consider that when one examines the kanji that make up the name of the leader of the YAMATO’s crew, grim young Sususmu Kodai, one realizes that they add up to something along the lines of “the progression of antiquity”. In Japanese SF, everything new is old again.

  6. Tulsa says:

    I am looking forward to reading what Haikasoru has to offer!

    I live in Japan and read some Japanese books too but I am very interested to see how things are translated! ;-)
    Manga is greatly influenced by literature and film and of course, like you said, vice versa. I am excited to know if this genre will be as popular as manga is all over the world.

    Congratulations and good luck!

  7. Scotoma says:

    Are there similar writers in Japanese SF to the likes of Greg Egan or Charles Stross in his high-tech-geek mode?

  8. nickmamatas says:

    Hi all, thanks for your lovely comments!

    Scotoma: yes there are some high-tech-geek SF books out of Japan, though perhaps not quite as frenetic as Stross or as interested in physics qua physics as Egan. But then again, who else is really like Stross or Egan even in the English-speaking world!

  9. [...] website of Haikasoru, the new Japanese SF line of VIZ media, has some very interesting observations by Nick Mamatas, to quote: I will now give a definitive answer despite my lack of expertise (yay [...]

  10. Jetse says:

    Very interesting post, Nick.

    Apart from novels, is Haikasoru also planning an anthology of Japanese SF?

  11. nickmamatas says:

    “Planning” might be too strong a word. We’re all keen on short stories here though and hope to work out something. We do plan on publishing some short stories in translation here on Haikasoru.com!

  12. linger says:

    Do you think we might see Haikasoru licensing SF moe light novels, like Strike Witches, Mini-Skirt Space Pirates, or such? It’s such a rich part of Japanese culture, it would seem a shame to ignore it.

  13. cataly says:

    Quite interesting article for me.
    I can’t wait to see whose books will appear in 2010!

    Btw, I noticed one more big difference. In Japan, SF means just Science Fiction. I mean, its definition is still narrow. Fantasy and horror aren’t called “SF”. Also, alternate history is rarely included in the genre.
    So I saw not a few Japanese SF fans got surprised by some titles on your list. Because they never regarded them as Science Fiction. XD

    Really looking forward to see how the foreign readers feel toward Japanese SF.

    :Scotoma
    Hmm, not so many can satisfy your condition. But for example, the logic of a newbie author was compared with Egan’s in his 2007 debut.

    Actually Greg Egan is one of the most popular foreign SF writers in Japan. 8 of his books were translated and he won Seiun Award five times. I think someone who follows his taste will certainly appear in the future.

  14. nickmamatas says:

    linger: A few publishers are trying light novels these days. Our vision is a bit different, though of course some of the books we have were originally published as light novels. Rather than trying to find novels that we would sell in the manga section of the bookstore (what happens with light novels often over here) we’re looking to broaden the conversation between Japan and the English-speaking markets by getting our books in the SF/F sections of the store. So we’re looking for stuff that’s a bit “heavier”, for lack of a better term.

    cataly: good catch. You should have heard some of the discussions we’ve had over the term “SF” here in the office! Everyone seems to think it means “San Francisco”, and wanted to use the awful term “sci-fi” for our imprint. (Thank God I’m a New Yorker.) One co-worker even asked me, “Well, what do you say when you talk about San Francisco in New York if not SF?” and I just laughed and said, “Nobody talks about San Francisco in New York.”

    But yes, we’re definitely a SF/F/H imprint, though likely about 80% SF.

  15. Cynthia Ward says:

    Very interesting article.

    I haven’t read any Japanese SF (though I’ve been reading/watching manga since the ’80s and anime (unknowingly) since the late ’70s [Star Blazers]. Sounds like I need to start reading Japanese print SF.

    Having seen American friends write playful old-school just plain fun SF of professional quality, only to have it rejected by the pro Anglophone editors, I don’t know that Anglophone authors are solely responsible for the paucity of original English language print SF.

    Although one American friend just wrote three excellent fun SF/F stories, two of them especially playful. And sold them 1, 2, 3 to Anglophone SF/F markets.

    Oh, wait. He sold them to Anglophone SF/F =erotica= markets.

  16. gillian says:

    Apologies for my comments yesterday;I got it all wrong. I thought that you were an English site of Japanese SF. That’s what happens when you read info at 3h00 in the morning and your brain is in sieves…
    Congratulations for your initiative! It is an excellent one. I know how much young people love mangas (not only in anglophone countries. This happens in ALL European countries). I admit that I love reading mangas as well.
    I regret that SF people do not seem to realize that if they want to attract a young audience, they have to be inspired by mangas. And comics. One of the ways to make SF more attractive (all right, not the only one!) is to transform SF, to make it less serious, more entertaining, less gloomy. Getting ideas in mangas is no shame. Unfortunately, in the majority of SF world the idea that prevails is that write a manga (or comic) inspired story is not very “serious”.
    Some efforts are done. I do not know if you have heard of British magazine MURKY DEPTHS. This magazine publishes graphic stories, SF, dark fantasy and horror. The art and the illustrations are awesome and the fusion of different genres results in great, enjoyable stories.
    I sincerely hope that more people will follow the example of this magazine. And that they will listen to your wise advice as well…
    Good luck with HAIKASORU; I will try to follow it closely and I am sure it will be great!

  17. nickmamatas says:

    gillian,

    Hey there. I have heard of Murky Depths–my friend Doug Warrick published a story in it and I have a copy of that issue.

    Manga (and Japanese SF) can be plenty serious. Even kids are concerned about issues and relationships. The expression of the issues seem more accessible to someone who hasn’t already been training himself or herself to read SF since the age of eight.

  18. gillian says:

    Answer to nickmamatas:
    Thank you for your answer and YES, you are right! Mangas can be very serious. Not only serious, but also poetic, imaginative and original in a way literary SF unfortunately fails to be nowadays.
    It is also true that “The expression of the issues seem more accessible to someone who hasn’t already been training himself or herself to read SF since the age of eight” and I do not think that there are many children out there who’ve read SF at the age of eight and certainly not many teenagers either. On the contrary, children and teenagers adore mangas, comics and video games.
    Despite all this, the SF world does not seem ready to get the messages. They insist on writing very serious stories, sometimes even difficult for an adult to read and understand.Imagine what it must be for a poor kid to read such stories!
    I also think that the Japanese short stories of SF must be very interesting. One or two were translated in previous French anthologies (like Yasutaka Tsutsui’s “The Last Smoker”in UTOPIAE 2006) and they were excellent stories. I would like to read more, but unfortunately, there is the problem of translation.
    A wonderful thing that you give people the opportunity to read Japanese SF!
    I sincerely hope that SF writers will be influenced and inspired by Japanese SF and follow your example.

  19. Terry Martin says:

    Hi. The project sounds great. Anything that pushes boundaries and gets people thinking is to be encouraged, and with good translations Japanese SF might raise the profile of written (as apposed to movie) science fiction.

    Douglas Warwick’s story appeared in Issue #1 of Murky Depths. We’re now putting together Issue #9 with a new story from Juliet E McKenna, and a story from Mike Carey coming up in Issue #10.

  20. [...] The difference between Japanese and American science fiction [...]

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  22. markh says:

    Interesting article.

    @Turner: Kazuo Ishiguro is actually an anglophone writer.

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