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New/Old Japanese SF

by nickmamatas

Many Japanese SF novels conclude with an essay exploring the context of the book and championing the author. I thought that Toshihiko Onoue’s essay for The Ouroboros Wave (in stores today!) was especially interesting as it shows how closely Japanese critics and fans follow English-language SF, so I decided to print it here for you. (Note that this was published in 2002, so some of the material is a bit older and current US space policy is a bit different.) I’d definitely recommend Greg Egan and Vernor Vinge if you’re coming to Haikasoru from the manga side of things and haven’t read their work yet.

New/Old Japanese SF
by Toshihiko Onoue

The space shuttle program is still plagued with problems, even after the promises NASA made following the nightmare of Columbia’s midair breakup. A major rethink also seems likely for the International Space Station. Today, at the dawn of the 21st century and more than three decades since the first Apollo Moon landing, it is hard to suppress a sense of impatience. How long do we have to wait for humanity to claim space as its own? Until that happens, escaping into SF that makes that future seem real isn’t a bad way to spend your time. If you agree, then this book is for you.

The Ouroboros Wave appeared in 2002 as part of the Hayakawa SF Series J Collection. Set in our solar system in the 22nd century, it depicts the rich tapestry of experience encountered by human beings who are completely at home in space. A giant project—placing a black hole named Kali, discovered at the edge of the solar system, in orbit around Uranus and creating an artificial accretion disk (AAD) around it to generate energy for use throughout the solar system—serves as a central theme for a series of stories that feature mystery-solving and techno-thriller elements. The social organization adopted by humanity in space; social changes triggered by the impact of communication technologies; conflicts arising from different structures of conscious awareness; the essence of intelligence and the “necessities” it gives rise to; these and other fascinating explorations are woven together, intersecting and interacting on multiple levels.

Since the first of these stories appeared in SF Magazine, they have come to be known as the AADD series. This volume includes all but three published to date, and new full-length installment will soon be available.

Three writers in Hayakawa’s J Collection, launched in 2002, gained immediate attention for their work: Housuke Nojiri [note—author of Usurper of the Sun and Rocket Girls—NM] , Yasumi Kobayashi, and Jyouji Hayashi.

Nojiri’s work is straight Japanese SF in the tradition of Sakyo Komatsu, focusing on the romance and excitement of technology. Yasumi Kobayashi takes offbeat ideas and explores their logical ramifications, giving his work an unconventional flavor somewhat like that of the acclaimed, hard-SF Australian writer Greg Egan.

In contrast, Hayashi’s SF builds realistic worlds using straight-pitch ideas with matter-of-fact detail and minimal window dressing. At first glance his style may seem unpolished, but it is replete with naming games and sophisticated, Japanesque accents and plot twists. Hayashi’s method of building worlds on a foundation of detailed simulation probably started with his career as an author of fictional war chronicles. Of the three authors, his work may also be the closest to standard UK/American SF. In the stories collected here, the process of finding a solution to a challenge via creative application of knowledge and technology becomes the story itself. This is nuts and bolts storytelling—Analog-type storytelling, which is somewhat unusual in Japanese SF.

I’m referring, of course, not to analog vs. digital, but to the historic American SF magazine Analog Science Fiction and Fact and its predecessor, Astounding Science Fiction, which under the editorship of John Campbell Jr. featured some of the earliest work from such authors as Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein. Analog eventually became practically synonymous with hard SF. Compared to other SF magazines, Analog’s stories are not as literary; the magazine leans toward idea-driven stories that combined detailed, realistic scientific/technical underpinnings with offbeat elements.

Hayashi’s work, with its emphasis on problem-solving, bears comparison to the stories Analog often favors. But once cyberpunk came into vogue in the 1980s, Analog-style SF started to look dated, and for a while the genre was completely out of the running for such major prizes as the Hugo and Nebula Awards. But since the late nineties, with standard, space-based SF beginning to attract renewed attention and Analog featuring a new generation of writers, this kind of story is gradually making a comeback. “Analog-type” is a synonym for new/old SF—eager to grapple with new knowledge, new world views, and new challenges, yet presented with an established style.

In terms of concrete comparisons with other writers, Vernor Vinge would probably be a compatriot of Hayashi. Vinge’s Hugo Award-winner for 2000, A Deepness in the Sky, contains echoes of The Ouroboros Wave. Vinge’s novel tells of the encounter and ensuing conflicts between fleets dispatched by two space-faring human societies, both aiming to make first contact with intelligent extraterrestrials in a distant star system. One fleet takes control of the other, and a central theme is the process those who have been subjugated go through to escape their predicament. The novel also features opposing social structures, the challenges of space fleet management and control, and the ways human organizations operate under dangerous conditions. There are major differences from The Ouroboros Wave as well—Vinge’s novel is set in the distant future and deals with interstellar travel, to give just two examples—but there are no extreme technologies such as warp drives; everything is a realistic, logical extension of current science and technology. Strictly speaking, Vinge is not a typical Analog-type author, but his work is a good example of the way space-based, new/old standard SF is gaining in popularity.

Vinge also has a great interest in the problems of artificial intelligence. In his essay, “The Coming Technological Singularity,” Vinge expands the scope of the term “technological singularity,” supposedly first suggested by John von Neumann, which refers to an acceleration of technological development so pronounced that the future beyond the singularity becomes hard to model. Vinge asserts the inevitability of qualitative shifts in artificial intelligence and human psychological processes; Hayashi’s depictions of wearable computers and artificial intelligence are fundamentally in line with Vinge’s outlook. Wearable computers are personal data processing terminals as well as a core network communication technology; they change the structure of human organizations and of society and culture. There are also artificial intelligences with ways of knowing the world and patterns of reasoning that differ completely from those of humans. Vinge would consider all these elements to be part of the same general vector. Hayashi does a masterful job of depicting communications technologies and AIs in the same unified framework.

As for younger writers with similarities to Hayashi, one could name space SF authors Michael Flynn, Allen M. Steele, and Geoffrey A. Landis. Of course, these authors have very different characteristics and their styles can’t be lumped together, except in one sense—they all go to great lengths to depict space as a real environment. Flynn’s Fallen Angels (with Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle) has been published in Japan, but unfortunately, only a few short stories by Steele and Landis are available in Japanese, and if you want to read them, you’ll have to search through back numbers of SF Magazine or in anthologies (though I may be criticized for being so SF-obsessed as to go that far). Flynn’s popular “Firestar” series depicts the impact that a single individual with will and resources can make on space exploration. Both Fallen Angels and Firestar are near-future SF with realistic depictions of space.

The AADD series explores a vector that also exists in UK and American SF. Is this “happenstance” or “necessity in disguise”? It may be too early to tell, but without a doubt, The Ouroboros Wave not only stands as proof of the richness of Japan’s contemporary SF, it represents a new development in the history of Japanese hard SF. I think we can count ourselves extremely fortunate to have outstanding hard SF writers like Hayashi at work in Japan today.

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7 Responses to “New/Old Japanese SF”

  1. [...] at the Haikasoru blog, Nick Mamatas reprints an essay by Toshihiko Onoue (written in 2002) on New/Old Japanese SF. Here’s an excerpt: In contrast, Hayashi’s SF builds realistic worlds using straight-pitch [...]

  2. DanielH. says:

    Living in Japan, I can’t help noticing the large number of translated SF paperbacks that publishers like Hayakawa and Sougensha put out. They’ve made me interested in checking out some of James P. Hogan’s stuff, actually — just because they keep reprinting so much of it!

    >Sakyo Kobayashi

    This should probably be Sakyo Komatsu.

  3. nickmamatas says:

    You are correct, thanks!

    And James Hogan, eh? I’d definitely recommend Egan first, over Hogan.

  4. DanielH says:

    Thanks for the recommendation. I’m pretty out-of-touch with what’s going on in English-language SF these days, but Egan is another name that keeps popping up. I think you wrote something awhile back about SF fans “reading their own generation.” I guess that applies to me pretty well, though I’m sure there’s some great new stuff coming out too.

    I sometimes wish the Japanese would pay a little less attention to the English-speaking world’s SF, though. One of the editors of Sougensha’s yearly “best of” anthologies (年間SF傑作集) quite openly says that his picks are guided by the question: “What would Judith Merril do?” Whether that results in a good selection or not, I’d rather see editors doing their own thing than trying to copy someone else.

  5. [...] http://www.haikasoru.com/the-ouroboros-wave/newold-japanese-sf/ Posted in SFFH, book publishing. Tags: Black Static, book publishing, Daily Titan, Haikasoru, interesting writings, James Blaylock, James Frey, John Scalzi, K.W. Jeter, Maureen Johnson, NaNoWriMo, SFF publishing, teens, The Ouroboros Wave, Tim Powers. Leave a Comment » LikeBe the first to like this post. [...]

  6. [...] tekst o przyszłości science fiction w Afryce, dzisiaj kolejny egzotyczny zakątek świata, czyli tekst o japońskiej literaturze tego typu. O książkowym piractwie pisze Chris McKitterick, a o dwóch [...]

  7. Marc McKenzie says:

    Just picked up TOW today, and I’m looking forward to reading it. What’s even better is that the cashier at the bookstore had never heard of the book before, but upon hearing of the plot (or more precise, the premise) became very interested in getting their hands on the book.

    @Daniel H: Some years ago, I read an article that featured a person who translated American SF into Japanese. His name escapes me at the moment, sadly, but I also agree with you–when I stop into Kinokuniya in NYC, I do spot the Japanese translations of STARSHIP TROOPERS, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, and I’ve even seen JURASSIC PARK. Still, over the past decade I have seen an increase in the number of Japanese SF titles translated into English. Hopefully, it’s a good sign.


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