The last 25 years has seen a huge swell of interest by English-speaking audiences in manga, partly thanks to Viz Media. Now Viz is publishing translations of two prose novels, about alien invasion, time travel and power-armor smackdowns.
"Haikasoru" translates as "High Castle" and is meant as a riff on Philip K. Dick's classic allohistory Man In the High Castle where the Axis won WWII and Japan controls what was the Western United States. Helmed by editor Nick Mamatas, Viz Media's new publishing imprint Haikasoru is attempting a second invasion of Speculative Fiction from the Land of the Rising Sun.
I haven't read many Japanese novels other than those of Kobo Abe and Haruki Murakami. These two very short debut novels from Haikasoru are interesting but not as world-shaking as I would have liked. They both share some common themes: total war against an implacable alien foe, with a healthy dash of time travel. Apart from that, these are two very different stories that may be worthy of your attention.
First up we have All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka and translated by Alexander O. Smith. Nearly all the action takes place in two days (sort of) at a multinational military base in Japan. The Earth has been fighting a desperate war for decades, against alien invaders called the Mimics. They'r organic constructs, vaguely resembling giant bloated frogs but structurally akin to echinoderms like sea cucumbers or sea urchins,. They are bent on xenoforming our planet, eating soil and excreting it in a form that Terran plants cannot grow in. Diplomacy or even basic communication is impossible, because the Mimics slaughter anything that gets in their way.
"Nuke the site from orbit" is not a viable solution, so the remainder of Earth's armed forces elects to fight them mainly in close combat in powered-armor called Jackets. Even the heaviest ordinance bounces off the Mimics' stony hides, and their incredibly dense bodies can withstand explosion and fire. Jackets have on-board rocket launchers and FAE grenades with servos that magnify speed and strength. All too often, the soldiers end up face to "face," and have to rely on the "pile driver," a 20-shot bolt gun that fires tungsten carbide spikes against organic javelins the mimics expel with the force of artillery shells. SpaceAge warfare boils down to throwing sticks at each other? Yeah, it's a stretch but; POWERED-ARMOR — that's always cool, right?
The novel starts out hip-deep in action as Pvt. Keiji Kiriya faces certain death in his very first battle against the Mimics. Severely wounded and out of ammo he is spared a death blow when a blazing crimson angel rushes to his side and slices the alien in half. It's the legendary Rita Vrataski, US Special Forces, also known as Mad Wargarita or The Full Metal Bitch. Since she has more kills than any other soldier the brass has indulged her eccentricities. She bunks alone, away from the barracks, and her Jacket is a bright metallic red, not camouflage. She has also rejected the standard-issue pile driver for a custom-made 200 kilogram battleaxe. I applaud this logic; as any seasoned zombie slayer will tell you, "a machete never needs reloading." This frightening valkyrie tries to comfort the mortally wounded Kiriya, distracting him with small talk and urging him to hang on, not to die. But he dies anyway.
Then Kiriya awakes in his barracks with the book he was reading before on the same page listening to the way too familiar inane chatter of of his squad mates. It is hours before his very first battle against the Mimics. The alert is sounded, they suit up and charge the enemy. The battle is different than Kiriya remembers, but with the same result— he dies again. And again. And again... "Okaaay", I'm thinking, "This is like Mecha Groundhog Day or something. I hope this isn't some lame Jim Shooter Special. If it all turns out to be a dream or— ugh— a VR training simulation, I will start throwing kittens at old people!" Well fear not, the local feline and senior population remains unmolested.. Kiriya is in fact reliving the same day over and over again. The mechanism behind this loop is quite an original solution. As Kiriya tries to understand this horrible existence, he rediscovers a bit of his heritage. He finds if not comfort, at least some meaning by applying the warrior philosophy of Bushido as he walks into certain deaths; perhaps forever.
Sakurazaka consciously constructed All You Need Is Kill like a great video game. In this he is mostly successful. The reader will feel immersed into Kiriya's dilemma, not just through the all the action but also through his internal struggle to keep from giving up, to puzzle out what the hell is happening. The glimpses of the outer world as an Earth besieged are grim and well imagined, but some of premises are just hanging by a thread. Most of the characters are very colorful but only there to fill certain slots; the Bully, the Gruff Sergeant w/ Heart of Gold, the Shy Techno Geek. Sakurazaka tries for a grim, gung-ho military sensibility but really only achieves an otaku snarkiness. I would like to stop using "like a video game" in a pejorative sense; there is a great deal of creativity and sophistication going into the storytelling of modern games, nearly as much as there is in the graphics. This sincere tribute to a favorite pastime comes off as a smart and exciting but ultimately juvenile novel. Any hard-core gamers who get their calloused thumbs on a copy are certain get a kick out of All You Need Is Kill. But they know there's better Military SF out there to read.
In a side note, the cover illustration was done by Yoshitoshi Abe who did some art for anime such as Serial Experiments Lain and Welcome to the NHK!.
I was far more pleased by Issui Ogawa's The Lords of the Sands of Time (translated by Jim Hubbert). Although it too might still be considered a YA novel, Ogawa's piece is far broader is scope and has a more mature voice. In just 200 pages we get a rich, moving adventure that spans time and space. At the end of the 26th Century, Humanity has been fighting a losing war against a ruthless group of alien self-replicating machines called the ETs. Once standing for "extraterrestrials", ET now has come to mean Evil Things. Unlike Sakurazaka's xenoforming Mimics, these ETs have no agenda other than "Destroy All Humans", something they accomplish with terrible efficiency. Life on Earth, Mars, terraformed Venus and other colonies has been wiped out leaving only a final stronghold on Saturn's moon, Triton. The front line of defense has been entrusted to the Messengers, wholly artificial cyborgs emerging from the vat fully formed with all necessary knowledge. One of these Messenger, Orville (or later, just "O") seeks to understand this Humanity he was born knowing he must serve. Through his intimate relationship with a natural-born human friend he comes to accept that his personal duty is to protect all of humanity. Not just every man, woman, and child that still survives, but every person who was ever born or might have ever existed. Whoa, no pressure there.
Just when it seems the war has taken a turn in our favor, the controlling AIs (yeah, those guys) break the bad news. A bunch of ETs (cribbing notes from the Borg and that loveable loser, Skynet) have expended 37 kathrillion tetrajoules of energy and escaped back into time to wipe out all us bald apes before we even figure out the ability for space flight or changing the channel without getting up. But good news everybody: the Ais have duplicated the technology to follow them back in time and stop them. Oh, but less than good news; nobody from our future, downstream, has come back to help out the 26th Century so it can be assumed that humans are about to be wiped out in Orville's present timeline, not that he would ever be able to return anyway. So it's forward into the past to try and preserve a reality where humans and their AI pals will survive.
This is a blue-hot Temporal War with not just continents or eras as battlefields, but entire timelines. Orville and his fellow Messengers must recruit whole civilizations as cannon fodder, racing to upgrade their technology and stripping whatever resources they can against the tireless onslaught of the ET machines. When things look doomed, the Messengers have to kiss an entire world good-bye and set off for another multiversal beachhead to start the whole process over. Through warped versions of pre-fuedal Japan, the American Civil War, and a Mid-20th Century that Harry Turtledove would be proud of, Orville keeps fighting the good fight. As his sorrow and guilt over what has been lost mounts, his sense of duty and desperate drive for final victory grows even stronger threatening to turn him into the machine he evolved from.
Although it really doesn't match his anti-war feeling, I got a Joe Haldeman vibe from this novel. O is a soldier who hates what he becomes but is driven go ever further because that's the only hope for anyone. For such a short novel (200pages) working on a very broad stage, there's a great deal of passion to be found in The Lords of the Sands of Time. More of a tease than a spoiler— there's a stirring speech to the troops in the penultimate act that has the same punch as Shakespeare's St. Crispin's Day Speech. Yeah that's right, I just referenced The Forever War and Henry V for a Japanese YA novel, deal with it.
Like I said before, these aren't word-shakers but I'm glad to see more foreign-language Speculative Fiction made available to us English-language readers. Hopefully we'll see a growing range of works from Haikasoru. They'll be putting out a collection of horror stories by Otsuichi and a hard SF novel from Housuke Nojiri. I'm looking forward to next year's release of The Sixth Continent a novel about the colonization of the Moon by Lords author Ogawa.
Commenter Grey_Area is known to the cybertengu as Chris Hsiang. He stole the phrase "Jim Shooter Special" from Alan Beatts.