When people think about Japanese science fiction, thoughts tend to swing towards manga, anime and live action movies. Gundam, Atom Boy and Battle Royale are all high on international SF-awareness radar but when it comes to fiction, the responses get a little more vague: “Battle Royale was a book first, wasn’t it?” “Is Murakami sometimes sci-fi?”
This is a shame, as great Japanese writers have explored the full gamut beneath the SF umbrella from “soft” speculative fiction to “hard” science, via space operas, military SF and dystopias. With amazing writers like Cixin Liu and Ken Liu, Chinese science fiction is making huge inroads into the public consciousness, so in the interests of friendly, neighborly competition, it feels like the time to put the spotlight on some classic and contemporary Japanese science fiction.
As always with these columns, these are merely my favorites and a small slice of what’s out there. Don’t treat it as encyclopedic but rather a gateway to a new world for Japanese sci-fi virgins and a place to exchange tips in the comments below the line.
1. Haruki Murakami: 1Q84 and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Let’s get this out of the way. Yes, these books are science fiction. Not solely science fiction — Hard-boiled Wonderland name-checks one of the key genre influences in the title — but there are enough SF elements to permit at least partial shelter under the umbrella. 1Q84 takes its name from one of the greatest SF novels of all time and is premised on the existence of parallel universes. Hard-boiled Wonderland contains lashings of cyberpunk, virtual realms, human brains being used as computers, time-slips, people with no shadows or minds, worlds within worlds within minds — basically a massive dollop of most things on the SF palette. It’s like if Inception had been written by Umberto Eco. Hard-boiled Wonderland is the dividing line for Murakami fans but a must-read for anyone who likes their SF complex and weird.
2. Kobo Abe: Inter Ice Age 4, The Woman in the Dunes and Secret Rendezvous
Kobo Abe flitted between many genres and a number of his books draw on SF elements. These three, however, are full-on badge-wearing, card-carrying science fiction novels. Inter Ice Age 4 posits melting ice caps (hardly speculative, right? But this was written between 1958 and 1959), artificial intelligence that can predict human behavior (including its creators inevitable rebellion against the Japanese government, a delicious irony way beyond anything in Minority Report) and genetically engineered children. Secret Rendezvous takes place in an underground hospital where a seemingly healthy woman is taken against her wishes. The book follows her husband’s attempts to find her, taking him on an expedition through this most Kafka-esque of labyrinths.
The Woman in the Dunes may be Abe’s masterpiece. Jumpei, a teacher, is taken in by people who live amongst a wide network of sand dunes after he misses his bus and then isn’t allowed to leave. His attempts at escape and life with this strange tribe make up the bulk of the book. As with all great science fiction, it acts as a satire on the realities of contemporary life — in this case the myth of freedom within a rigid society.
… great Japanese writers have explored the full gamut beneath the SF umbrella from ‘soft’ speculative fiction to ‘hard’ science, via space operas, military SF and dystopias.
3. Taiyo Fujii: Gene Mapper and Orbital Cloud
The poster boy for self-publishing in Japan — he brought out Gene Mapper himself, turning it into a best-seller before it was snapped up by Hayakawa Publishing — and a writer who combines an imagination ideally suited for following modern trends into the future with a flair for dramatic storytelling, Fujii’s two novels translated into English are must-reads for anyone with an interest in the cutting edge of contemporary SF. Gene Mapper is set in Japan in the mid-21st century where genetically modified crops have eradicated world hunger. A mutation in the rice harvest threatens to undo all the good work and bring chaos and starvation back to billions. Mamoru Hayashida is the gene programmer (mapper) who has to uncover the inevitable conspiracy and battle the terrorists behind it. The novel is both a page-turning thriller and a clear-sighted look at how — if we find a way to work together — humanity’s future may not be so bleak after all. Orbital Cloud continues the theme of combining high-octane thrills with intelligent speculation. This time, we’re in the world of international espionage as terrorists (them again) threaten the Earth from space.
4. Project Itoh: Genocidal Organ and Harmony
The wonderfully-named Project Itoh is the great tragedy of Japanese science fiction. His debut novel Genocidal Organ came out in 2007 to huge acclaim. Set in a dystopian contemporary Earth (a homemade nuclear bomb used in Sarajevo during the war marks the divergence from our timeline), its publication marked the arrival of a fresh, vital voice. His second novel, 2008’s Harmony, delivered on that promise and was turned into a successful anime film. The same year saw his novelization of the game Metal Gear Solid 4. Unfortunately, just as he was getting into his stride, the world was robbed when Itoh died, aged 32, from cancer. A further novel, The Empire of Corpses, was published posthumously in collaboration with Toh EnJoe (see below), but has yet to be fully translated into English. The Project Itoh Archives have also brought together his miscellaneous writings.
5. Toh EnJoe: Self-Reference Engine
A contemporary of Project Itoh and working under a similarly odd moniker, Toh EnJoe is the possessor of a truly startling imagination and an infectious sense of humor. Any description of Self-Reference Engine I attempt will fall short of the actual blurb:
“Instructions for Use: Read chapters in order. Contemplate the dreams of twenty-two dead Freuds. Note your position in spacetime at all times (and spaces). Keep an eye out for a talking bobby sock named Bobby Socks. Beware the star-man Alpha Centauri. Remember that the chapter entitled “Japanese” is translated from the Japanese, but should be read in Japanese. Warning: if reading this book on the back of a catfish statue, the text may vanish at any moment, and you may forget that it ever existed.”
Want to read more books about Japan or written by Japanese authors? How about 8 Contemporary Japanese Novelists (Who Aren’t Haruki Murakami) or Japanese Settings, International Themes: 14 Recommended Novels Set in Japan.
As always, share your recommendations in the comments below!