“The Legend of the Paper Spaceship” (novelette) by Tetsu Yano
From Apostolou & Greenberg’s The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories (1989)
Originally from Roy Torgeson’s Chrysalis 10 (1983)
Currently available from Kurodahan Press’s Speculative Japan (2007)
Original: Japanese, 1978
Translated by Gene Van Troyer and Tokomo Oshiro, 1978
“A poignant tale from the dean of Japanese SF writers” (144)
Synopsis: An isolated mountain village in Japan is home to Osen, a woman swathed in rumor and mystery—said to be the remaining heir to a family fortune and sole survivor to a family massacre. The reality is that she’s the willing town harlot and folds and flies a paper airplane while naked. The town’s men take advantage of her youthful beauty while many of the women scoff at her indecency; regardless, her sexual existence inspires a minority of the town. When she becomes pregnant, the villagers are astonished to hear her speak as she demands that she keeps the baby, which the villagers reluctantly allow. One soldier visiting from outside hears her lyrical songs which he believes may represent corrupted versions of historical lullabies and point an interstellar finger at her true origin.
Publication: This is one of the most famous translated Japanese SF stories, having been published in seven different anthologies. That doesn’t surprise me because it has the beautiful aura of Japanese-esque with its imagery of bamboo enshrouded in mist. One thing is strange though: Tetsu Yano is considered “the Dean of Japanese SF” yet doesn’t have any other stories translated into English. Aside from the three publication stated above, this story can also be found in The Penguin World Omnibus of Science Fiction (Penguin, 1986), Tales from the Planet Earth (St. Martin’s Press, 1986), and The Road to Science Fiction 6: Around the World (White Wolf Publishing, 1998).
Analysis: Though it may be the most famous and most published of the all the stories, it’s also one of the most straightforward stories in a collection where allegories abound. There’s a theme of identity lurking among the pages of this hauntingly beautiful story, but there is the added treat of linguistics which captures the mind of many readers.
Though a human in all physical regards, Osen is treated as an outsider because of her obscene behavior. Rather than being cared for and sheltered as their own kind, the villagers treat her an ostracized shame and the men also treat her as a pleasure palace. Her mind is an alien territory of insanity and ambiguity, but little do the villagers know that she may actually be from an actual alien territory.
Her son is better adjusted to the life of the village, though he too is ostracized for being the shameful spawn of Osen. Obviously able to speak and comprehend matters, he seems intelligent—only, they don’t know of his secret telepathic ability which he keeps to himself for his own means. The boy, Emon, slowly understands the common emotions of the people and even dips into the neurosis of many of them, including guilt and jealousy. He also senses that his mother, while disconnected from reality, also has the same telepathy but doesn’t employ it as he does.
The linguist part of the story is a slippery one; it may in fact directly relate to Osen’s heredity or it may simply be the observer’s fancy to explain the situation; regardless, the reader is left to draw their own conclusion. The soldier hears snippets of songs and thinks “with only a shift in syllabic division” or “single change of consonants” (163), the children’s song could explain to much more:
|Original Song||Construed Version|
“First month—red snapper!”
“One: ship’s hull”
“Second month—then it’s shells!”
“Third—we have reserve, and”
From misunderstanding Osen and misunderstanding her song, the village had built Osen’s narrative for her: one with a scrambles mind who sings childish songs. The soldier, however, gets closer to her true narrative: the descendant of a star faring race who recants checklists for their return to space. Whether she’s an insane shame of the village or the insane child of the stars, he place on Earth is hopeless.