Rumours About Me – Yasutaka Tsutsui

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“Rumours About Me” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History:
Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (Alma Books, 2006)
Zoetrope: All-Story (Summer, 2008)
Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (Pantheon Books, 2008)

Original: Japanese, 1972<
Translated by Andrew Driver, 2006

Synopsis: As a common office worker in Shinjuku, Tsutomu Morishita is shocked to learn that his daily routine and insignificant transgressions have become major news on TV, on the radio, and in print. Every details of his life, aside from this vented frustration at the media, is somehow published for all to see, especially his attempts at dating the office girl named Akiko. As a nobody who has unwillingly become a somebody, Tsutomu must stop this.

Pre-analysis: Though the short story is more than thirty-five years old, it has relevance to the modern times in regard to responsibility in journalism. Chapters in textbooks have been written about this; entire books and meta-news stories have covered this, but Tsutsui’s story hits the sweet spot on this little-dabbled-with theme for speculative fiction.

Analysis: We’re all the center of our little, personal universes (unless you’re totally in love and have someone else as the center of your universe, then you’re really a lucky chap). Our dalliances, milestones, and routines are the passing tickertape of what we call our lives—we alone are the readers of that tickertape and think others would have little interest in our undecipherable lives.

When the live of a salaryman nobody instantly becomes a salaryman somebody, his first reaction is frustration rather than exultation as he is the unwilling specimen of the carnivorous news media. He tries to go about his daily routine, but as soon as his actions pass through time, the media picks up on every nuance; people change their manner around him, yet he strives to keep his life balanced—an over-conscious balancing. Like paparazzi, he discovers them under his floorboards, in the closet, and in the gap of the recessed ceiling.

Every detail of his life exposed save one, he finds it odd that the news won’t report it when he confronts them. His frustration with the meddling and the exposure drives him to directly confront the editors. Hostile silence? Pinched closure? Amicable agreement? The man ruminates the possible conclusions but one thing is certain: he can’t live his life under the microscope of the media.

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The Dabba Dabba Tree – Yasutaka Tsutsui

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“The Dabba Dabba Tree” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History:
Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (Alma Books, 2006)
Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (Pantheon Books, 2008)

Original: Japanese, 1973
Translated by Andrew Driver, 2006

Synopsis: A husband and wife find themselves frustrated by an awkward inactive sex life until one their father’s gifts them with the Dabba Dabba Tree. Set near the bed, when asleep, each live a vivid dream where they experience sexual freedom; they imbibe in their lust knowing it’s only a dream. The dream state is a dangerous haven for others as they are mere figments, but soon their neighbor claims his own tree and covets the man’s wife.

Analysis: No one has ever said that consistency is the spice of life, nor have they said that familiarity breeds excitement. Likewise, the husband and wife in “The Dabba Dabba Tree” have found themselves stuck in the rut of marital gridlock. Their passions have drained and the husk of a salaryman and a housewife remain, both of whom the light of inquisitiveness hasn’t shined for a while.

Bound by expectations and consequences, many of our everyday choices reflect a rational, complacent mind meandering through familiar routine. As humans are so-called creatures of habit, this cycle is difficult to break but the breaks are exactly what is needed so that we don’t become stagnant and complacent. The odd conical tree featured in the story is given to the couple by one of their fathers, a member of their history who wants a grandchild and understands the schism of marital stagnation. The gift: a deviation from the norm.

As the tree at their bedside is a deviation from the sleep time norm, so too are their dreams a deviation from their realities. Both husband and wife imbibe in their nighttime reveries of passions, only to wake and realize they’re being intimate, yet they both wish to return to their dreams—an indication that their ethereal fantasies trump their shared reality.

Gollancz Masterworks Wish List: Translated Speculative Fiction

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Taking a look at the Gollancz Masterwork series, a number of bloggers have remarked upon the bias of the list: predominately male American and British (90%?) authors prior to 1980. Joachim posed the question, What if? and led a band of bloggers to expand the list based on their own preferences. The result has been great! Considering this bias of Gollancz, Joachim has focused on female writers while Jesse and I have focused on novels published after 1980, but one additional bias stirs my interest: language.

On the Gollancz Masterwork list, only two books are from foreign languages: from Russian, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1971/1977) and, from Czech, a small collection of Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (1923) and War with the Newts (1936/1939). I haven’t been able to procure either the Strugatsky novel or the Capek collection. So, I can’t offer my opinion on them… but I can suggest a little more translated fiction for the series.

My six authors and languages: 1) Haruki Murakami (Japanese), 2) Jose Saramago (Portugese), 3) Franz Kafka (German), 4) Stanislaw Lem (Polish), 5) Yevgeny Zamyatin (Russian), and 6) Frigyes Karinthy (Hungarian).

Murakami, Saramago, and Kafka

When I talk about translated literary fiction, three names (and languages) instantly pop into my mind, two are modern classics and the other a classic classic, respectively: Murakami and Saramago and Kafka. If you don’t know those names, then you probably don’t read translated fiction. These three names are mainstream yet all have an edge to their writing that wavers between realism and fantasy, a gray area that some call mystic and others call ethereal.

MurakamiI’m not a wide reader of Murakami; I’ve only read Wild Sheep Chase (1982/1989) and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985/1991). I can’t suggest a book I haven’t read so I’ll suggest the most SF-esque story of the two: Hard-Boiled Wonderland. What starts as a urbane personal drama spirals into a surreal dream—in the reality and the fantasy, the protagonist (of sorts) interacts with both with full consciousness and intent. He lives his life as he would in both and the result is a curious introspection on our motivations, expectations, and causations.

SaramagoLikewise, I don’t have much exposure to Saramago, but Blindness (1995/1997), while not even twenty years old yet, hit so many right notes in my mind that I can’t shake the feeling even since reading it years ago. Yes, it’s a disaster novel where nearly everyone becomes blind—not the most original premise, surely, but show me another novel that probes the human condition from deterioration and pity of their dilemma to circumstances of a different extreme. Much like Camus’s The Plague (1947/1948), the schism between cope and hope is driven by the contagion, an impersonal microscopic hunter, which reflects the personal and very real threat of nefarious humans.

KafkaAs for Kafka, I’ve only had the pleasure and opportunity to read a collection that includes “Metamorphosis” (1915) and five other penetrating stories. Again, I can’t recommend something I haven’t read, so this goes on the list! The collection—Metamorphosis and Other Stories (1971)–is a window into Kafka’s soul, a seemingly very personal portrait of one man’s repressive isolation. The portrayal of isolation is interesting/devastating/concerning in its many different forms: enforced isolation, the symptom of monomania from isolation, growing separateness from others, and isolation as cause of death. All of this occurs when an idle life is shaken to its core by an unseen causation, a mode of fantasy that changes the reality.

Lem, Zamyatin, and Karinthy

Again… I don’t have a wide knowledge of translated science fiction but that’s why I’ve started this blog—to read more, learn more, and share it with others who hold a similar interest. Three translated science fiction books that I’ve read and loves are the following:

LemStanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961/1970) is a popular choice among fans for inclusion into Gollancz’s Masterworks. Indeed, it is one hell of an atmospheric novel! My choice is a collection of Lem’s which I enjoyed much more: The Cyberiad (1965/1974). The fifteen stories about robots constructing robots is a cavalcade of amusement and intellect, of folly and philosophy. I don’t think there’s another book like it… something which can be said for much of Lem’s bibliography. In The Cyberiad, there’s (1) the humor of absurdity, (2) the satire of technological progress, and (3) the philosophy of knowledge. There’s a little something for everyone but most importantly, taken as a whole, is should appeal to all because it’s an absolute work of art.

ZamyatinYevgeny Zamyatin… we’ll have to wind back the clock nearly a hundred years to find the first publication of Zamyatin’s short but concise dystopian (before dystopias were cool) novel We (1921/1924). Named with a number, D-503 lives a life of drudgery and wishes to escape the OneState by flying off into space, which is pretty much the furthest and remotest area outside the OneState. With his hopes of spaceflight, he discovers something else—he has a soul. However, his discovery is dangerous as his newly found spirit within is often melted from the brain by the OneState. Before Huxley’s Grave New World (1932), Orwell’s 1984 (1949), and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), there only stood Zamyatin’s We and all other followed suit. We set the precedence for modern dystopian fiction.

KarinthyFrigyes Karinthy is an obscure name outside of Hungarian fiction. His one piece of science fiction is a sequel or sorts… a sequel to Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726, amended 1735). With Swift’s stories, Gulliver went on four separate voyages. While many so-called fifth and sixth voyages have been written since the book’s publication, Karinthy wrote two additional voyages which have stood the test of time: “Voyage to Faremido” (1916) and “Capillaria” (1921), as collect in Voyage to Faremido and Capillaria (1966). If you’ve read Boulle’s Monkey Planet (1963), you’ll know that the writing style was annoyingly objective and dry… bad translation, bad writing, I don’t know. But Karinthy’s travels of Gulliver are far from this form—the observations are inflective, personal and vague. The observations say less about society (as Swift’s Travels had done) and more about the narrator—Gulliver—and the author—Karinthy.

Check out the other lists:

Joachim Boaz: yet-to-featured and female authors prior to 1980

Admiral.Ironbombs: classic novels and authors that have slipped through the crack

Couch to Moon: Truly MASTERworks and the endangered species

Ian Sales: classics from 1950-1994

SFPotpourri: post-1980s selection of modern classics

Jesse: a similar post-1980s selection of modern classics

Mogera Wogura – Hiromi Kawakami

 Kurodahan- Speculative Japan
“Mogera Wogura” (short story) by Hiromi Kawakami

First published in Ryugu (The Sea King’s Palace), April 2002

Currently available from Kurodahan Press’s Speculative Japan (2007)

Original: Japanese, 2002
Translated by Michael Emmerich, 2005

Synopsis: A clawed, miniature-man-sized mole lives as most moles do in Tokyo—underground with his wife and with a roomful of humans sleeping on futons. Most of his human captives are the kidnapped people from the same city where the mole works and are despondent or downtrodden on life, so his subterranean refuge is a type of convalescence, he says to himself. An office worker by day, a magical kidnapper by night—he stalks prey.

Analysis: Mogera wogura is the binomial name for the Japanese mole. By nature, it’s a solitary creature that lives day in and day out beneath the turmoil of the surface—by day, it toils about yet by night it slumbers in the same abode. The exact same could be said for down-trodden salarymen—their eyes hidden from the sun for most of their waking day, a salaryman toils in caves of concrete and glass, only to return home to abodes of wood, concrete and glass, all the while ensconced by the walls that surround them.

The protagonist mole in “Mogera Wogura” is the enlightened sort that you’ve never come across. He has a good life working in the city, but he just happens to have the habit of collecting the dispirited among the city dwellers. His intentions are not nefarious; rather, he would just like to kindle the spark in each of the dispirited. Most of his compatriot moles forever toil underground, living out their miserable lives; but he is an example, one of which has risen above the doldrums of the commonplace. He collects the downhearted humans for hope that they too do not have to be complacent with their city-ways of life. Eventually, some awaken to their purposes and are granted leave while others are stubborn to change and die miserably.

Reiko’s Universe Box – Shinji Kaijo

 Kurodahan- Speculative Japan
“Reiko’s Universe Box” (short story) by Shinji Kaijo

First published in Hayakawa SF Magazine (February 1981)

Currently available from Kurodahan Press’s Speculative Japan (2007)

Original: Japanese, 1981
Translated by Toyoda Takashi and Gene van Troyer, 2007

Synopsis: Upon Ikutaro and Reiko’s wedding, they receive an anonymous gift of a “universe box” which actually contains a miniature universe within. As Ikutaro spends more time entertaining customers than with his subservient wife, Reiko’s attention shifts to the stellar mysteries of the box. Inside, a white star blazes, which she names Ikunosuke, and planets orbit. While these bodies have motion, the marriage quickly stagnates without emotions and one temper flares.

Analysis: The most intricate of gifts, the most detailed of items are often kept away, unappreciated, in closets or shelves so as to keep them from harm; fragile Bone Chine plates are stacked with liners in the dining room hutch while the plethora of visual and audio art on vinyl records are slotted away in the stereo cabinet. Another remarkably detailed gift is that of a human relationship; however, unlike plates and records, which can be rediscovered and brought back out, the stowing of emotion is irrevocable.

The husband invests his time at work, perhaps securing a future for the young couple, but while he’s thinking merely of the future, he has forgotten the single-most important focus of the now—his emotion. His wife had to find a way to cope with the emotionless state of her husband, the simple and placid state of their lives, so she turns her attention to the wonder held within the glassed box; there, she finds remarkable detail of which her marriage has been without. The husband finds this turn of attention to be adulterous. Rather than share in the wonder of detail from the box or in their emotion, the chasm of misunderstanding divides them, a chasm like that of the blackhole which has spawned inside the box.

Girl – Mariko Ohara

 Ohara- Girl Kurodahan- Speculative Japan

“Girl” (short story) by Mariko Ohara

Currently available from Kurodahan Press’s Speculative Japan (2007)
Also found in Kosansha International’s Monkey Brain Sushi (1991)
Originally from Hayakawa SF Magazine, June 1985

Original: Japanese, 1985
Translated by Alfred Birnbaum, 1991

Synopsis: An avian-like man with mammalian breasts sips cups of nectar at a bar and receives unwelcome stares and free drinks from admirers around. Calling himself Gil, yet unrecognizable from his original form as Jill Abel, he leaves the bar and falls in love with a woman in ill repute; unfortunately, they make separate ways, leaving Gil heart-broken. Dancing an obscene dance on stage, Gil catches sight of the woman again.

Analysis: This is one of the most bizarre stories in the collection, so it’s not surprising that it’s difficult to pin down an analysis which fits most nuances of the story. Jill Abel seems to be a personality of some repute, regardless of this repute being ill or distinguished, Jill has some cause for celebrity which they have cast off in order to assume a lesser yet more flamboyant appearance. Assumingly and psychologically, Jill was a male but has since resorted to a female named Gil, though their physical being exists in the grey area between the sexes.

With Jill’s transformation to Gil, internal emotional luggage is carried along regardless of the exterior façade of sexuality. Their choice to assume a more ostentatious plumage, a more ridiculous exterior, does not quell the internal struggle that they had experienced prior to the change. Once proud of Jill’s fame, now Gil survives with being a dancer as gaudy as their chosen attire; but depression follows them in spite of any change. When this girl shakes their world, their life is momentarily changed and they’re unable to focus… possibly a symptom of their indecision or indecisiveness to choose a path for life, sex, or sexuality (IMHO, not that there are actually two separate, individual sexes, but rather a smeared grey between the two popular notions of male and female).

The Flower’s Life is Short – Masami Fukushima

 Kurodahan- Speculative Japan
“The Flower’s Life is Short” (short story) by Masami Fukushima

First published in Hayakawa SF Magazine (October 1967)

Currently available from Kurodahan Press’s Speculative Japan (2007)

Original: Japanese, 1967
Translated by Yano Tetsu and Judith Merril, 2007

Synopsis: With an electronic synthesizer, Rina creates luminescent flower arrangements in vivid and three-dimensional works of art. In her eighth decade of life, she is dedicated to her art and remains unattached to any partner. Her friend Yuri offers her a teaching position, but when contemplating the career move, Rina’s lover from fifty years ago manifests in her studio, making her long for a move in relationship, too.

Analysis: Through the course of a flower’s life, it will bloom untold times, each time as beautiful and similar as the last. People, too, blossom throughout their lives in terms of their career, sexuality, education, etc. While each of these is a subjectively unique experience to the person, the objective view is one much like that of the blooming rose: one blossom is just like the rest all over the world. Subjectively, when we anticipate a fresh blooming—the pinnacle of an achievement or ceremony of accomplishment—some residual scent of past accomplishment (blooming) always lingers on the mind; this success and reminder of success is a familiar friend.

As Rina contemplates her next professional blooming as a teacher, her mind recalls the blossoming of love she had earlier in her life. Though she loved and lost, her finding a man whom she can love enduringly when apart is a big part of her artistic soul. Her reverie of fantasizing about teaching is shattered by the recall of her love life; however, just as their time together was brief long ago, this illusion is far too short. Her mixed sentimentality of success (blooming) catches her off guard, thereby dampening the excitement she held for the teaching position. Awash in regret, her tired heart flutters like autumn leaves.

Another Prince of Wales – Aritsune Toyota

 Kurodahan- Speculative Japan
“Another Prince of Wales” (short story) by Aritsune Toyota

First published in Hayakawa SF Magazine (April 1970)

Currently available from Kurodahan Press’s Speculative Japan (2007)

Original: Japanese, 1970
Translated by David Aylward, 2007

Synopsis: In the twenty-first century, England and Japan have mutually declared war on each other and the United Nations approves of the formal hostilities. People around the world rejoice and are eager for the climactic battle limited to war machines of 1941. Keith is on the War Supervision Commission for the UN, who travels to Japan to await the start of the battle, surrounded by eager recruits and anxious spectators. 18 pages

Analysis: Keith is mixed-blood man—the two halves from English and Japanese lineage. He is in a unique position to with the War Supervision Commission to assess the motivations of the two war instigators. Whereas the Europeans see war as a game where prisoners are held, traded or even cared for, war for the Japanese is a serious affair of art and dignity; rather than capturing prisoners, soldiers are executed. Times have changed, however, and war has been formalized into an absurd game.

The War Commission exists so that war is ensured to entertain the population of the world and that that war is exciting, going so far as to even have a favoring hand in the battle so that the brief clash satisfies the masses. These occasional and very brief wars are valves of stress that countries use to release tension and that people watch to ease their own tension. If this reflects our reality, does America, then, have too much pent up stress? Do they feel the need to bloodlet because of their stressful way of life? I guess being the self-imposed world police would be kind of a stressful job especially when that police force is so ignorant of the same world. To quote George Orwell: “”War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

Where Do the Birds Fly Now – Koichi Yamano

 Kurodahan- Speculative Japan
“Where Do the Birds Fly Now” (novelette) by Koichi Yamano

First published in Hayakawa SF Magazine (February 1971)

Currently available from Kurodahan Press’s Speculative Japan (2007)

Original: Japanese, 1971
Translated by Dana Lewis, 2007

Synopsis: The sight and flight of birds are often taken for granted, but one man’s interest is piqued when he experiences birds swooping in front of his face, but no one else shares his vision. Further, it seems that they are a figment of his mind but not his imagination. With each swoop, the man’s reality is altered along parallel universes. Deep in the forest, he meets a self-described “bird watcher” who knows of the trans-dimensional birds.

Analysis: The man in the story had always had birds flying “in front of his face” but they were actually trans-dimensional birds affecting his mind. Each time one of the birds swoops, the man’s reality is altered slightly to that of an alternate timeline; one bird is a small timeline change while a flock of the birds shifts his timeline drastically. However, the man hadn’t learned of this seemingly idiosyncratic phenomenon until late in his life even though the birds had always swooped. So, unknowingly to this man, his reality shifted time and time again yet he didn’t know that the reality he was experiencing wasn’t the same reality from where he originated.

That’s a pretty heavy statement: He never knew his reality was changing; He unknowingly lived each day in a different parallel universe; He could never be the same man as he had begun. This shows in the man’s resultant complacency when he learns the truth from the so-called bird watcher. The simple sparrows of trans-dimensional flight, which alter the man’s reality, swoop and flock with cause. The bird watcher knows: What happens to the bygone realities? To and from, where do the birds fly? What is their mode of existence?

The man’s experience seems to be unique, aside from the bird watcher’s inclusion. Why are they the only two to discover their altering perceptions of reality by cause of the birds? It’s not as if his old reality is forgotten about; he can pick up a newspaper and see minor differences from his old reality: “Janis Joplin releases third album → Janis Joplin dies suddenly” (107). Unfortunately, he cannot control this changes, he cannot generate a more idealistic reality to counter instances of past regret.

One major event that changes his perspective, and the onset for the story, is one of death and fire. Viewing the mayhem with Noriko, a bird swoops; the following day, his companion, Noriko, couldn’t recall the event of death and fire. Eventually, Noriko disappears from his reality. Barring Noriko’s inability to recall the event, some events in our lives seem to have no catalyst for change, no impetus for a shift in our daily lives, no cause for the result, no why for the altered now. How many times has someone just dropped from your life without a word, never to be heard from again? Two words, two proper nouns, one name: Alison Mayfield. It happened to me when I was only 15 years old. I must have been living in a bubble universe because no one else knew her—her and I existed on one plane of reality then she suddenly shifted from my timeline; gone forever; no causation.

Tracking down causation for change is an ancient human endeavor and is more often than not granted to the power of the gods. Here in “Where Do the Birds Fly Now”, this agent of change isn’t a supernatural god, but trans-dimensional birds whose plan/flight/flocking is just as mysterious as the causation for so many of our daily struggles with change.