Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on May 2011
“Writing long books is a laborious and impoverishing act of foolishness,” wrote legendary Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, “expanding in five hundred pages an idea that could be perfectly explained in a few minutes.” Founding father of a genre later to be dubbed “Magical Realism,” his (very) short stories are almost essays, often taking a metaphysical concept and following it through to its logical conclusion.
Many years later this kind of metaphysical fantasy tends to be known under a new name: “Speculative Fiction.” Speculative Japan: “The Man Who Watched the Sea” and Other Tales of Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy is a collection of Japanese exponents of the genre, appearing for the first time in their English translations, that takes the philosophy of the Master of Labyrinths and applies it to a dizzying range of scientific and fantastical possibilities.
Selected from “a 2006 survey of readers of SF Magazine, ‘best of the year’ anthologies… and [editor Edward Lipsett’s] own eclectic tastes,” Speculative Japan is a wild journey across alien terrain. Some stories will undoubtedly charm you more than others. But you are sure to find something that taps your fantasy, opening your soul to a concept Ana María Barrenechea—writing about Borges—named “irreality.”
Notable is the titular “The Man who Watched the Sea,” a tragic love story set on a planet warped by a black hole. The hero is from Mountville, where time passes at a rate about 50 times faster than that experienced by the Shoreville residents, one of whom is his beloved. This construct is navigated clearly and fluidly by author Kobayashi Yasumi—at no point does it seem overly expositional, and the imagery used to bring this bizarre setting to life is entertaining as well as fascinating:
“Between Mountville and Shoreville, there are resting places nicknamed 20x and 5x that you can reach in a day’s travel. In other words it’s about two and a half days’ worth of distance. But if you’re watching them from Mountville, travelers get stumpy and stretched out, and their speed of movement gets slower and slower the further down the Mountain they go.”
Wonderfully moving and sweeping in scope is Ogawa Issui’s “Old Vohl’s Planet,” which tells of Saraha—a distant planet where a particular form of life has evolved according to the planet’s rapid rotation and shifting seasons of fire and storm. The creatures are essentially giant metallic space whales, whose bodies are covered in lenses through which they focus light to communicate. Their attempt to save the sum of their species’ knowledge before their planet’s destruction is cinematically told and will pique your scientific curiosity.
Both funny, fantastical and intellectually stimulating is “Mountaintop Symphony,” by Nakai Norio, where an orchestra works in shifts to play the ten-thousand-year long magnum opus of the greatest ever composer. The team transcribing his score into separate instrument parts has to work around the clock to keep up with the orchestra playing them. The action begins as the transcription department discovers an upcoming movement will require a totally new instrument, the “800-shaku”:
“The orchestra didn’t have one. There might not be one in the whole world. One would have to be made. In the margins of the score, Higashikōji Kōjirō had made a simple sketch of what it looked like.”
Norio brings the characters to life with little moments of dialogue and characterization, and the story has a sweet, rhythmic tempo. More than any other, “Mountaintop Symphony” defies characterization in any genre, illustrating that the term speculative fiction is a rambling mansion with many peculiar residents, some comic, some contemplative, some scientific, some folkish. And these residents are now accessible to the non-Japanese reader by virtue of these new translations, giving you a bewildering glimpse of contemporary Japanese imagination.
Available in major bookstores and via Amazon.