While I occasionally venture into the shallows of other genres, particularly novels with speculative elements, for the most part my reading preference is very clear: literary fiction in translation, often from Japan and Korea. There are times, though, when other kinds of books drop through my letter box, and recently, out of curiosity more than anything else, I decided it might be interesting to take a look at a couple that have been sitting on my shelves for a while. Today’s post, then, is one with a Spec-Fic twist, but as you’ll see from the country of origin, I haven’t ventured that far away from my usual fare 😉
Yoshio Aramaki’s The Sacred Era (translated by Baryon Tensor Posadas, review copy courtesy of University of Minnesota Press) is a science-fiction novel beginning on Earth at least a thousand years into the future. We follow K, an intelligent provincial youth planning to take the Sacred Service Examination, as he travels to the capital of the Holy Empire of Igitur in the hope of entering the Papal Court. Despite the momentous odds against him, he is among the survivors at the end of the gruelling academic and theological trial and is admitted into a world very different from his humble beginnings.
However, at this point K’s life takes a rather unusual turn. He is told to prepare to engage with studies of Planet Bosch, a mysterious, plant-like body a thousand light-years from Earth, and one whose existence has been suppressed for centuries. Even stranger, on his return from a retreat to a monastery in the desert, he finds himself as the head of a small institute that does nothing (apart from be terrorised by a malevolent twelve-fingered ghost). There’s only one way to work out what’s happening, and that’s to leave Earth behind and seek out Planet Bosch for himself…
The Sacred Era, a classic of Japanese Sci-Fi, is a slightly strange book at times, a mixture of thriller, space opera and soft porn. While the first half of the novel is played out on Earth, the rest takes us into deep space aboard organic hyperships on a journey to the furthest reaches of the universe. At the heart of the story is a religious conflict that threatens to destroy the universe’s status quo, with a heretic executed centuries earlier seemingly the one terrorising everyone with an interest in the mysterious planet. As the story develops, K realises that his success is no coincidence as his life has been subtly guided from outside, and it begins to dawn on him that the people around him may not be who he thought they were.
It’s all great fun, with much of the enjoyment coming from unravelling the mystery, but I’m not sure it really makes for a cohesive novel overall. There’s a bit of an obsession with sex (and a rather strange, incestuous feel to some of the incidents), even extending outside the bedroom:
The phallus of a rocket penetrates the vulva of the orbiting galactic transport, sending throbbing vibrations throughout the vessel. A buzzer goes off inside the ship, startling K out of his mesmerized gaze at the spectacular sight of the docking procedure between the two spaceships.
p.139 (University of Minnesota Press, 2017)
Still, considering that one of the theories bandied about here is that the universe was created from God’s nocturnal emissions, this probably all makes sense. The Sacred Era culminates in scenes on Planet Bosch that may seem oddly familiar to any artists out there, and having finished the novel, I felt… well, it was certainly different 😉
And speaking of different, how about a novel centred around a genetically engineered giant turtle? If that sounds like your kind of book, then Yusaku Kitano’s Mr. Turtle (translated by Tyran Grillo, review copy courtesy of Kurodahan Press) might be worth a try. We meet Kame-kun (literally ‘Mr. Turtle’) as he moves into a new apartment, having lost his home and job after a corporate reshuffle, and despite the initial misgivings of his new landlady, he settles into a comfortable new routine involving trips to the library and walks along the river.
Of course, even in the future the sight of a giant turtle isn’t an everyday occurrence, and the placid chelonian causes a stir wherever he goes. Gradually, we’re fed details of how these turtles came into existence, with whispers of a war raging on Jupiter echoing in the background. Kame-kun finds a new job (making use of his hidden talents), but while his life meanders along tranquilly, our friend can’t help but wonder where he came from and what it’s all about – oh, and what will happen to him in the future…
Mr. Turtle is a fairly short novel, one that can be a little frustrating as there’s a distinct lack of information for the most part (the middle part did drag a little for such a short novel). However, it mostly works well, with Kame-kun a sympathetic, taciturn protagonist pondering the mysteries of existence (which, for a giant turtle, are certainly worth thinking about). Kitano’s future world is a strange mix of high technology and abandoned buildings, interplanetary travel and library books with faulty bar-codes, but as confusing as it can be at times, with Kame-kun as our guide, we just need to go with the flow.
The war on Jupiter is the crux of the story, so (inevitably) we learn very little about it until the end of the novel. However, the real focus is on Kame-kun himself, and the secrets to his existence are to be found, quite literally, in his shell, one huge information storage system that he may not have been the first to carry around. With the Blade Runner sequel about to hit the screens, it’s hard not to have the film’s replicants in mind when watching Kame-kun search for information about his background, and eventually the writer shows us that we’re not alone in this line of thinking:
Those memories were in his shell, only sleeping, Miwako had said. Like a dream he couldn’t recall.
Because somewhere, inside this shell of mine, is a whole other world.
My shell is dreaming of the world.
And maybe I, too, am contained in that world, thought Kame-kun.
Do turtle shells dream of turtles?
He typed this sentence on his laptop.
“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” said Miwako, peering over his shoulder. “It’s the name of a novel. I’m sure we have it here at the library.”
She looked it up on the computer.
p.102 (Kurodahan Press, 2017)
You can almost hear Vangelis in the background…
In his brief postscript, Kitano urges the reader not to go looking for any deeper meaning where there might not be one, but methinks the writer doth protest a little too much. There’s a lot to read into Mr. Turtle, from the dangers of AI to the ethical dilemmas involved in the treatment of sentient creations, but one idea is a far more current issue. You see, if you strip away the fancy shell and the ability to battle mutant crayfish (don’t ask…), what is Kame-kun but a lonely migrant worker, doing his job quietly and efficiently and trying his best to fit into an unwelcoming, homogeneous society? It looks as if Kermit was right, after all – in a future Japan, at least, it isn’t easy being green…