Rachel Cordasco of the website Speculative Fiction in Translation, interviewed me about my translation of Japanese author Yusaku Kitano’s science fiction masterpiece, Mr. Turtle. Click the cover below to read!
In her 2016 novel, All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders explores relationships between humans, nature, and machines, along with the allegiances and deceptions dotting their radar screens. Toward unwrapping the narrative candies hidden within this grab bag, Anders lures us into the worlds of two very different, yet complementary, child protagonists. Patricia Delfine—described at one point as both an “antisocial weirdo” and someone with “unlimited gentleness for people when they needed it”—is a solitary girl whose attempts at saving a wounded bird awaken magical abilities she never knew she had. This encounter allows not only Patricia the discovery of a gift; it allows Anders the indulgence of wordcraft, as when Patricia cradles her charge in a plastic bucket:
Rays of the afternoon sun came at the bucket horizontally, bathing the bird in red light so it looked radioactive.
Not unlike the light through said bucket, Anders imbues nearly every page with color. Her attention to atmospheric integrity ensures that a certain degree of adhesion keeps the reader attached to even the most mundane scenes (of which there are but few). The prodigious Laurence Armstead, for his part, is developing an interest in computers and coding. His first achievement is a wrist-worn time machine that jumps forward all of two seconds, allowing him to briefly “leave reality behind and reappear for the aftermath.” A small comfort for an insular soul.
In middle school, Patricia feels the call of witch-hood. Her mutation, if you will, tugs her by the heart into a relationship no crystal ball could have foreseen when she runs into Laurence at school—literally—and breaks his time machine. In the process, she cracks open an eternity of possible futures. Patricia is intrigued by Laurence because he can actually affect the physical world around him with his machines, leaving her feeling helpless to do anything with the kinesis locked inside her.
Meanwhile, an assassin by the Biblically inflected name of Theodolphus Rose has had a vision of a man and woman inciting a war between science and magic. A pariah among his own kind for killing children, he has no compunctions posing as Patricia and Laurence’s guidance counselor in a morbid quest for peace. Where Laurence controls nature, Patricia must serve it, and the oil and water of their end goals stands to challenge every character at the molecular level, so that Rose must wage war within himself in order to achieve his own. Variations in abilities between the two protagonists reveal the destructive potential of their combination, as a budding romance threatens to activate much more than hormonal explosions.
Within this triangle, hero(in)es and nemeses comingle in familiar ways, even as they detour off well-worn paths of expectation. While Patricia is for all intents a witch, going so far as to treat the new family kitten as her familiar (sort of), she must grapple with the surety of being an outsider in a layperson’s world. The difficulties of self-imagining make Patricia a primary target of Rose’s schemes. He confides full knowledge of her inherency and assures her that Laurence must die by her hand if the world is to be saved from certain doom.
The narrative sky spread before the reader from this point onward grows to be about as populated as the book’s cover, which only hints at the many inspirations seeping into Anders’s timely fable. “I actually ended up not thinking of it so much as a genre mash-up,” she tells me in an e-mail interview:
“That was the idea early on, but the more I worked on it, the more I thought of it as a relationship story in which magic and science represent two different ways of looking at the world. A lot of the absurdism drew on Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut. The biggest influence, however, was probably Doris Lessing, whose 1960s and 1970s novels combine some really biting examinations of human nature and relationships with bold uses of speculative ideas.”
The author’s jigsaw solution to this trove of witting and unwitting influence was to focus on characters, letting the world of the novel reveal itself through them. The matter-of-factness with which she depicts the story’s fantasy elements—magical and technological alike—is one of its fluent charms, and was of utmost importance to get just right:
“I was determined to make the magic feel grounded, like something with its own history and logic, which could exist in our world. Something that felt real to the characters, not something to be winked about. And the science had to be ‘mad science,’ but still connected to real science enough to feel plausible. So I spent a lot of time thinking about the history of magic in my world, and also talking to scientists about the various bits of science in the story.”
To that end, Anders went to great lengths—if not also widths and depths—to ensure that even those things we already know about humanity may be just as confounding. When, for instance, Laurence has an internal dialogue about whether to believe Patricia’s admissions of witchcraft, he concludes that, in a world in which the slam of puberty is universal, something like witchcraft might not be so farfetched after all.
As fate works its twisted smile into the foreground, life drives a wedge between Patricia and Laurence, and that wedge bears the name of Rose. Our erstwhile counselor has convinced the boy’s parents that he needs military school, and his relocation to that very place breeds some of Laurence’s most artful discontent. These developments get us into the novel’s most fantastical element of all: the fact that no one in any position of authority is willing to hear the children’s side of the story. This, too, points to fabulist inclinations:
“To some extent, this was just how the story made sense to me. I saw this as a story of two people who are misunderstood as children, and then grow into their respective abilities and find where they really belong. A big part of the structure of the book, with childhood followed by adulthood, was to show how the ‘coming of age’ story never really ends. And I wanted to capture that thing where you spend your childhood thinking that once you’re an adult, you can be around other people like yourself and find the place where you belong, and everything will be perfect—but once you’re a grown-up, even if you get to be surrounded by people who understand you, you still have huge problems. So I guess their childhoods needed to put them through some real darkness—and that darkness also forces them to come into their power and discover their abilities. And I guess a lot of the absurdism in the book comes from looking at the ugly side of human nature—a few people have compared the childhood sections to Roald Dahl, and I definitely think he was an influence.”
As Patricia herself tells Laurence years later, “My life plan involves never understanding my parents,” and from this we glean that lack of communication goes both ways. The effect is such that she must look beyond social hierarchies into intimate simulacra thereof. When we meet up with our couple-in-denial as adults, she is living as a hippie in San Francisco, working odd jobs to make ends meet. (A magic academy degree, it seems, is about as useful as a Bachelor’s to those less enchanted.) Happening to meet Laurence at a party, she encounters a man with something of a superhero complex, one who strives toward singularity of humans and machines. Patricia is jealous of Laurence for flaunting his talents, while she must hide her own, discreetly healing the sick and cursing criminals as she does away from the prying eyes of her colleagues.
Patricia is the reader’s link to an even grander vision of the story, by which one can see that gentrification is killing nature, and that magic is manifesting itself as a natural defense against unwanted intervention. Which makes the spark between our lovelorn duo all the more manic. It’s clear they need each other more than ever, even if it means ending humanity. In one amusing sequence, Laurence accidentally sends an associate’s girlfriend into another dimension and must rely on Patricia’s magic to mend his error. “Probably the most frustrating aspect,” says Anders of such scenes, “was trying to get the tone right—the humor was way too much in parts of the book, and I had to keep dialing it back so the characters could come across. The most gratifying thing was when I felt like I succeeded—after like 30 rewrites on a particular scene—in making the humor serve the characters rather than the other way around. Not that I’m claiming I nailed that all the way through, but I at least groped my way to an understanding of how I wanted that to work.”
But it really does work, because humor functions in the novel as a salve against trauma. It’s with this in mind that one can hardly reach the end of All the Birds in the Sky without feeling moved by its crazy-beautiful optimism. “I definitely wanted the novel to end with an optimistic feeling,” Anders admits. She goes on:
“Especially after all that darkness and those moments of absurdism. I never want to lecture the reader, or force-feed a particular idea or theme to anyone, but at the same time, I am a big believer in intentionality—so I thought endlessly about the meeting of magic and science, and what those things say about nature and technology. My biggest hope for the ending was that it would feel earned, but my second biggest hope was that this could be one of those books that leaves people with something to think about. Not answers, but questions. I hoped.”
That said, Anders has provided a simple yet profound answer to one of those lingering questions: It’s not that love is the greatest magic, but that the greatest magic is love.
China Miéville may be a pioneer among writers of the New Weird, but his latest, This Census-Taker, recasts the genre as more of the Old Familiar. Miéville’s oddities, intricate as they are, would be nothing without their consensus origins, and these he draws from a well of mythological tropism as dry as it is deep. In this instance, however, we cannot attribute askew narrative moments to weirdness for its own sake, tending as they do to the novella’s central theme.
About that theme there can be no mistake as the first sentences jump into your retinas: “A boy ran down a hill path screaming. The boy was I.” Said boy, anonymous and writing now as an adult, insists his father killed his mother. Or was it the other way around? At first he can’t be sure and must piece together the flow of events barely consummated in order to convince the stunned townsfolk of his witness. Though his interruption may wound their drab landscape — a rural outpost, likewise unnamed — he paints the town as a place un-locatable on any maps but the ones readers unfurl with hands of expectation. As if torn from the pages of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, it’s a place that loses touch with security the higher it is off the ground. Wherever and whenever it exists, it is a postwar bastion of antebellum ways, whispering magic through its abundance of “weather-watchers and hermits and witches,” and where electricity is a luxury relegated to occasional use of generators.
The boy unloads his shock before strangers, thus lighting a fuse that burns to a dud. This is, I think, what Miéville wants. The point of this story is to have none. Not that he fails to mark his narrative trail with landmarks along the way, each of which facilitates informed conclusions about denouement. We know the boy is an “uphiller,” a derogatory term used by those below in reference to those who live above; that his home is a desolate one, nestled in hilly rock, where his main contacts are with the local feral animal population; and that his mother’s death has permanently stained his domestic comfort zone, despite the father’s best efforts to wipe its horrors away. In light of the murder, imagined though it might be, we must therefore take the inside flap’s press language, which promises “a poignant and riveting exploration of memory and identity,” with caution. Memory is vital to its telling, but would wither in the absence of trauma. It is not an exploration but a reconstruction of memory, riveting only in the sense of fastening together disparate pasts into a coherent mental overlay.
Of his memory we have so little that it ceases to matter. He remembers his mother as a beautiful, if weather-beaten, caregiver who allowed her son to figure out much of life on his own. But the current of his recollection is shored up by memories of father, whose reputable problem-solving meets the needs of his customers by means of a mystery craft. The meticulousness of his work says much about his lack thereof in childrearing. The boy is rarely alone with his father, more often watching, concealed by horror, as the paternal figure kills a dog from the local hills, if for no other reason than the thrill of it — thereby revealing a binary theme of animality that is intimately linked with the mother’s disappearance. Patriarchal control of the family sphere is part and parcel of pastoralism, and while theirs isn’t an agrarian economy, an abundance of wildlife — some innocuous, some threatening — nevertheless creeps in on all sides like a gang of potential fatalities in the flesh.
Physical elements achieve symbolic realism in the story. A derelict bridge, for one, runs through the center of the town and weighs not transport but squatter dwellings overrun by orphaned children. The trees, for another, constitute a living, architectural force that shapes the town as much as its everyday activities. Yet the most vital aspect of the boy’s life is the dump-hole into which his father drops their trash and, presumably, the occasional prey. When the eponymous census-taker arrives at last to take stock of the father’s past, to know where everyone stands in the wake of an alluded war, he asks to see the hole in question. He spelunks into it, emerges with no explanation of its depths, and adopts the boy as his intern. Miéville’s commitment to ambiguity is in solidarity with his protagonist’s own. His victim narrative matters above all as a navigation of the past, putting enough boards over the hole in his personal cave to avoid joining the pile of corpses his father has left behind.
That Miéville falls into the common authorial trap of (animal) killing for mere sake of human character development could be a detriment in other contexts but here deems the narrator worthy of his impressions. Trauma memories are filed differently from other memories in the brain, their access as much a question of kind as degree. Over time, these memories become an ongoing mechanism of survival. And so, expressive violence indicates the father’s own traumas, remainders of the elusive war. Which is why, in an effort to feel connected to nature again, the narrator’s memories of mother find her gardening and cooking, and those of his father in the delivery of animal fatalities, because the boy yearns for some connection to the landscape never otherwise encouraged.
The narrator’s occasional switch between first and second person indicates a corporeal disconnect. In order to combat fear of embodiment, he turns trauma into a tool. Census-taking is an ideal vocation for such a one. It requires categorization by letters and numbers, each person fitting neatly into an indexical spectrum of judgment. It gives him the illusion of control — writing, after all, under guard in a modern city — over his mortality. Where his father has cultivated loss into an abscess of violence, the grown boy protects the emptiness within, an emptiness born of pacifism, at all costs. The novella’s title — note This, not The — is therefore more than accusatory, even if it is a direct quote from an angered father losing his emotional battles, for one may further interpret the title as a self-referencing mechanism on the narrator’s part, a way of seeing the ending in the beginning. Intrigue thus proliferates around the novella’s inarticulate center, not unlike that persistent hole: the core truth he cannot ever grasp by purchase of remembrance. The reason we are not gifted with its secrets is because they are not ours to own.
Distinguishing autobiographical bleed-through on any author’s fictional canvas can be a tricky business. In the case of Patricia Ward, it’s impossible to ignore. Her first novel, The Bullet Collection, followed two sisters through war-torn Beirut, where Ward herself grew up during a period of civil unrest. Her second, Skinner Luce, a full-fledged SFF parable, operates within a likeminded trauma spectrum. Here’s a story where alienation is a precondition for individual growth, a form of resignation echoed in the experiences of a writer who fled certain death in her teens, since which time she has lived and worked in the United States.
Ward’s alter ego is Lucy, one of many “servs” acting as go-betweens for an alien race, the seemingly immortal Nafikh, and the human beings oblivious to their visitations. The Nafikh seek out Earth as humans do Las Vegas—which is to say, as an excuse for uninhibited recreation. The Nafikh try their best to blend in, to varying degrees of success. Veterans manage to hold their human form, while newbies are prone to violent unraveling. In either case, servs must be present to ensure the safety of everyone involved. It’s an enslaved existence for Lucy, whose every assignment might be her last. The parallels to modern trafficking ring that much more loudly for Ward’s insight into the pain Lucy endures daily.
Said pain is not only emotional. It’s also physical, as servs are animated by the Source, an internal combustion engine that could extinguish itself at any moment, and which fills Lucy’s body with chronic torment that can only be alleviated by drugs. The pain fluctuates depending on circumstance, is more intense when close to another serv and most so in the presence of Nafikh. Serv overseers, on the other hand, are granted regular access to painkillers, as befitting their station, while Lucy, being lower on the Service food chain, makes do with alcohol.
The Nafikh travel to earth by means of Gates, favoring the winter months that presumably mirror their home climate. Most Nafikh cannot tolerate being around humans without causing at least some collateral damage, but are too addicted to Earth’s mortal taste to stop anytime soon. Hence, the terrifying irony of the serv’s existence: Lucy wants nothing more than to escape her cage, even as the Nafikh take perverse pleasure in locking themselves inside it. Servs are expendable, and Lucy must count the days until her quota has been filled, her only mantra being to get out of every situation alive so that she can get that much closer to independence.
One complication makes her unique among servs: she was raised by a human family. Whereas servs typically keep close quarters among their own kind, Lucy spends her formative years for all as human until a late coming of age into Service splits her loyalties down the middle. She has tried her best to live a “normal” life among humans, but with no certain place among either species she has hit an identity crisis at the novel’s beginning when transitioning a newly arrived serv, whom her corrupt overseer plans to sell on the black market. Lucy thinks back to her own arrival, which she is glad to have been too young to remember. The infant in her care is minimally communicative and maximally frightened, and she wonders how much this dynamic will change as the new serv matures.
Lucy’s deviant behavior as a teenager once plugged her into the foster home circuit, but through it all she has maintained an amicable relationship with her mother. Along the way she meets Julian, a serv who sees through her right away and briefly wins her heart. Through him she learns to enjoy her status, even as it assails her by its secrecy. She then allies herself with Theo, another resourceful serv, who bought Julian out from Service into freedom. Lucy is excited about the prospect of joining Julian and Theo in the fullness of their image, if only to escape the farce she’s been living. But a schism between the two men provokes existential hardship. Where Julian sees the Nafikh as their godly creators, Theo is convinced that all servs were once were Nafikh and that they might share more than they let on. Their very Source indicates Nafikh origins, a fact Julian has harnessed to combat their “mortal incarceration” by procuring surplus Source to keep them from aging. At once tempted and repelled by this vampirism, Lucy continues as is.
Now that Lucy and Julian are no longer together, the excitement of those days having eroded the shell of her existence, she resents him for being able to afford his own relief, leaving her ill-equipped to support his radical cause. But neither can she pour her empathy into new arrivals, who fill her with disgust. When her latest charge awakens, she cleans and feeds him, saddened by the fact that he is already addicted to the narcotics that ease his hurting. When she sees a picture in the paper of the same boy dead in a junkyard just days later, her flickering suspicions of Julian and his gang grow into an inferno. And when Lucy is questioned by a sympathetic homicide detective who may or may not understand who she really is, her life goes through its own unraveling, starting her on an unforgettable quest for self.
In a 2016 guest post for SF Signal, Ward admits that the traumas of a past she thought were behind her have resurfaced in her creative endeavors. To be sure, we can intuit hints of what must have been a precarious childhood for both author and protagonist, as when Lucy visits home on Christmas Eve, only to receive from her mother a family photo album utterly lacking in chronology, thus presenting her life as a series of unconnected pieces. Even more salient are the coping mechanisms Lucy must manufacture within if she is to maintain any semblance of sanity without. “This is her forte: shutting down, waiting things out,” Ward writes, confirming the mindset of a perpetual victim.
Neither can we ignore the novel’s parallels with modern politics. Does it mean nothing that “servs” sounds like “Serbs,” recalling Bosnian wars of the late 1990s? Is Lucy’s daily grind really so different from our own? Are similarities to the recent Syrian refugee crises coincidental? In answering such questions, we validate the novel’s timely exploration of pandemic abuse. All of which nourishes a bittersweet ending that leaves Lucy beholden to the same system. She clings to hatred throughout the novel, but comes to see it as a useless trap of indifference. She is a leaf on a tree that’s resigned to autumn’s arrival. Still, something leads her to believe the Nafikh care, for she knows her tormenters are also slaves, if only to themselves.
Reading through this novel the first time, I felt like Ward was too often focusing on unnecessary details. For example, after a bloody altercation, she writes, “The splatter on the wall is thick. It has brain in it. Wallpaper can’t be cleaned. It’ll have to be replaced, and it’s such a job, removing the old, patching the plaster. It’ll cost, unless she does it,” when the first sentence alone would have sufficed. Events should be driven by action, I thought, not exposition. But after revisiting a few choice passages, I began to see these fixations as defense mechanisms of a mind seeking points of distraction from persistent horrors. In having to remind myself that Lucy, as a serv, was in constant pain, I realized I knew nothing of what it was like. That said, this novel demonstrates one of the most appropriate uses of the present tense I’ve encountered in a long while, adding as it does to the immediacy of Lucy’s truth-seeking.
Deceptions toward the end may spoil the fun for some, but for me made the story more realistic. And this is the book’s real social value: it makes us more uncomfortable the more we invest in it, because life for a refugee is no different. Ward has proven that finding oneself is only half the battle. The rest is keeping that self once in grasp.
(This review originally appeared in the now-defunct SF Signal, and is archived here.)
To a growing list of South African science/speculative fictionists (think Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz), one must add Fred Strydom, his novel The Raft being one of the most unnerving dystopian tales to emerge in recent memory. Memory is indeed paramount in Strydom’s feature debut, most of which takes place after Day Zero, when a mysterious, piercing whine reset the entire Earth to mental zero in what one character calls “baptism by amnesia.” Since then, humankind has had to rebuild itself amid waves of intermittent recall and cerebral puzzle-piecing.
The novel awakens on a beach through the eyes of its narrator, Kayle Jenner, who has managed to regain enough semblance of self to know his son Andy has gone missing and that he must find the boy at all costs if he is ever to feel whole again. The island he calls home — or which is, more accurately, dubbed home for his sake — confirms an unusual brand of apocalypse, one not of environmental but mental obliteration. Survivors have broken off into communes ruled by a dictatorial regime that calls itself The Body, whose role is to ensure that no one remembers too much of former days. Armed with quasi-communist ideals, the island’s overseers go to questionable lengths to ensure that none of its inhabitants is sullied by the taint of possession.
Kayle’s emotional palette is a spectrum of doubt, hope, and possibility. He holds on to dreams and nightmares alike as the only bastions of true selfhood. Assaulted by names and faces which should mean something to him but only seem to mock him behind closed eyes, he fears even these will be taken away while undergoing compulsory interrogations, during which members of The Body grill him on notions of God, power, and the nature of reality. The nominal goal of these “interviews” is to disconnect him from the hierarchical and materialistic tendencies that once pulled the globe into a spiral of moral depravity. As outlined in their ideological handbook, The Age of Self Primary, of which expository pericopes dot the novel, it was an immoral age done great service by Day Zero, a wrinkle in time rightly ironed out by catastrophe and firmed by the starch of psychological reinforcement. Kayle fails to see it this way, but with no foreseeable exit it’s all he can do to avoid projecting his fear on to a cosmos where every star becomes the wink of a derisive eye.
Details of pre-dystopian life are scarce but adequate enough to imagine one possible future for ourselves. Compulsory advertisements burned into bread by smart toasters, palm-reading screens that open and start cars, and whisper-quiet transports give glimpses of the conveniences left behind for the new primitivism. Much of the novel’s drama, however, turns the gestures of relatively organic technologies into life-altering changes, and by these Kayle will stumble across the truth of what his world has become. But it is the commune, for him “a place of bareness,” where personal demons are given room to roam. The description could hardly be more accurate. On the commune, free will is as intangible as the lives the island’s inhabitants struggle to remember, and salvation withered beyond ornament.
The novel’s titular raft is one of three reserved for the island’s wrongdoers, who are drugged, strapped to its floating planks, and forced to endure the mood swings of an unforgiving sea for days on end. When Kayle finds himself so punished for an “indiscretion” better withheld for the reader’s discovery, his journey toward finding the cause behind Day Zero and the whereabouts of his son carries him to landscapes at once forgiving and hostile.
By writing almost entirely in the first person, Strydom has dared break a strident rule of the debut novelist. To be sure, nearly all of his characters, regardless of age or background, speak with a likeminded vocabulary and cadence, while the few who don’t must rely on blatant verbal ticks — witness the inexplicable stutter of Kayle’s later accomplice — to differentiate themselves. Then again, this has the added effect of emphasizing the fact that everyone has been degaussed to some base mode of communication, and that The Body’s brainwashing has been effective.
There is, furthermore, a slew of flavor text to wade through, and similes are as frequent as the crack of a bat at a baseball game. Thankfully, Strydom’s are so lovely that one can enjoy the creativity of his writing without getting too bogged down in indulgent wordplay. One might further interpret his metaphorical twists as attempts on Kayle’s part to assert connections in a broken world (here is an author who values the scope of possibility as much as the possibility of scope). That Strydom’s educational background is in visual media will therefore come as no surprise. He writes like a filmmaker. His gifts for atmosphere are downright videographic, and at times his descriptions of places, in especial light of the island theme, feel like something out of Robyn and Rand Miller’s Myst series. He employs another cinematic and, given the novel’s conceit, rather ironic device: that of perfect recollection, as characters share conversations and letters verbatim when recounting personal stories. But Strydom’s love for those stories, and for the characters telling them, trumps any minor quibbles, leaving us with a destination more than worth the travel required to get there.
(This review originally appeared on the now-defunct SF Signal, and is archived here.)
My latest translation into English, of the science fiction masterpiece Mr. Turtle by Japanese author Yusaku Kitano, is now available! Read the description below and click the cover to be directed to Amazon, or click here to peruse the publisher’s page. If you are at all a science fiction fan, you won’t want to miss this.
What’s a cyborg turtle to do when his shell is torn in two?
It’s a fair question in the bizarre, compelling world of Mr. Turtle. Originally published under the name of its protagonist as Kame-kun, this English translation captures all the visionary integrity that won it the Nihon SF Taisho (Japan’s Nebula) Award in 2001. Acclaimed in Japan for his quirky brilliance, Yusaku Kitano explores notions of nonhuman life in novels as diverse as Crayfish Man (2001), Fox Possession (2011), and even a series of animal-themed picture books for children. His love of humor and the absurd only serves to emphasize the underlying seriousness of his work, which in Mr. Turtle plumbs its most cerebral depths. Kame-kun is a hero in a half shell of an altogether different sort, a killing machine designed for combat who wants to enjoy the simple pleasures of daily life—working his blue-collar job, going to the library, and typing on his laptop—even as he is haunted by vague memories of a war on Jupiter. To determine his future he must piece together his past, navigating an unsympathetic society toward revealing the novel’s philosophical heartbeat.
A character study of surreal wit, Mr. Turtle mixes equal parts action and insight, all the while crafting an homage to its chosen genre unlike any other.