This book is the shit.
I can think of no better way for an English reader to get a taste of Japanese sci-fi legends like Kobo Abe, Sakyo Komatsu, and Shinichi Hoshi than to pick up this volume. Calling these thirteen stories “science fiction” is a little like calling Watchmen a superhero story. Technically correct, but the label seems too small for it. These are fantastic and surprising tales that attack the dendrites from various angles: comedy, horror, and raw surrealist speculation.
Kobo Abe’s “The Flood” is the manic tale of a class uprising Marx could never have dreamed of. Poor folk are literally turning into water and murdering their overlords by drowning them. With the planet rapidly becoming flooded with transformed proletariat, Noah (yes, that Noah) attempts to rebuild the ark and save the human race. Things don’t end so well for him this time around.
Ryo Hanmura’s “Cardboard Box” depicts the world as seen by a cardboard box. The only goal a box is to be full, and we bask in the box’s misery as it is sold and its contents (fruit) are removed, one by one. Fear not, there’s a happy ending for our box. Like “Animal Farm,” this story is a balancing act between the comical and the serious.
“Tansu” by the same author manages to be rather frightening. A man’s family is possessed by a strange neuroses that nobody can understand, and eventually he is caught up in it. The ending explains nothing and everything.
“Bokko-chan” by Shinichi Hoshi is amusing, but left me with a heavy heart. A mechanically-inclined barkeep builds an android girl to help drum up business for his bar, but a sadly deluded young man actually believes the girl is real and is heartbroken when the robot’s subroutines reject his romantic advances.
Shinichi Hoshii’s “He-y, Come on Ou-t!” is about townsfolk who find a bottomless hole. Nobody can find the end of it. Soon the hole becomes a popular dumping ground for garbage. Partway through I had an inkling of where the story was going, but the ending still made me say “oh, shit.” Out loud.
Takashi Ishikawa’s “The Road to the Sea” is another story in the same vein, an interesting story with a gigantic whiplash of an ending. A boy is possessed by a burning hunger to see the ocean, and he goes on a ill-fated journey to find it.
“The Empty Field” by Morio Kita is twelve pages of bizarre pseudoprose. Weird, but okay.
Sakyo Komatsu’s “The Savage Mouth” is gruesome nightmare fuel about a man who eats his own body, piece by piece. Kind of like Stephen King’s “Survivor Type”, except where King flinches and ends his story, Komatsu keeps going and going. The final pages carry an interesting sociological edge.
Komatsu’s “Take Your Choice” is less disturbing but equally thought provoking. A man has been offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to escape into the future. Except he’s not really going to the future, he’s going to an alternate present, which will then develop into his chosen future. This story goes to really thought-provoking places, and it’s one of the best in the volume.
“Triceratops” by Tensei Kono features a man and a boy who can somehow see dinosaurs walking around their 20th century town. Nobody else can see a thing. I don’t know if Kono was a fan of American TV shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, but the way his story progresses is somewhat similar.
“Fnifmum” by Taku Mayumura is about an alien lifeform who can move around in time the way we can move around in space. This is more of a world-building exercise than a story, but it’s unique and evocative. Mayumura has shown us a creature that is as alien as an alien can be, and yet we can still relate to it.
Yasutaka Tsutsui’s “Standing Woman” is an Orwell-inspired story about a futuristic society that has found a disturbing method for greening its public places. Dissenters and political antagonists are literally turned into trees. The story is told from the perspective of a pandering, spineless writer who is disgusted by how he isn’t standing up against the oppression. His own wife has become a tree, and his torment is portrayed brilliantly.
The final story is “The Legend of the Paper Spaceship” by Tetsu Yano. On the surface, it’s about a remote village that is home to a mentally retarded woman who never seems to age. What it’s really about is uneasy passage of lore, and the impossibility of untangling a skein of mysteries that happened many years ago and to people who are dead. Plot fragments are brought up, touched upon, and then we lose sight of them again in the dense world Yano has created. I have read this story several times and I believe I have figured out at least 65% of it.
So maybe science fiction isn’t the term I’d use to describe these stories. They are works of imagination, sometimes the imaginations involved are highly esoteric. Western science fiction is about the stars. These stories are about a place I find rather more interesting: within.