Friday 17 January 2014

Very Short Introductions

David Seed, 2011
Christopher Goto-Jones, 2009
(January 2014)

Told you these would be addictive. I originally thought I’d group these two together because they’re both subjects I like to flatter myself that I know a decent amount about, and a refresher is always useful (though truthfully I thought there might be a good deal I could disagree with and so feel all superior to the authors). But, with a certain amount of serendipity, that’s not what happened at all. There’s a lot more common ground here than just my personal connection to the subjects.

In some ways… sociocultural anxiety about identity and the place of tradition in a society is one of the marks of the modern era… The modern era is not only characterized by great advances in science, but also by social anomie and political unrest.
(Modern Japan)

Japan, at least in the West, is often viewed as THE SFnal nation. I’ve previously voiced my annoyance that the default visual template for futuristic urban environments is still that of mid-80’s Shinjuku, but there’s more to it than just lazy set designers, I think.

SF is fundamentally a literature about social change. This may be self-inflicted (usually through technological advances), or imposed from the outside (viruses, alien invasions and the like) but, as I’ve also said elsewhere, at its heart it’s about examining human reactions to this change. It’s no coincidence that as a genre it only really got going during the industrial revolution, and the continuing truism of Moore’s Law means that it’ll be around for a good while yet. Japan, in many ways, represents a perfect real-world manifestation of the type of thought experiment so much SF is based upon.

Consider: Commodore Perry’s Black Ships were the archetypal Outside Context Problem, whereby a culture encounters a previously unknown (or ignored) entity of significantly superior technological means: “A problem most cultures encounter once, in much the same way as a sentence encounters a full stop.” And yet Japan didn’t stop. It went, not without considerable internal and external turmoil, from strength to strength.

Consider: So much early (and indeed current) SF is a barely concealed exploration of militarism, colonialism, and imperialism, and within living memory Japan has been both the colonizer and the colonized and come out stronger from the experience(s). It has been the rightly vanquished alien foe and the symbol of hope, bouncing back from the terrible application of new weaponry. How can mankind resist and recover from the devastating Martian invasion? This is how.

Consider: SF is often about interaction with the other, and Japan is (still) nothing if not other to many occidentals, and more recently they’ve also been others with tech parity. It’s very easy to conceive of Will Adams as a protagonist in a first contact story. I realize that there are lots of uncomfortable racial implications to that claim, but that doesn’t disprove it, sadly.

Consider: SF’s roots in the industrial revolution, as writers sought to explore the possible impacts of all this new technology on society. Japan’s own process of industrialization has occurred much more rapidly, since both the Meiji restoration and, at even greater pace, since the end of WWII allowing an almost faster than real-time exploration of that particular theme. What happens when society gets suddenly exposed to previously unimagined technologies and modes of thought?

Japan. Japan is what happens, at least in the popular western imagination and for good or for ill. I can’t believe that it’s taken me so long to figure this out. I think, perhaps, this is because these things are more apparent from the outside than in. There is, if we’re being kind, a lot of stereotyping necessary for these assumptions to hold, and anyone who’s spent any length of time here will tell you that it’s not all friendly robots, talking toilet-seats, and tentacle porn. I mean, sure, you can get those things, if you want, but they aren’t day-to-day aspects of the typical Japanese person’s existence.

Nevertheless, that can be what it looks like from the outside. No fiction can ever hope to capture the complexity of the real world and so some elisions are inevitable. And when all the sharp edges are knocked off by people who are (perhaps not damningly, in this case) more concerned with the image than the thing itself, Japan is demonstrably Science Fictional. Though it bears pointing out that a significant portion of that term is the word ‘fiction’.


  1. Interesting way of putting things. The science-fictional Japan doesn't show much in the daily lives. internet in hotels by cable, cash is the most popular way of paying for things, too scarce ATMs, etc. Those things are rather not in tune with "future trends".

    Why is South Korea not Science Fictional? They went through rapid change in the last 20 years. They have advanced technology, e-sport as a national sport, but when it comes to sf, they are just a bit more than a desert. Or why is not China SFnal?

    1. Thanks for commenting, and I'd be the first to admit that this is a far from watertight theory, but let's try and defend it for form's sake...

      It's not so much that Japan *is* SFnal, because as you rightly point out the reality is that it's really not, in the main. It's more than that it *appears* that way from the outside, when all you get is the glossy glossy of Tokyo and Osaka.

      As for why Japan and not Korea or China. Well, neither had their borders opened in quite so abrupt a style as Japan, but more importantly perhaps neither was rocketing forward so much during the postwar years, which coincided with SF's 'Golden Age' when many of the core tropes were being solidified. Perhaps. I'd be more than happy for you to chip away at that as you like :)

  2. That just shows ignorance. ;) It's like looking at USA through the lenses of NY only. :D But I know people love stereotypes, easy things, etc.

    I think rocketing during the postwar years could be responsible. Because obviously, a lot has changed for the three countries in the past years. The culture for some reason, doesn't reflect that. I wonder why. I wonder how long will it last.

    And when USA will stop thinking all the aliens want to destroy USA. ;) Because it last far too long. :D

  3. Ignorance on the part of whom? Pretty strong word that, even softened with a smiley ;) I'd argue that there's a healthy section of the world that *does* view America as NY. Then you add in the fact that one of Japan's favourite national myths is the relative homogeneity of it's population, which isn't true, but if many of the people you're talking about promote *themselves* as that it's easier to understand why outsiders might buy into it.

    1. You know, we have global world, information available at hand in the internet (I know, not the whole world) bust still a lot of people don't even bother looking for an information. Or they don't chew and think on the information they come by.

      I would argue not, since a lot of USA made films, TV series with different cities (LA, Chicago, Boston, Seattle, etc.) are heavily promoted (or pushed).

      The homogenic myth is also popular in Poland, but it's even less valid claim. And some other countries. I'm not gonna ever understand it. :D

  4. Sidetracked by a family vacation and now many days behind on commenting.

    Again, you write a post that I wish I would have thought up. This is definitely something I want to dig into further.

    1. Dunno about 'thought up', but reading these two books in conjunction did make certain similarities inescapable. I've been trying to knock up a semi-sequel to both this and that guest post I did over at Red's, but it's not quite working yet. Be interested in your thoughts if you fancy having a bash.

    2. I'm reading The Future is Japanese right now. Since trying to review short story collections is mostly fruitless, I imagine it will turn into a follow up to your musings. Just gotta dig out from a massive backlog of vacation, job-related, and music commitments.