Thursday, August 21, 2014

Phantasm Japan

It is gauche to review collections in which one's story appears. So this is not a review. And while I have a vested interest in Phantasm Japan doing well--the more people who buy it, the more who will read my story, and one writes in order to be read--there is no financial conflict of interest to lead me to engage in uncritical boosterism. My contract paid a flat per-word rate, no royalties, so I make no more money if it sells 10,000 copies than if it sells 100. This post is therefore neither a review nor an advertisement. It is one reader's early opinion, highlighting what I consider to be the most interesting stories of the collection.

First a contextual note: Phantasm Japan is the fantasy follow-up to Haikasoru's The Future Is Japanese. The latter title introduced me to Japanese authors Toh Enjoe and Project Itoh, and contained what I still consider to have been the best science fiction short story of 2012, Ken Liu's "Mono no aware". Similar to Future, Phantasm mixes stories translated from Japanese with new pieces in English. The boundary question, of where to draw the line between science fiction and fantasy, doubtless came up in the discussions between editors Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington over what to include. I do think there is a line that can be drawn, that it is not an entirely meaningless question, but I do not mind at all that some of the stories might be considered, by my definitions, more science fictional. Those tended to be among the stories I liked. Another difference from Future is that the English-language authors in Phantasm offer a more multinational cross-section of the genre.

But as you'll see, for me the highest points were reached by Japanese contributors. I do not intend this either as a slam against my fellow English-language contributors, or as some aw-shucks false humility. Most of those stories were entertaining, or thought-provoking, and several were both. What I suspect, based not only on the stories in Phantasm but on other pieces of Japanese fiction I have read recently (such as Hisaki Matsuura's Triangle, which I read and reviewed back in June), is that Japanese writers are taking bigger risks than their Anglophone counterparts. And where the most important distinction comes in, is that rather than being punished for those risks, they are being rewarded, by publishers, readers, award committees, and translators.

So let me give you a glimpse of some of those risks.

Dempow Torishima's author-illustrated novella "Sisyphean," perhaps the most astonishing piece in the collection, can be read in many ways: as a thought experiment about the "real subsumption" of labor by capitalist bio-power, as a literalized allegory of alienation, or as an examination of what it is to be human so thorough that it turns the object of examination inside-out. Just don't make the mistake I made this afternoon and try to read it while eating lunch.

The more things I read by Project Itoh the more saddened by his death, five years ago, at the far-too-young age of 34. To explain why I loved "From the Nothing, With Love," would likely provoke howls of "spoiler!" So let me just quote the blurb on the back cover--it's the "secret history of the most famous secret agent in the world"--and add that it is also a meditation on consciousness, selfhood and textuality.

New to me was Yusaku Kitano, whose "Scissors or Claws, and Holes" imagines a rather painful form of collective intelligence. The story's understated humor reminded me of parts of Toh Enjoe's Self-Reference Engine. I would definitely like to see more from this author in English translation. I would also love to see more from Sayuri Ueda, whose "The Street of Fruiting Bodies" combines the uncanniness of ghost stories with the nausea of a fungal infection.

These four pieces alone would be worth the cover price of $14.99. The rest are a bonus. We owe much to the translators as well, who produced at-times lengthy translated texts whose freshness and literary quality meets or exceeds some of the best in contemporary English-language prose.

Based on what I have been able to see of Japanese literature through the prism of translation, I regret that I never studied the language, and that my knowledge of it extends little beyond the few kanji I was able to sprinkle into my piece.

As always, feel free to comment, as critically as you wish, but by all means, first buy this book and read it.

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