Book Review: The Highs and Lows of the Sci-fi Anthology ‘The Future is Japanese’

The sci-fi anthology The Future is Japanese presents 15 stories either about or in some way involving, well obviously, Japan (with at least one fantasy and one horror story slipping in there along with one Afica-set tale penned by a Japanese writer). And given the eclectic makeup of talent and types of stories, this is your usual grab bag of the very good, to the not-so-great, to the interesting misfires.

The Future Is Japanese winds its way through the usual anxieties about the future, whether they be about the collapse of human knowledge (“Endoastronomy” by Toh EnJoe,), to the collapse of country and communication (“Goddess of Mercy” by Bruce Sterling). But then you get one or two that are very specifically culturally informed by Japan like the gentle story that opens the book, “Mono no Aware” by Ken Liu or the kids-in-mechs drama by David Moles, “Chetai Heiki Koronbin.”

Of all of these, the opening and closing stories, (Liu’s and TOBI Hirotaka’s “Autogenic Dreaming: Interview with the Columns of Clouds”) are the best realized of the bunch, particularly as they both dig into feelings and sensation in their own specific ways. “Mono no Ware” is the story of the handful of survivors aboard a vessel taking the last of humanity to their new home, and one passenger’s reflections on the meaning of sacrifice and the titular bittersweet feeling that, as I understand it, is akin to nostalgia. “Autogenic Dreaming” meanwhile plumbs the depths of an unrepentant killer’s memories for a solution to a pervasive virus destroying the world’s great works of fiction. “Mono no Ware” ends on just the perfect note for its character while even at 46 pages, “Autogenic Dreaming” feels like it’s just getting started in its evocative world.

Project Itoh’s “The Indifference Engine” is another standout, presenting a Western-backed neurological solution to the endless cycle of war and reprisals in an unnamed African nation. The Itoh’s story pointedly calls out foreign intervention on the part of former colonial powers in nations that are still suffering the repercussions of their occupation from, in some cases, only a little over a half century ago. The victims and victors are all pretty much the same, the story seems to say and perhaps its less sophisticated conclusion is that there are no simple solutions for fixing hate between people.

“Golden Bread” by Issui Ogawa is a simple take on the outsider in a small town learning to appreciate the values of the locals, while “One Breath, One Stroke” by Catherynne M. Valente is an enigmatic fantasy about a calligrapher who is a man in our world and a lovestruck ink brush in another. Rachel Swirsky delivers a chilling, sexual horror story with “The Sea of Trees” although it suffers from an ending that doesn’t seem to be necessarily related to where its lead character was headed emotionally in the preceding pages.

If there are weak spots, then they would be the frankly messy “The Sound of Breaking Up” by Felicity Savage, which sees a woman whose job is to formally end online relationships drafted into a time travel scheme. Savage’s story suffers from a lot of detail but not much in the way of a throughline for the overall plot. It’s joined by “Mountain People, Ocean People” Hideyuki Kikuchi about a flying mountain tribe and whether life exists above or below its settlement. This one just never coalesced into a fully realized world and while its themes of natural curiosity and exploration are right there on the page, it feels like it’s lacking in a sense of adventure to carry it through.

The Future is Japanese is available in print and digitally from VIZ Media.

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