Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Tieryas, United States of Japan (2016)

Peter Tieryas, United States of Japan. Angry Robot Books, 2016. Pp. 377. ISBN 978-0-85766-532-4. £8.99.

Reviewed by Andy Sawyer

In his dedication, the author points to Philip K. Dick as one of the “Phils” who changed his life; and it is immediately clear that this is a reference to The Man in the High Castle as an inspiration for United States of Japan, We can see Tieryas’ debt in the basic scenario in which Japan won WW2 and the United States of America is divided between a militaristic Japanese empire and Nazi Germany. Here, though, instead of a book offering a vision of a better alternative where the USA won (in the shape of a book or, in the case of Amazon’s recent series, a film), the people of the defeated country are shown—and encouraged to play—a game which shows the US taking on and defeating Japan. This is in itself an interesting nudge at the idea of dominant/hegemonic forms of cultural media, although it is, of course a kind of game that we are playing once we entertain the idea itself. It does, though, in a meaningful way, mould our response to the novel, as do a number of ways in which Tieryas constructs the nature of his future. And so, it is fair to say that I found the novel inferior to Dick’s, but also that many of its readers will be of the age I was when I first read High Castle, and Tieryas’ moulding and construction will be as normal and obvious as Dick’s was to me. I cannot, though, fail to read it through the lens of Dick, and, as the publishers emphasise this novel’s status as one “in the vein of” Dick’s, I am probably not expected to.

The first part of the book offer a chilly alternative to both our reality and Dick’s novel when we see the crushing of the USA through the eyes of Japanese-Americans who (as happened in our timeline) were interned as potential “traitors”—and who, we quickly realise, are never going to be seen as fully loyal by the conquerors. The way this is told holds up a clever mirror to Dick, whose portrayal of the Japanese victors needs (for his own plotting and philosophical purposes) to show them as deeply civilised if a touch “exotic” and largely presents off-stage the horrors that must have taken place. Tieryas, in contrast, presents a world seemingly extrapolated from those many popular exposes of the awfulness and brutality of Japanese warfare published in the decades immediately after the Allied victory. Convinced of the rightness of their cause and the divinity of their Emperor, his Japanese victors will shrink at no atrocity. Meanwhile what we see of a nuked San Diego reminds us of the awful human suffering that was Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Dick needed to keep atrocity off-scene so that it can be there as something unspeakable for his characters, for us to realise it for them. Tieryas seems to need to show it as the air his characters breathe, the environment they cannot escape: simple necessity.

As an alternative-history, this seems unconvincing if only because this brutality (even though it reflects genuine brutality) seems as one-dimensional as Dick’s second-hand Shintoism. Yet the central character, Beniko (Ben) Ishimura, is certainly a character worthy of Dick. The son of two of the Japanese-Americans mentioned above, Ben (we will learn) has achieved his rank through committing what we readers understand as an appalling act. He has just failed a promotion. His job is censoring video games, and because of events in his past which will become clear, his job to investigate the “United States of America” game, in company with the ruthless Tokko (secret police) agent Akiko, is, from the authorities’ point of view natural and yet also, from what we will learn later in the story, deeply problematical. A second layer of unconvincingness is laid through what for many will be the strength of the book: the action sequences including giant mecha robots. The problem here is that these mecha, as fictions, date from the mid-fifties (and basically entered the cultural mainstream many years later) and it is really unclear how they can be said to have developed from the Japan of the mid 40s to fit this fiction. But once this is overlooked (or objections to it seen as a quibble), we get a strong novel in the vein of the Japanese manga and anime which has become such a powerful cultural export to the West, and United States of Japan is nothing if not readable.

Perhaps Tieryas’ strongest point is the way he has constructed the novel. Ben is tasked with tackling the “George Washingtons,” the American forces of resistance, and is something of a reluctant side-kick for Akiko, who herself allows us to imagine the power that the devotion to the Emperor has in this world. During this search for subversion, we learn a lot more about what has happened between the early scenes when we are introduced to Ben’s parents, and the present in which this hunt for the Resistance takes place. We learn more about the genesis of the “United States of America” game, and Ben’s relationship with his mentor, General Mutsuraga, and above all the action that enabled Ben, with his dubious background, to join the Imperial forces. We learn much that transforms the novel from a cartoon-like action thriller to a rather complicated and—in the end, moving—exploration of ethics and ideals. In this, the novel is both very like Dick and not at all like The Man in the High Castle, and Peter Tieryas has done well in acknowledging influence and remaining determined to be his own man.

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