Peter Tieryas, United States of Japan (2016)

My first ARC 🙂 Yay! Thanks to Angry Robot’s Robot Army programme, we got early access (through NetGalley) to the ebook of United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas. Thanks, Angry Robot! Book will be published in the beginning of March, and I got to read it already, so it’s only fair that I’ll write a few words about it 😉

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It is, of course, The Man in the High Castle with mecha, the cover (I love it!) tells us as much. It’s more than that, surely, but that’s the first thing that comes to a reader’s mind and the author doesn’t hide his inspirations:

United States of Japan wouldn’t exist without some wonderful people. Obviously, the first person I want to thank is Philip K Dick who inspired me a great deal growing up, especially through The Man in the High Castle. Even though we’re very different writers, he’s had a huge influence on me and helped me to view the world in a completely unique light. (from Acknowledgements)

Another bow to Dick – similar plot device. In the classic book, a novel depicting alternative history within alternative history – a world where Axis won the war (differently than in our world, but still) is central to the plot. Here – it’s a computer game based on the same assumption, that’s a great idea for our times :)!

It is, ultimately, a very different book than its great predecessor, and one that deserves to be judged on its own merits. And I’m conflicted about how to judge it. It was a brave project to attempt writing spiritual successor to PKD’s masterpiece, probably too ambitious, but the result is an interesting book, though one not suited for everybody. A strong stomach is required, for one. An ability to either forgive protagonists a lot, or to enjoy a book while despising most of the characters – also helpful.

There are two mainstream alternative histories of the Axis-won WW II I’ve read and enjoyed. Robert Harris’ Fatherland (adapted for big screen in 1994, a decent movie with Rutger Hauer) and The Man in the High Castle.

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It’s an unusual book, based on an idea strange to US readers and familiar to almost any other nation (my country beaten in a war? occupied? foreign soldiers marching on the streets of our cities? it happens…). But it’s not a war book. It’s a philosophical, spiritual one, asking questions about fate, nature of reality. A haunting vision of history as a nightmare from which it may just be possible to awake. Also a study of how Americans could have changed with their country defeated, divided and occupied. With the Japanese culture influencing the post-war American one, no the other way round. Short and highly recommended, but do not expect adventure, action, fast pacing. Not that kind of novel. Probably impossible to faithfully adapt to any visual medium.

Maybe that’s why the excellent Amazon TV series The Man in the High Castle is not a  faithful adaptation, but an excellent story loosely inspired by Dick’s book. Also recommended, even for people who find the novel boring. Amazon gave us a very convincing vision of occupied America and Rufus Sewell created a great SS character. Maybe I should write a dual book/tv show review…

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United States of Japan is written in a way that makes adaptation possible. It would look like a crossover of Pacific Rim and Schindler’s List. Probably healthier to make an anime version, graphic violence and sex look less disturbing in cartoons.

Imagine a world that is just like the Second World War, but worse. At least outside Europe, the old continent probably had it more or less the same. All the torture, fanaticism and casual disregard for human life and dignity you saw in movies depicting Japanese prison camps multiplied by 10 and applied to the entire western half of the US, whole of Asia and most of the South America. And then it gets more disturbing with bizarre scenes full of genetically modified monstrosities, scores of enslaved and tortured people. Author didn’t need to be so graphic and literal to convince me that it’s a hopeless dystopia.

It’s not really an alternative history, it’s a science fiction in a world bearing some similarities to ours. That’s not a complaint, I’m an avid genre fiction reader after all. But there it differs from Dick, who created a world not probable, but at least plausible.

What I do mind is how one-sided the war was in this vision (I might be wrong, history we learn about is heavily edited by censors and nobody, neither the characters nor the readers know the full truth). The Mecha, the nuclear weapons, came out of nowhere to annihilate American defenses… making it easy to believe that the Japanese Emperor’s godly status is widely believed in this world.

In some early reviews I’ve seen comparisons to Haruki Murakami, but I see only Ryu Murakami, much more violent and bizarre Japanese author of Coin Locker Babies (one of his novels was adapted into a movie by Takashi Miike, that’s how violent and bizarre ;)). I’m not claiming it was an inspiration, just noticing some similarities in style. And I’ve probably missed many references to online shooters and mecha anime shows I’m not familiar with.

Characters are… as bad as the world they live in. Of two main protagonists Ben Ishimura is a computer game censor, Akiko Tsukino – secret police officer. Ben proved his devotion to the Emperor early, as a Pavlik Morozov analogue, denouncing his parents’ treacherous words to the police (resulting in their forced suicide); Akiko takes pride in her work as an investigator, torturer and murderer. But, spoiler alert, apparently she sometimes feels bad about it. Slightly. Other characters… in a world that doesn’t forgive innocence they too are cruel and ruthless either for personal gain (or/and pleasure) or out of fanatical dedication to the Emperor (and, often, for their sick pleasure also).

[spoiler ahead, highlight to read] The fact that on the last pages we learn that Ben’s parents ordered him to go to the police to save his life, when it was too late to save theirs… it was too late for me to see him as anything more than the lesser evil in a very, very evil world. And their final message he ignored until Claire forced him to do something about the world they lived in.

The opposing side… the George Washingtons (cool name! and they wear cool wigs, like Washington himself did ;)) are not very nice either, and some of the things they do are no less disturbing than the Japanese secret police’s activities. But them I’m willing to forgive, bitter and fighting for lost (& noble, that’s crucial here) cause.

Avoiding such a future would justify nuke-bombing entire Japan twice. I can’t see the hope and compassion that supposedly hides somewhere there. Definitely no joy. Invention – sure. But the world here is evil, the ambiguity hidden within Dick’s dystopia is largely lost. Don’t get me wrong – the Earth from The Man in the High Castle is not a place where I’d like to live. But there was humanity in there I can’t find here.

Of course, the Empire we see here is based on Japan from the pop culture, largely Japanese pop culture and it’s not a wrong thing to do. Dick’s ideas updated for the benefit of gaming&anime generation. It’s a sign of our times, but also something a reader should remember. It’s a video game world and video game itself is such a major plot device not by accident. Fast pacing, widespread exaggerations… I think a game would be the best way to adapt USJ (aesthetically maybe something like Bioshock?).

Having said all that, I had fun reading it. I play video games, watch anime (though rarely anything with mecha), I’m not repulsed by an odd torture scene. The story was engaging enough, there was tension and surprise here and there (although the great reveal was rather predictable). I was often angry with the book, but I enjoyed that feeling, it was like a ride in a crazy theme park, not the safest kind of fun and slightly insane, but worth experiencing.

The basic idea is great, there are some good scenes and the plot catches your attention. It’s a nice read for people that won’t get repulsed by its over-the-top cruelty.

Score: 6/10

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2 thoughts on “Peter Tieryas, United States of Japan (2016)

  1. Hmm, not my area at all 😉 I like Dick, sure, but I’m absolutely not a fan of anime, not a fan of torture and cruelty, and Pavka Morozow I find repulsive… A good thing you read it so now I won’t need to 🙂

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