JSF News & Views: The 2008 Seiun Awards
by Ebihara Yutaka
© 2009 Ebihara Yutaka
The Seiun Awards (Seiun Shō 星雲賞; "seiun" confusingly means "nebula," although it is the Japanese equivalent to the Hugo）are voted annually by science fiction fans with six categories: Japanese novel, Japanese short story, translated novel, translated short story, media work (animation, manga/comics,video games, etc.), and a catch-all for everything else. Three of the 2008 Seiun Awards went to
- Japanese novel: Arikawa Hiro (有川浩), The Library Wars series (「図書館戦争」シリーズ)
- Japanese short story: Nojiri Hōsuke (野尻抱介), "Flyby in Silence" (沈黙のフライバイ)
- Other media: Hatsune Miku (初音ミク)
The Library War series
The Library War series consists of four main volumes: The Library War (図書館戦争) and The Library Rebellion (図書館内乱) in 2006, followed by The Library Crisis (図書館危機) and The Library Revolution (図書館革命) in 2007. Two additional volumes, The Library War Extra I and II, were published in 2008.
The series is set in a fictional Japan where the "Media Improvement Act" (Media Ryōka Hō; メディア良化法) was enacted at the end of the Shōwa era. Enforcement is almost equivalent to censorship, covering any medium that can be used to convey the author's intentions, such as newspapers, TV, books, magazines, art and the Internet. Nobody really knows why the law was passed in the first place. While it was originally aimed at controlling annoying and harassing media which often violated personal privacy, details of its adoption have been buried in the political "black box" of the Shōwa era. As is often the case, however, once the state received the power of censorship, it has steadily expanded its scope and power until it can now suppress almost all opposing opinion.
The story is set in the year 2019, or in Japanese Seika 31 (in reality, that would be Heisei 31, neatly moving the series into a parallel world). A special enforcement task force named the RTK (Ryōka Tokumu Kikan; 良化特務機関) has been formed to confiscate "politically incorrect" media, and authorized to use firearms if necessary to fulfill its duties. To counter this increasingly powerful censorship, the Library Brigade (Toshokan Tai; 図書館隊) is formed as a public organization for the benefit of the people, using firearms to protect the freedoms of speech and expression supposedly guaranteed as a basic human right in a democratic nation.
This brief outline might lead you to position the series as merely military alternate history, and in fact the author reveals considerable knowledge of warfare and weaponry. While there is no denying the large helping of military elements, it is enriched and transformed by the romantic relationships between the characters.
Kasahara Iku, the female protagonist, decides to become a librarian because of an unforgettable encounter with a librarian. As a high school student, she visited a bookstore only to find that the book she had been searching for was being confiscated by RTK thugs. She cannot make up her mind if she should hand over the copy she just picked up, or conceal it to buy later. She tries to take the book with her, but is stopped by an RTK officer. When questioned, she demands they arrest her, realizing that she cannot be arresting for shoplifting a book that has been confiscated, and is therefore no longer store inventory.
Seeing her difficulties, a man steps in front of her, and declares himself a librarian with the authority to prevent the RTK from confiscating the book. From that moment, the unknown librarian became the "knight on a white horse" for her, motivating her to join the Library Brigade herself. The Library Brigade is the focus of the novel, and is packed with various love romances between diverse and well-delineated characters. Together with the military aspects, this is a key draw that has earned reader devotion to the series.
The first volume of The Library War series opens with a description of the tough boot camp, obligatory for all the fresh librarians. Kasahara is recognized not only for her incredible physical ability, almost inhuman at times, but also for her powerful motivation. At the final interview, she reveals that defining incident, explaining she wants to be a librarian like the man who saved her. Her motivation is presented in sharp contrast to the harsh training that she must undergo. Another important contrast is her relationship with her trainer. The trainer-trainee relationship is stressful at best, with Kasahara often swearing at his orders and cursing him behind his back. Behind it all, though, they actually begin to build a deep trust for each other.
The main plot driver is of course the contrast between the Library Brigade and the RTK, which can end in bloodshed at times. In the battles, Iku and her colleagues always consider what they are doing, and why... discussions of what is "good" or "bad" for society are found through the series, with characters in one way or another trying to demonstrate what they believe in, and holding it up as a reason to protect all humanity. Many readers may find "suspension of disbelief" difficult because the reasons behind the creation of the RTK are never explained, but the series deftly hooks into the Japanese mentality, often described as being more group-oriented than Western cultures.
"Flyby in Silence"
The Seiun Award for the best Japanese short story went to Nojiri Hōsuke's "Flyby in Silence". Although the story was first published in 1998 on the Internet, the collection including it was published in 2008, making it possible to list it as a candidate for the Seiun. Nojiri has a long career in the field, famous both for his hardcore scientific knowledge and his excellent science fiction. His talents as a hard science fiction writer make him one of the few Japanese authors capable of providing the scientific rationale needed to make fiction believable: a universal goal in science fiction literature.
The author depicts a new kind of observation satellite, or, more precisely, many tiny satellites which effectively transmit the data from throughout the universe to us, thanks to their small size. As it happens, the same observation method is used by an alien race called the "Red Dwarfs," and the story focuses on their arrival. The nearer they approach, naturally, the more excited humanity becomes, as this will be the longed-for First Contact. Mankind is in for a surprise, though, when contact occurs at the very end.
Crypton Future Media
Any discussion of contemporary Japanese pop culture today demands mention of Hatsune Miku (初音ミク), an instrumental software package invented for desktop music (DTM) users by Crypton Future Media. Hatsune Miku can sing seamlessly because it was created digitally from a woman's voice, making it an ideal and unique vocal instrument application.
The most fascinating characteristic of Hatsune Miku is not its admittedly high quality as vocal DTM software, but the "vocaloid" character who sings. The word was created by fusing "vocal" and "android," and is a handy way of referring to the mysterious singer who intrigues users so much. The software has become extremely popular in Japan also because users can share songs they create with the package via the Internet, especially on YouTube or Nico Nico Douga.
Nico Nico Douga is an original Japanese video stream hosting site with one crucial difference from other similar sites: Users can comment on video while they watch! This instant gratification gimmick is exceedingly popular among users, attracting a growing flood of new Hatsune Miku vocals. A search on Nico Nico Douga gets over 45,000 hits!
Hatsune Miku is much more than a musical product or instrumental DTM package: it has become a character and a whole cultural movement on the Internet. Considering its impact on Japanese culture recently, it is no surprise at all that it received the Seiun Award.