Takano Fumio and Russia
Some time ago I was speaking to Asamatsu Ken, and he insisted that I read something by a new author, a woman named Takano Fumio (高野史緒), which is a pen-name, of course. He said he'd tell her to get in contact with me. That was fine; I already have a reading list at least a decade long, and adding another book or three to the stack would hardly make much difference.
As it turned out, I already had one book by her in my to-read pile: A book in the Hayakawa J Collection that had received high praise, called アイオーン. I probably would have gotten around to reading it within a year or so, given my present reading schedule (which is pretty close to zip, considering it is squeezed into the gaps between everything else I have to do), but after swapping a few emails with her and checking out how Japanese readers felt about her work on the web, I started with a novel called Musica Machina (ムジカ・マキーナ) instead.
It is a pretty hefty tome, a small-size Japanese paperback (文庫) with a whopping 480 pages. That's not quite as big as one of the two volumes of the Lairs of the Hidden Gods series in Japanese, which hit close to 800 pages apiece, but it's still a pretty big book to lug around for quick glances on the subway.
It was a bit slow to get into... the story starts off talking about the European music scene in the late 19th century, with German, Austrian and British nobility and musicians interacting. Hardly the stuff of SF, I thought, but stuck with it because of the glowing reviews by people who can generally be believed. Tatsumi Takayuki raved about it, so it at least deserved a serious look.
It rapidly got better, with glimpses of some bizarre drug that seemed to connect music and ecstasy. Religious ecstasy? Maybe... for some at least. And as that begins to develop, there are disturbing glimpses of technology popping up, such as a mysterious music hall offering outstanding music but with no musicians in evidence. Speakers, maybe? Mixed in with period costumes and events (the Germans advancing on Paris, for example, and Napoleon a prisoner), there are smatterings of geekspeak and street slang, DJs and druggies, making for a really astonishingly good potpourri that effectively mixes history, music, drugs, religion and six other things in a unique and uniquely engaging way. It is science fiction, and amazingly good science fiction at that... in Tatsumi's afterword he says the book has created an entirely new genre of "musical SF." I don't know how well populated the genre is, but if this is any guide to its quality, I can't wait. We're considering this for translation into English now. It's a long work and probably one with a relatively small audience, but it really deserves to be read internationally.
I had a look through my collection to see what else I had by Takano, and discovered that I had a short story in an unread anthology. That was good, because I didn't want to read two novels by the same author in a row. The story was 空忘の鉢 Kūbō no Hachi, which I might translate as the "Bowl of Forgetfulness" (which reminds me of the teacup in Heinlein's "We Also Walk Dogs"). It was in another of Inoue Masahiko's Freak-Out Collection anthologies, No. 28 entitled アジアン怪綺 (Asian Gothic).
Set in the Soviet Union (remember when there was a Soviet Union?), it's a fairly slow-paced story about an archaeologist convinced that there was a kingdom called 黄華 (which would be Huáng Huá in Chinese. Literally, 'yellow flower', and since that character for flower is used to represent China, it could also mean 'yellow China') somewhere in the Altai range, between the steppes route and the northernmost oasis route to the West, that time has just forgotten. It has gotten lost, with only scattered references to it here and there. Turns out, of course, that it wasn't lost, only somewhat overlooked... A very well-done story, that does indeed feature a "bowl of forgetfulness" in a quiet but effective way.
It also has a sentence that just reached out and grabbed me:
No doubt I could spend quite a bit of time trying to improve my translation, but it reads something like "The dancing flame changed its shape every instant, and I felt I could see the shapes of characters from every language within it."
I'm not quite sure why that sentence appeals to me so strongly, but it still does. The flame itself is nothing special, but the characters and languages that aren't within it are vital.
Hopefully we'll get the chance to run this story in English in the future, possibly in Speculative Japan volume 2.
Takano-san has a new book called 赤い星 (Red Star), scheduled for hardcover release from Hayakawa in August 2008, which deals with the newborn Soviet Union, Japan and the Czar's bloodline.
News flash: Red Star has been released as a trade paperback. I just received a copy from Takano-san.
Her blog is http://takanodiary.cocolog-nifty.com/
All the contracts have finally been signed with the rights holders for the 3-volume kaiki anthology, and a lot of the stories have been assigned to translators. It will be a long process, but hopefully a lot of what we learned putting the Lairs of the Hidden Gods books out will make it easier. We are already getting a lot of interest from the academic community on this series, and it should be a heck of a lot of fun to read! (Probably less so to check and edit half a dozen times, but if that's the only way I get to hold the published book in my grubbies, so be it!)
Until next week, then, be reasonably good