A Rose by Any Other Name

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Last week I flew up to Tokyo to meet with Fujisaki Shingo, to sign the contract for Crystal Silence. I read the book quite some time ago, as it was published in 1999 and was chosen as Best SF Novel of 1999 in the annual Hayakawa SF Magazine poll, but didn't have a chance to actually start talking to the author about possible publication until earlier this year.

When I did finally get in touch with him, I was quite surprised to discover he already knew me... and, in fact, I already knew him, although under a different name! Turns out we had talked about SF and possibly asking him to write some stories for a particular project maybe fifteen or twenty years ago, back when he was still a freshly-hatched author published only in Shibano Takumi's "Uchujin" fanzine. Nothing ever came of that talk, but it did lay the groundwork for a very nice meeting last week in Jimbocho, the used-book district of Tokyo.

Fujisaki got his MS in the United States, and in fact at the University of Maryland, which is my own alma mater. That makes him a member of a select group of Japanese SF authors: people who write about other cultures and actually have some experience in other cultures to draw upon. The same problem applies to English-language authors, of course, and I imagine applies to almost every nation in the world: people spend most of their time in one culture. Sort of unavoidable, unfortunately.

Like many authors, Fujisaki uses names that are not immediately identifiable by nationality or language. In the United States, justly called the "melting pot of humanity" (although certainly not the onlyi one!), it is not too unusual to find surnames from, say, Viet Nam, Poland, Ireland and Spain living next to each other in an apartment building. Regardless of how they're spelled or where they came from, they are all perfectly good "American" names. My own last name, Lipsett, was apparently created on-the-fly at Ellis Island from some Eastern European surname, perhaps Lipschitz, because somebody thought it sounded more "American" than what it was to start with. That could have marked the creation of a new surname, but in any case today it is as American as Smith or Weingarten or Singh.

The main character is his novel is named Saya ASKAI. From the Japanese アスカイ (yes, he writes her name, ane most other proper names, in katakana, probably for the reasons I touched on earlier), it should be Romanized as Saya ASUKAI, but in fact the Japanese would probably pronounce it without a noticeable "U" between the "S" and the "K."

"Saya" (written initially as 沙耶) is a real Japanese name... I can't claim to have ever heard of a woman with this first name, but a quick Internet check shows that it is not all that rare. "Askai," which he introduces initially as 飛鳥井, is rare, but again a real Japanese name.

So why did the author choose to represent them in katakana throughout the book? The vast majority of Japanese-language books consistently use the correct kanji for character names, except for some very special cases. Does it make the character seem somehow less "human?" Perhaps half a century ago it would have... writing things in katakana was the equivalent of the robot from "Lost in Space" speaking in flat buzzing tones. A book I am reading now, in fact, deliberately uses this trick in a conversation between an AI and a human being... the software speaks in katakana, and the person in normal hiragana. Perhaps this would be the equivalent of writing robot speech in a different font in an English work.

Today, however, Japanese is trending away from heavy kanji usage, and sentences are likely to use a much higher percentage of hiragana to kanji... and, with the flood of words imported from English and other languages, the percentage of katakana is also soaring. Katakana no longer means clunky robots; instead, it provides a modern, multi-cultural flavor to the text. The story makes it clear that Saya is Japanese, but her name simultaneously makes it clear that this is not a Japanese of today... this is the future.

English-language authors do the same thing, eliminating clear references to real cultures and languages to make the work more clearly a part of another reality. When you read Skylark or Lensman, for example, the names are all part of the setting, and make it very clear that this is all an American view of the future. Jack Vance strikes me as perhaps one of the best in the trade at creating names with no clear cultural origin, although relative newcomer Iain Banks is right up there with him when it comes to filing the serial numbers off of main characters. There are countless others, of course.

The names used in the book are a crucial key to the setting, and define much of the atmosphere of the novel. For a Japanese reader, having the main character named (for example) Tazaki, is perfectly normal; for an American reader the name alone carries an unfamiliar ring. A surname like Askai is equally exotic to people in both languages, and I think hints at the superlative approach the author has taken in this novel, avoiding setting a novel of the future too firmly in a present-day culture. Askai is Japanese, living in Japan, but both are firmly products of a well-imagined future and not merely renditions of real life wearing masks.

I think you'll enjoy this book when it's ready. Goodness knows I did!

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