Administrator review by


He's about the unlikeliest "hero" you could imagine—the Administrator. Sitting alone—very alone—at the head of a hierarchy of robots, he has a kind of absolute local authority—but one severely constrained by those same robots. He mediates between a bureaucratic off-world "Federation" with off-world military forces anxious to supplant its authority on the one hand, and on the other the conflicts between and conflicting rights of the sometimes primitive native inhabitants and off-world settlers. For he is not just an administrator, he's a colonial administrator, part of a system to administer worlds after a period of extensive war and conquest. Through the 4 novellas that make up the book we see different worlds through the eyes of 4 such administrators. In each the administration system is a little older (the novellas span about 70 years and are part of an extensive series), the on-world native inhabitants have more developed societies, the off-world "Federation" is more bureaucratically atrophied, the demands of the settlers against the natives more persistent and intrusive.

When first published in 1974 Administrator was viewed by many Japanese critics as a rather harsh condemnation of the bureaucratic system and of the Japanese government in particular. That's interesting, but instructive as much for what it says about Japanese responses to the post war social settlement as about the book. One of the things that marks these stories out is precisely that they avoid vulgar specificity; like good poetry, the themes are at once universal, general and repurposable.

What I found fascinating about Administrator is that in a genre that in the West rarely strays too far from "hero as rebel" the administrators are set up to be the most ordered AND liberal of the various forces at play, bending over backwards to be fair, to apply the rules, selflessly to "do the decent thing" and—crucially—to prevent the natives being crushed by the settlers. We see the world through their eyes—not uncritically of course, it is a subverting viewpoint that precludes identification—but it is to them that our sympathies are largely drawn.

This isn't a book that concerns itself with this or that historical colonial episode and it would be absurd to criticise it for not doing so. Its concerns are deeper. I read the subtext as something like: let's, for the sake of argument, take the rhetoric of colonial—or any other—administrative responsibility at face value. What cost does it demand of the administrators themselves and of the people administered? What internal contradictions does it have? What forces and pressures can it cope with and what will overpower it? How does it avoid atrophy into bureaucracy? Can it ever be the even handed creature it presents itself to itself as being?" In other words, not mundane observations about colonialism but "could there ever be good administration of any set of diverse groups with diverse interests". If that makes it sound dry or polemical, it isn't—these are elegant, engaging stories written with economy and grace. But as concerns they speak to the moment as "nation building" goes back on the international agenda and the UN faces calls to intervene in and then administer the affairs of so called "dysfunctional states". The core of the "colonialism" of the type "Administrator" addresses does not come with cardboard cut-out villains or simple answers.

The author, Mayamura Taku, is the pen name of the award-winning writer Murakami Takuji. Born in 1934, he has written extensively on issues of bureaucracy and depersonalisation. The translation is by Daniel Jackson, a pseudonym for a long time Japan hand. While I am not qualified to comment on the extent to which the original Japanese is captured in the English the book reads well, steering an always sure course between the awkwardness of too direct a translation and the egregious facility of over-colloqualisation. In short, delicate, eloquent English, and, I suspect, a delicate translation. The overall effect is not all that far off a series of poems in prose. It is published by Kurodahan Press, a small, foreign owned Fukuoka publishing house.

So who is it for? To call this "science fiction" is to throw red meat to those prejudiced against the genre—the "off-world" locations are satisfying enough, but they are really there to allow a series of social scenarios which the stories then gently investigate. There is no techno-porn in Administrator.

Don't be put off by the `pulp fiction` cover by Kato Naoyuki with its particularly hideous shades of pink and green—(just don't look at it with a hangover...)—or the surface simplicity of the stories—this is a thoughtful, sometimes poignant, curiously haunting book available, and of interest to, the general reader and anyone interested in Japan. It is an excellent entry into the world of Japanese novels in translation.

Oh - and probably required reading for anyone, businessman or resident, off to do battle with Japanese bureacracy...

2 Jan 2005
Nicholas May


Kurodahan Press

Kurodahan Press
2305-9 Yunomae Machi
Kuma-gun, Kumamoto
868-0600 JAPAN