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May 06, 2008

Starship & Haiku

51nq3cjherl_sl500_aa240_ What do you get when a burned-out, English-educated, Thai composer, who sometimes resides in the United States, and has read too much Mishima, starts to write science fiction?

Well, damn. You get something bizarre and almost beautiful. I say "almost" because S.P. Somtow tried to structure his 1981 novel Starship and Haiku like haiku--or at least, to make the experience of reading it recall the experience of reading haiku in macro. But it's a novel, which is sort of the anti-haiku form. So neither form--haiku, novel--quite succeeds, and neither quite fails, either. And there's a large admixture of pulpy prose in here, making the proceedings occasionally awkward.

The story: In the third decade of the 21st century, after a devastating nuclear war has left the Earth utterly moribund, politically-neutral Japan is the only country on Earth not left as a post-apocalyptic landscape. Two aging rivals--Ishida and Takahashi--form the powerful arms of a triumvirate that has taken over Japan. The faithless Ishida is the Minister of Survival and the superficial Takahashi is the Minister of Ending, charged with assisting the people to achieve perfect suicides to expiate humanity's crime of destroying the Earth.

Ishida has a secret project. Before the millenial war, the Russians (the book was written around 1980, remember) had completed a starship and left it orbiting the Earth. Ishida has a team of mostly western scientists building a rocket that will take a group of colonists to the Russian generational ship, which they will then aim at Tau Ceti, a four-thousand-year journey. The broader point is to ensure the survival of the human race in the face of its extinction through a devastating virus and debilitating mutations. The more specific point is to ensure the survival of Ishida's own daughter, Ryoko.

Knowing that Ryoko is particularly Japanese (I know, just go with it for a minute) and likely to wish for a beautiful death, Ishida sends her on a trip to Hawai'i to view the devastation firsthand. While there, she meets Josh Nakamura, a Japanese American man, and his younger brother Didi, a "strange" or mutant. Didi's mutation keeps him physically childlike and enables him to read minds and perform a certain amount of telekinesis. He keeps this secret from Josh, for some reason, and Josh thinks Didi is a cretin. Didi is all about joy and beauty and Josh doesn't get the whole Japanese thing.

There's a bit of back and forth and stuff happens. Upshot is that Ryoko develops a relationship with a whale, who (here comes the really bizarre part) reveals to the ministers that (mild spoiler) whales are the parents of the Japanese, a human sub-species that is human-shaped and whale-minded. That's where the Japanese obsession with beauty and death comes from (I know, bear with me a moment.) The whale also outs Ishida's anti-suicide starship plan. This revelation causes the rivals Ishida and Takahashi to kick into high gear. Takahashi becomes a deathgod, hounding people into suicide to expiate their patricidal sin (killing whales) and Ishida sends Ryoko off to make the starship thing happen. And so on.

Like I said, bizarre. On the one hand, there's this insanely reductive view of the Japanese as monolithically suicide-crazy and beauty-obsessed. On the other, there's a fairly nuanced (for 1981) understanding of a Japanese American identity in the person of Josh Nakamura, who may look like he's sprung from whales, but holds no truck with killing yourself after seeing the perfect teabowl or some such shit.

(There's a bit of business about how Josh and Didi get to Japan through trading their dead grandmother's antique teabowl for passage to a Japanese ship's captain who seriously considers immediate suicide since he is unlikely to see anything that beautiful again. The captain tempers his disgust for Josh's inability to see the bowl's beauty with the reflection that Josh was not raised Japanese, so it's not his fault. I have no idea if this was intentionally or unintentionally comic.)

But you can also read this as a secondary world novel, in which the "Japanese" are not our Japanese, but rather what Japanese would be if they were descended from whales. Yeah. Because of all the interesting things about this book, the most interesting is that it's the first SF novel--or maybe even the first novel, period--that I've read that instinctively understands two things about Asian America: its pan-Asian ethic, and its cultural Japan-centeredness.

The pan-Asian ethic is implied rather than stated. The only character whose identity isn't reduced to utter silliness is the proto-JA Josh. While reading Josh's character, you can't help but be aware that the author is Thai, but of a privileged enough background to have been educated abroad and to consider himself among the international creative community. Maybe it's just me, but his presentation of Josh's JAness feels proprietary: the presentation of a hybrid identity that's shared by the author by virtue of being Asian--any Asian--and transnational.

The 80's Asian American Japan-centerness was partly external and partly internal. Japan in the early 80's was on the ascendant, economically speaking. SF was fascinated with it as the supposed culture of the future (see Blade Runner and Neuromancer), and mainstream America was both fascinated by its exotic cultural--and business--virtues (see Gung Ho and Die Hard), and angered by its smooth victory over Detroit (see Vincent Chin). So Asian Americans in the 80's were forced to deal with mainstream America's perceptions of Japan, both "positive" and negative.

On the other hand, the 80's was when the redress movement for WWII Japanese American internment really heated up. (Reparations were finally awarded in 1988.) The Asian American Movement of the 1970's, which created the notion of a pan-ethnic Asian American identity, put a lot of its energy towards redress, and as a result, many Asian Americans who are not of Japanese ancestry feel a strong identification with Japanese Americans.

So it's fascinating that this book was written during all this ferment--and written at a time when American-raised Asian Americans were struggling to find an idiom to tell their stories in. Somtow doesn't explicate this particular Japanocentric, pan-ethnic Asian American sensibility so much as embody it in the book. He might not even have been entirely aware of it.

On another track, the book is a lovely experiment that recalls for me--of all things--Ernest Hogan's High Aztech. They were written about ten years apart and share almost nothing, except--and this is important--length, and hybridity. Both are not so successful as novels, both better read as impressionistic essays on 21st Century cities, technology, and human understanding.

I loved this book, which is unusual for me. I don't often love books this close to failure. But this one has done things I never thought to do with writing: taken the Mishima-style core of beauty and suicide that I've also felt and tried to write about, and made a piece out of it that I would never have thought to make. (My solution to Mishima was to write an ugly autobiographical story about a girl who reads too much Mishima ... but the less said about that the better.)

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Comments

It's very interesting to read this perceptive commentary on my first novel after 30 years. Thanks for letting me know that someone is still reading, and thinking about, this book ... best Somtow

wow! thanks for dropping by!

"many Asian Americans who are not of Japanese ancestry feel a strong identification with Japanese Americans."

Wow, I never knew that.

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