Chōhei Kambayashi and Juan Miguel Aguilera

Dale Knickerbocker is a professor at Eastern Carolina University’s Department of Foreign Language and Literature.

When Karen Burnham kindly asked me to select and blog about one story translated into English that I considered a “must read,” and one not yet translated that absolutely should be, my immediate reaction was “One?!” I thank her for generously allowing me to sneak in a few honorable mentions. I’d like to thank the village it took to write this, as I polled numerous colleagues who were kind enough to respond. I felt I needed to limit myself to works and authors I’d read so, after much hand-wringing and conscience-searching in an attempt not to allow my own tastes and interests to
influence too powerfully my choices, I’ve failed. Miserably. For that I apologize, more or less sincerely. So, donning my (virtual) tux and offering my best Billy Crystal imitation: the sf novel you must read this summer is Good Luck, Yukikaze by Japanese author Chōhei Kambayashi (2011).

For those not familiar with Kambayashi, he is of that rare breed equally admired by fans, critics, and fellow writers, who together voted him the third-best Japanese SF writer of all time in a 2006 SF Magazine poll. Other accolades include the 1995 Nihon SF Taishō, the 16th Japan SF award in 1999, and winning the prestigious Seiun Award seven times.

This particular work is a sequel to Kambayashi’s 1984 Yukikaze (trans. 2009), which was turned into an extremely popular, award-winning animated series. It was originally serialized in SF Magazine between 1992 and 1992, but the present novel is significantly revised.

In the story, thirty years after the invasion of the aliens known as the JAM is driven back, Earth is still at war with the as-yet unseen enemy. This aerial war is being waged on a planet named Faery, located in the wormhole the JAM opened to travel to our planet. The far-off conflict has been largely forgotten by the public, and many (among them some fighting it) believe it to be a hoax. The protagonists are ace military pilot Rei Fukai and his intelligent fighter-bomber Yukikaze. More on them later.

Good Luck, Yukikaze breathes new life into the familiar tropes of alien invasion, AI, and even reanimation of the dead. This fiction satisfies on several levels: as a military technothriller conspiracy story, it has enough hardware and things-that-go-bang to keep any fanperson (it has proved popular with both sexes) interested. Yet the work is extraordinarily ambitious in its treatment of some of Kambayashi’s favorite themes: the power and complexity of communication; the relationship between humanity and technology, the question of human identity, Otherness, and the nature and limitations of human cognition.

At first, the work recalls Lem’s Solaris, as the JAM’s physical and psychological nature continue to defy humanity’s cognitive efforts after three decades—they thus represent the truly Other, unknown and unknowable. The author skillfully maintains tension by meting out discoveries about the JAM, their strategy, and their goals, but even this knowledge only raises more questions; such as, is the information true or has it been provided by the JAM to mislead? When it is discovered that humanity’s AI have been in communication with the JAM unbeknownst to their “masters,” and when these computers begin planning missions and strategies on their own, is it to better protect or lead to the downfall of a humanity the AI no longer need? At what point does artificial intelligence itself become life? Once it is discovered the JAM have reanimated and infiltrated dead human pilots into the ranks of the military, who is human and who is not, and how does one tell the difference? Is there really a war, or has the enemy used its ability to reanimate dead humans to infiltrate Earth—the real invasion–, using the “war” as a distraction? Have they reprogrammed Yukikaze to serve their purposes? Is Rei himself one of the revived? What are the JAM, are they about to reveal themselves to humanity? If so, to what end? Ultimately, neither the computers nor the humans can trust themselves or each other, and by the work’s denouement, the reader is heavily invested in the characters’ Dickian paranoia. It comes as no surprise that Kambayashi credits Dick as the author whose opus motivated him to write.

Despite employing a spare, cold, aseptic style in keeping with the themes developed, Kambayashi’s characters, despite engaging in an enormous amount of philosophical speculation, keep the reader’s interest. They aren’t all necessarily likeable, but they do prove complex. The development of the characters Rei and Yukikaze and the evolution of their relationship–ultimately as complex and intimate as any human one–are well-executed, essential to the thematic content, and lead to a fascinating, if frustrating, climax. Frustrating because Yukikaze is an exquisitely indeterminate work, offering few responses to the queries listed above.

Good Luck, Yukikaze does leave readers with one certainy: Neil Nadelman deserves many, many kudos for his fine translation!

I would also highly recommend two futuristic dystopian novellas certain to distract you from the world’s economic crisis: the novellas “Zero” (originally published between 1979 and 1989, collected and translated into English by John Balcolm in Zero and Other Fictions, 2011) from Chinese author Huang Fan, and 2009’s Utopia by the
Egyptian writer Ahmed Khaled Towfik (English translation 2011 by Chip Rosetti).

The winner of my Somebody-Please-Translate Award is Spaniard Juan Miguel Aguilera’s 1998 novel La locura de Dios (The Folly of God), which won the prestigious Ignotus prize for best Spanish-language sf or fantasy novel the following year. It was promptly translated into French (La folie de Dieu, 2001), where it also met with critical acclaim. What makes this work so original is the way Aguilera intricately weaves together elements of the historical novel, the heroic quest, the utopia, biblical apocalypse, an origin story/creation myth, and even a sort of anachronistically inverted steampunk, all within its science fictional narrative. It offers a rollicking good adventure, but its impressive grounding in historical fact, its direct quotations from the Book of Revelation, and its translinguistic wordplay all indicate that the author’s intended audience possess a high degree of literary competence.

Except for the quest itself, the events, which take place in the early fourteenth century during the decay of the Byzantine Empire, are historically accurate and the main characters real historical figures. The adventurer and mercenary Archduke Roger de Flor asks Mallorcan theologian-philosopher-scientist Ramón Llull’s help to locate the legendary City of Prester John (its existence enjoyed a high level of popular belief at the time). Llull correctly interprets ancient tomes and scientific marvels belonging to de Flor, and agrees to participate in an expedition, accompanied by a group of three hundred Catalonian mercenaries. Of course, after many trials and travails, they find the city, called Apeiron by its inhabitants. A pace of peace, plenty, and intellectual endeavor, it seems a true utopia whose philosophy is a perfect expression of Enlightenment reason (this is in no small part due to its steam-engine technology—even a mechanical computer–and the endless supply of desert oil).

The plot and characters offer the perfect vehicle for Aguilera’s main theme: the conflict between spiritual/religious and rational/technoscientific world views. The historical Llull made reconciling the two his life’s work, pursuing a rational proof of God’s existence. However, all that he sees during his travels corresponds perfectly with the apocalyptic visions of St. John of Patmos in Revelations, liberally cited by Aguilera. Apeiron itself physically corresponds to the prophet’s description of the City of God. Ironically, its citizens are non-theistic, and the conversations between Llull and the city’s (female and lesbian!) leader Neléis are priceless.

Of course, Christians and Apeironites together must fight the battle of Armageddon against the “devil,” an extraterrestrial demi-urge figure called the Mater (Mother) whose many powers include designing and creating life forms. I’ll stop there to avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say that after his return to Spain, Llull continues to struggle to reconcile his biblically-informed interpretations with the scientific ones offered by other characters. I hope that this description will motivate some reader to see that the translation of this gem becomes reality.

Other works and authors of sf definitely meriting translation are Suprématie (2009) by Laurent McAllister, a pseudonym of Jean-Louis Trudel and Yves Meynard from Quebec; and anything by Argentine Carlos Gardini (a three-time winner of the Premio UPC who has also been awarded the Ignotus and the Minotauro), or the Mexican author José Luis Zárate, who has twice received the MECyF, UPC, Más Allá, Kalpa.

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