Terminal Boredom: Stories
By Izumi Suzuki (Verso, 2021)
At first, Izumi Suzuki’s short works of self-spelunking science fiction — complete with shapeshifting aliens, interspecies relationships, dream machines and gendered dystopias — seem breezy in tone, populated by blasé narrators and callow, pleasure-seeking, vaguely rebellious protagonists.
But it’s all a stylish gloss, beneath which lurks a perilous desperation and even nihilism — a dire psychic byproduct of the struggle to live meaningfully despite the oppressions of bureaucracy, consumerism, hypocrisy and sexism.
Her protagonists are thoughtful and inquisitive. They get themselves in trouble with their restless intelligence and profound appetites. But they’re exhausted and stymied by calcified societal norms. They’re plagued by low self-esteem, and are boxed in by the inadequacies of their peers. They search for meaning, but at the end of the day, it’s time for another strong drink.
Izumi Suzuki’s stories are not easy, and neither was the life she led, which ended by her own hand at age 36 in 1988. True to form, the truths, beauty and strangeness she gave the world throughout her career are hard-fought, rewarding, and demanding.
Born in postwar Japan, Suzuki came of age in the 1960s, and lived fully invested as an artist in a multifaceted creative milieu. After a stint as a keypunch operator after high school, she took a turn performing in Japanese “pink movies” (an endemic form of softcore porn), and was an actress and playwright for a Tokyo avant garde theater troupe.
Her marriage in the 1970s to the free-jazz saxophonist Kaoru Abe — an influential and a fiery soloist — produced a daughter, and was, by any reckoning, tumultuous. Their divorce in 1977 didn’t end their partnership, but Abe died of a sedative overdose the following year.
Suzuki from this point entered her most productive period as a writer, producing works full of disaffection, ennui, anomie, and worlds both alien and alienated.
It’s tempting, from all this, to situate her in time, and in a clear artistic framework: Post-beatnik, punk-parallel, on the (literal) geographic fringes of science fiction’s New Wave.
But that’s too easy. She defined her own style, and made a name for herself despite a Japanese science fiction scene that was literally a boy’s club: One of her translators, Daniel Joseph, relates an anecdote in which Suzuki’s casual suggestion that she be admitted to a science fiction writers’ society with an all-male membership is greeted with laughter.
Verso’s new anthology, “Terminal Boredom: Stories by Izumi Suzuki,” corrects the absence of her work in translation for English-language audiences. The collected stories are oft-disquieting, and avoid easy categorization. They are socially aware, yes; they address issues of gender and identity, sure; and they are most definitely science-fictional, set in some undefined future, on other planets, in virtual realities, in the murky depths of dreams.
And yet I am challenged to say that these are formal works of genre. Rather, she’s using genre as her preferred vehicle for explorations of the human condition, and it ain’t always that pretty.
There are echoes in her work of that of more familiar authors — Philip K. Dick, for the drugs and persona-warping hallucinations. J.G. Ballard, for the helpless alienation of the protagonist in a world that doesn’t care. Octavia E. Butler, for the merciless moral dilemmas and compromises. Ursula K. LeGuin, for the understated tone but ultimately wrenching feminist struggles. Gene Wolfe, for her narrators’ capacity for self-delusion and unreliability.
Yet these are echoes only. Suzuki’s work was contemporary to many of these authors, but stands on its own. They’re great stories, full of universal truths and lost souls. They’re often very sad, offering tiny glimpses into little worlds wracked with emotional upheavals of a continental scale.
There is a future era where women have inherited a world ruined by pollution and rapacious patriarchal capitalism, where surviving men are freaks of nature kept in concentration camps, where reality is turned helplessly upside down when a young girl spies out her window an unattended boy wandering the nighttime streets.
There is a planet where an automated, abandoned, once-thriving human colony houses a strange — and strangely naive — family that tries to reconstruct a normal human life guided by decontextualized magazine and newspaper clippings.
There is an interstellar empire where Earthlings and extraterrestrials interbreed, argue over infidelity and petty gossip, obsess over old movies, drown themselves in drink, submit to meaningless sex and empty marriages — where aliens represent the best humanity could aspire to be, if only humans weren’t so alienated from themselves.
There is a form of psychotherapy in which one works through relationship trauma in an immersive, machine-generated alternate reality that would disorient fans of the PKD classic “Ubik.”
Suzuki also routinely sets up a neat little emotional triptych, using the friction between the unusual and the ordinary to cultivate the reader’s unease: Throughout her strange new worlds and disassociated narratives runs a profound sense of normalcy … which, after a while, verges into a subtle sense of growing horror.
Few of the works in “Terminal Boredom” capture this more effectively than the title story, one that is also, in this collection, Suzuki’s most prescient.
Spoiler alert, skip this paragraph if you want to avoid the plot details: It’s a tale of the dehumanizing effects of mediated consumerism that reach their culmination with a new technology — a cranial chip implant that stimulates your pleasure centers every time you watch TV. The plot veers nightmarishly from that point into Kitty Genovese territory, and beyond.
In our own world of dopamine-stimulating social media, media-obsessed school shooters and “Slender Man” stabbings, this should sound depressingly, disturbingly and despairingly familiar.
Yet the power in these stories is not that of science fiction as a predictive medium, but rather as one that, in the best literary sense, is unsparing in its observations and truthfulness. Her aliens are all too human, and her humans are all too often lost, alienated, empty vessels waiting to be filled with meaning.
In that sense, Suzuki’s dystopias are not external — produced by pollution, nuclear war, or technofascism. Rather, these are internal landscapes, mazes and blind alleys of personality that emerge within people who are unable to cope with the indifference, degradation and identity-squashing powers of technology, conformity and consumerism.
“Terminal Boredom” is a brief collection of just seven stories, and they are indeed “nonchalantly hip” and “charmingly deranged,” as the back-cover blurb asserts.
But they are also dark little journeys that effectively use genre set-dressings to warn us about the utterly ordinary, completely normal lives we appear to lead.