So Hip It Hurts: The ‘Soft’ Science Fiction of Izumi Suzuki

Reader, beware: Suzuki's stories are soft, but they are not light.

Hit Parade of Tears: Stories | By Izumi Suzuki; translated by Helen O’Horan, Daniel Joseph, Sam Bett & David Boyd | Verso, 2023 | 288 pp. | $18.55

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Historically, postwar Japanese science fiction prose was heavily influenced by the “hard” SF of the Anglophone world. The zany aspects of the genre could be found more often in live-action and animated television, and the neon sheen of cyberpunk was more often than not simply the Western imaginary overwriting actual Japan. 

A great exception was Izumi Suzuki, whose work was proudly, perhaps even relentlessly, “soft” science fiction; who wrote with a casual and often comic minimalism; and who sadly died early by her own hand.

The question of which writers should be translated and published is always a tricky one. The most popular authors from this or that language or nation are the easiest choices — at least at first blush. 

But nation-building is always an artistic pursuit — doesn’t every nation, even the stateless ones, have its own songs and stories and color palettes and heroes? And the most popular authors of this or that nation are often waving their flags in ways that won’t resonate with international audiences. 

One might also choose to translate average authors, and the stuff that is typical of whatever genre idiom. But what we end up with there is the same mediocre wallpaper that fills domestic bookstores. 

Often the prime candidates for translation are writers who have an international viewpoint, or whom are otherwise exceptional rather than typical. 

That’s why Izumi Suzuki is worth translating, and worth reading.

Hit Parade of Tears — the second volume of Suzuki stories to be published in English by the radical/left-wing house Verso — is so interesting because it is so unusual, and singular because it is intriguing. 

Suzuki’s SF reads almost exactly as you’d expect the science fiction of an author heavily involved in fashion (she was a model) and the musical avant-garde (she was married to saxophonist Karou Abe), with a vision that is resolutely science fictional without necessarily being in dialogue with the main nerdy concerns of the field. 

She’s hip! Perennially hip. There are no lengthy asides on how spaceships, nor even the economy of extraterrestrial exotic pets, function. Alien telepaths have no particular message for the world, and time loops (with accompanying time criminals) operate on stakes no higher than jukebox selections. Keep your phone or other net-connected device handy if you want to look up the songs referenced and create a soundtrack for some of the stories. Of course, not every band or every song will be available on Spotify, or even in this plane of existence. The long story “Hey, It’s a Love Psychedelic!” has a musical Moorcockian feel to it, albeit Cool Japan rather than Cool Britannia, as does the title story, “Hit Parade of Tears.” 

That isn’t to say that there is zero social commentary in Suzuki’s fiction. Suzuki’s stories are soft, but they are not light

“Full of Malice” is an obvious exploration of social pressures for conformity, and would be too precisely on the nose if it wasn’t so darkly whimsical. A patient in a sanitarium of sorts declares, “They say bell-bottoms and abortions are all the rage on the outside! Gotta keep up with the times, right?” 

It’s also a funny-enough line that the translatese tic of retaining the final “right?” of many Japanese utterances didn’t faze me for once. 

There is more than one mental hospital in these stories, and more than one telepath whose special ability proves inadequate for navigating society, much less escaping its bounds. The sensitive artist struggling with an authoritarian society’s inexplicable demands? Probably!

Often, the role of women is explored through the vehicle of Izumi Suzukiesque narrators and protagonists: young women inexplicably living with aliens, a wife who suddenly is granted TV-sitcom-level magic powers, and a girl with two personalities and two lives — one quiet and meek, the other wild and wanton. 

But it’s not just finger wagging, musical references and goofy ETs. The very short story “The Walker” is nearly Robert Aickmanesque in its elliptical setting and title character, with a dash of the blackest comedy at the end.

The translations are as sprightly as the text, betraying just a bit of conservatism. Rarely are speech tags used — they’re all but superfluous in Japanese, but can come in handy in translated text. Suzuki only rarely has more than two characters speaking in any given scene, and often one of them is a hip young woman, so it’s easy enough to keep track of who is saying what. 

David Boyd’s translation of “Hey, It’s a Love Psychedelic!” is especially intriguing, with the triple-naming of the protagonist across timelines and some clever swapping of coffee for cola to make some wordplay work across languages. 

Read this book not because you wish to be a do-gooder and learn about Japanese science fiction, or fill a hole in the framework of world SF. 

Read it for an artist whose work was both of-the-moment and somehow morning-of-the-day-after-tomorrow-current. 

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Nick Mamatas

Nick Mamatas

Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including I Am Providence and The Second Shooter. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery StoriesAsimov's Science Fiction, Tor.com and many other venues. Much of it was recently collected in The People's Republic of Everything. Nick is also an anthologist; his work includes The Future is Japanese, Phantasm Japan, and Hanzai Japan, all co-edited with Masumi Washington.

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