Sunday, March 31, 2019

Review: Science: Hopes & Fears (Volume 1) by Juza Unno

Science: Hopes & Fears [Volume 1: Selected Stories] by Juza Unno (translated by J.D. Wisgo)
Published: Self-published, 2018

The Book:

Juza Unno, a fiction author active in the 1930s and 40s, is considered a founding figure of Japanese science fiction. A student of engineering himself, he had a great fondness for science and its possibilities while being aware of its dangers. In his lifetime he produced many works that leveraged his technical knowledge and creativity, touching on a variety of interesting topics such as space travel that were not yet popular in his time.

This first volume in a series about Juza Unno is a select collection of his short stories translated with annotations–the first publishing of his works in English.”

I’m going to review volumes 1 and 2 of this collection, because I think it’s really fascinating to get a glimpse into the early science fiction of Japan.  I also need to add the disclaimer that my brother was involved in the translation effort for these books, which is how it came to my attention. Since this is really a collection of foundational texts of the genre, which are naturally a little out of their time, I will discuss the stories but not provide a rating.  I thank J.D. Wisgo and others involved in the project for allowing those of us in the English-speaking world the opportunity to see this part of Japanese literary history! You can find the book on Amazon at the link posted here.

This collection includes five short stories, chosen by the translator to give a taste of the kinds of stories Juza Unno wrote.  The stories are strongly idea-based, as seems to be common for early 20th century science fiction, and the characters mostly exist to illustrate the ideas.  For instance, one of my favorite ones was “Four-Dimensional Man”, which involves a man describing how he is a three-dimensional cross-section of a four-dimensional being.  I also rather enjoyed the twisty little story called “Mysterious Spacial Rift”, in which the main character runs into problems due to his difficulty in distinguishing reality from vivid dreaming, with tragic results.  

There are also stories that feature some familiar tropes of classic science fiction, such as the idea of colonizing other planets (“The Theory of Planetary Colonization”) and using cryogenic sleep to travel to the future (“The World in One Thousand Years”). These were not the most memorable of the stories, but it was interesting to see a Japanese take on topics that I think were also in vogue in the US at the time.

“The Living Intestine” is the strangest of the bunch.  It featured a scientist caring for a seemingly sentient intestine.  I’m pretty sure the common understanding of human bodies was sufficient in the 1930s to know that this would not be possible, so I could only consider this one as being intentionally weird and surreal.  Also, it might squick out readers who are not interested in the idea of keeping an intestine as a pet. It’s a really bizarre story, though, and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it.