Yoshio Kobayashi is a translator (under the pen name Takashi Ogawa), reviewer, editor, and writer from Tokyo, Japan. He is known for translating authors such as Bruce Sterling, Lucius Shepherd, and Michael Swanwick, among others. He also founded one of the premier fanzines, Palantir, in 1981, which won a fanzine award in Japan.
Christopher Barzak grew up in Ohio, has lived in California and Michigan, and is now a resident of Japan, teaching English near Tokyo. He has published stories in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Realms of Fantasy, Trampoline, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Nerve, and The 3rd Alternative.
We met in a trendy area of Tokyo. There in the warren of shops and cafes, we sat down to eat grilled steak and talk about the state of genre publishing, sprawl fiction versus the traditionalists, and the death of hierarchy.
K. Lincoln: What do you think about the state of U.S. SF now? Are there any writers you particularly are watching?
Yoshio Kobayashi: Well, in a decade or so people will call it a golden age. You have a very oppressive government right now. Under tyranny, people have to use a lot of imagination. SF or SF-like literature will prosper, like Russian SF in the Stalin era.
I love Christopher Rowe, Benjamin Rosenbaum, Kelly Link, Tim Pratt, Ray Vukcevich, Neil Gaiman, and Jeff VanderMeer, and a lot of the younger writers. I call their cross-genre speculative fiction "sprawl fiction." I actually coined that term four years ago, when I edited a slipstream special issue for Hayakawa's SF Magazine (of Japan). The editors asked me to give it a more marketable title and I invented "sprawl fiction" after the urban sprawl trilogy by William Gibson. I use "sprawl" because I think the term "slipstream" is only used by a minority of genre writers, while many stories that could be considered slipstream are written by mainstream and genre writers. Probably those that still live in the central slum gutter (i.e., the SF ghetto; have you read Gardner Dozois's complaints against the slipstream writers?) hate this expansion of the SF tradition into other genres, but it's inevitable and refreshing.
Rowe, Rosenbaum, Link, Pratt, and the others are writing their own stuff with some affinity to the genre tradition. It's not a strategy or market consciousness. What they write happens to be SF, but it could be anything. For example, Ben Rosenbaum writes SF, horror, and literature.
Sprawl fiction writers are in the suburbs, so to speak. They still commute to the city's SF ghetto, but that central core seems a bit suffocative to them. They need more air.
Christopher Barzak: That's so strange to me because I think of what my peers and I are writing as speculative fiction. I don't think of it as being outside the genre.
YK: The traditionalists, living in the center slums, think the new writing looks beautiful, but superficial. They see SF elements in the work of the sprawl fiction writers, but traditionalists fear these writers are exploiting genre traditions in order to publish their stories.
They don't understand what the new writers are writing now. People see the world is changing, but uncontrollably. They feel their foundations are being upturned. So they have to stick to a very conservative line, to old categories. They don't see that new things are good or inevitable.
CB: You once told me that science fiction is not selling as well as it used to in both Japan and America because both countries no longer believe in the future. This is a highly evocative remark. Can you elaborate?
YK: When I was a kid, every day was a new day. TVs were new and the programs were innovative. Stereos were new and there was a new kind of music called rock. Streets were changing with new buildings and new highways. The future meant a new life. SF then was full of rockets, robots, and new urban landscapes. But now we realize that urban development costs too much. Robots turned out to be just toys. And rockets remind me of terrible disasters. Sure, we have PCs and cell phones, but what do they give us? No innovative content is there.
If you believe it was American politicians or religious leaders that actually destroyed Soviet communism, you must be heavily brainwashed by them. McDonalds and the Beatles destroyed Soviet communism. And PCs too, information, culture, lifestyle. Sometimes I feel Americans are like kindergarteners. They're too naive. They lack a history. Well, maybe we Japanese are senile, on the other hand. Wearied by history. We don't have enough energy to educate our kids anymore.
You writers complain that there are no short-story markets anymore. But it's not just short stories, it's books, too. It's commercially a tough time to sell things labeled "science fiction" or genre now. Westerns are almost dead; horror was dead about a decade ago. American book publishing found a new genre called "Christian fiction," but it's totally unmarketable here in Japan, as were your "Oprah books." Sometimes a major-award-winning writer's new work sells only 150 copies here.
And besides, most of us don't read books anymore.
KL: That's surprising to hear you say because Japan, until recently, used to have one of the highest literacy rates in the world. I always see people reading on the trains. I don't think of Americans doing that. What is replacing books in Japan?
YK: Cell phones. Cell phones and email are replacing books. I think there's a big picture behind this change. I reread The Dark Country by Dennis Etchison about six or seven years ago; that's when I realized things were changing. When I first read that award-winning masterpiece, it made me really scared. But when I reread it again in the late '90s, in order to teach modern horror to my students at a translator's school, I felt nothing. It was beautifully written, but the thrill was gone. That was shocking to me, and I tried to think why it was scary in the late '70s and not now. When the '60s movements started, we all thought that a new kind of society or system would be born because the pyramid-shaped structure of the agriculture-oriented social model was broken down by industrial society. All the socialist- and corporate-society models that were tried instead didn't work out well. But the industrial revolution did change our survival strategy. We could not live and work like bees and ants any more. So we tried every new model we could think of, but they all failed miserably in the '70s, it seemed. We still were forced to live like bees and ants again.
We thought that we didn't have any direction to our lives. That made The Dark Country a masterpiece. It reflected our sense of loss very well. We indulged in self-pity. That was the background that gave the fantasy genre a chance to break out of the "science fiction" genre. All that self-pity made people in the '70s want to read epic and Tolkienesque fantasy. Escapist fiction. That made a young generation very angry towards us, which is what made cyberpunk and that kind of writing possible.
Cyberpunk was huge in Japan. We experienced an economic boom in the '70s, but it went bust in the '80s.
After the boom, nobody cared about science fiction. When cyberpunk hit us, we all thought it was new. We thought it was something more accessible to people who were actually living in the current reality. But it was just a boom, and now it's gone.
We realized that cyberpunk and computer culture would never change a thing. All those geeky things wouldn't change the system. Although they reflected the realities of changing society itself, they were about now, not the future.
CB: All the criticism I've read about cyberpunk is that it's a metaphor for the merging of the human with the technological. In the end, the cyberpunk authors are commenting on how we've displaced our identities as humans. I've always had a slightly different perspective on that, but I'm not sure if that's because I read it after its heyday. I always thought these books were saying that we've merged the technological with the human almost in an attempt to escape our humanness, and yet we've failed. No matter how much we change the landscape of our identity, we're still human, and reading these books, it almost feels as if it's a disappointment. And that's a different reading from the criticism that says we've merged and have changed, for the worse.
YK: We felt in the '80s that the old style of living was dying. Soviet Russia was dying. We believed there would be a "post-human." Geeks in that time were called "new humans" in Japan. We thought very soon a new kind of human, like the Renaissance man in the 15th or 16th century, would evolve. We had an unconscious belief that there would be a totally different lifestyle in the next millennium. The basic idea that things are changing still remains. But it isn't human life-forms that will change, as depicted in Childhood's End (by Arthur C. Clarke), just lifestyle or some aspects of our human nature. For example, because of cell phones, here in Japan our family or workplace does not bind us anymore.
CB: It's almost a paradox. If, as you say, the cell phone has freed the Japanese from the family identity, it must also allow them to be located in different ways. It allows them to express some individual choice. How do you think this will change Japanese society in the next decade?
YK: Our awareness of our ties to family and corporation are loosened. We still feel like we belong, but we don't have to belong to anything now. That's what's new now. You don't have to identify yourself by jobs and beliefs, anymore. You can have as many identities as you like.
CB: Multiple selves.
KL: Do you think that people identifying themselves in different ways is changing SF in Japan?
YK: These days SF is written under mystery or horror or young adult. It's not written under science fiction. That's not marketable.
YK: Those are the writers of the '90s. The new writers are more genre-free. These days fans don't go to the genre shelves in Japan. They just go to the bookstore and buy a best-seller. They don't look at other books. People, especially young people, find some particular author, and if you find this author on this shelf, you visit that shelf, but only for that author. The average book buyer spends about a minute and a half in the bookstore, if what I hear is correct. You know, it's more word-of-mouth oriented. Your friend recommends something so you read it. You don't stick with a certain genre.
In Japan we don't really have the "SF" bookshelf in the bookstores. "SF" in Japan is mostly manga and games. Our writers are now shelved under "horror," "literature," and "mystery."
This fragmentation is mirrored in world politics, too. There used to be the hierarchy of power in the world with Russia and the U.S. on top. Now the power is distributed among the European Union, Asia, and the U.S. Or even to nongovernment organizations like corporations, terrorist groups, and religious sects. The pyramid-shaped social structure is vanishing everywhere. This is also happening in the publishing industry.
What I see as dying is the structure and hierarchy of publishing. People used to think "authentic literature" was at the top and "genre" pulp writing was at the bottom. Then, within the science fiction field itself, you had "hard SF" at the top and "fantasy" and "space opera" at the bottom. That structure is not representative of today's society; it's not democratic to say that hard SF is good and fantasy is inferior. That's why the term "stream" was coined, I think. There's nothing inherently good or bad about being "mainstream" or "slipstream." Yet mainstream sounds more meaningful and important than slipstream. That could be one of the reasons why it never really stuck except in our genre, and even then some of our own writers hate to use that term for their work.
Most of our (Japanese) new writers don't realize they are genre. They aren't familiar with the term "science fiction." Science fiction is games and movies.
CB: I guess I identify myself with slipstream writers. I am writing speculative fiction, I think. So when formalists make comments like "slipstream is not true science fiction or fantasy," I think, what's going on? I think of slipstream as collaborating. You watch this from a distance, and you have an advantage even over people considered top critics in the U.S. What do you see happening between formalists and slipstream writers?
YK: It was surprising for me to read Dozois's comments. You know he was originally oriented to the post-New Wave movement, especially young writers in the '80s and '90s. He used to love new things and young turks. What is making him upset is probably the decline of science fiction's popularity, especially among young people. What he fears is that bookstores, if they realize that there are a lot of cross-genre things happening, will start to rearrange the bookshelves and science fiction will only be Star Wars.
Recently, Otto Penzler, at the Edgar celebration, accused the fringe "cozy" writers of not writing mystery anymore. He thought the nonfundamentalist female mystery writers were exploiting the genre tradition just in order to publish their feminine fiction. Of course, he's now severely criticized by feminists. Sound familiar?
KL: The bookshelves got rearranged in Japan, didn't they? Now the "science fiction" section is very small. Is this migration of genre writers to mainstream labeling going to happen in the U.S., too?
YK: In twenty to thirty years science fiction bookshelves will be gone. It will only be mystery, horror, and literature. Here in Japan, I am afraid the bookshelves themselves will be gone.
Writers of your generation, Chris, they go into workshops, they self-publish, and then get picked up by big publishers. So you can be very innovative or experimental. You don't have to adjust to the criteria set by major publishers. Yet even those publishers don't have a formula anymore. They never can be sure if a particular type of fiction will sell or not. But even so, some writers still choose to employ a more old-fashioned kind of storytelling, and maybe a more humanistic approach. Writers like Tim Pratt, who is writing genre-oriented stories but employing a humanistic approach, not a post-human thing at all, will be published eventually as non-genre. He might end up as a mainstream author, even a best-selling one.
It appears that slipstream or sprawl fiction is more literature-oriented right now. However, that's only one direction among many. "The Voluntary State" (SCI FICTION) by Christopher Rowe is cyberpunk-meets-southern-fiction. Jonathan Lethem, his writing is—mystery? comics?—with a little bit of a speculative element. Everyone is taking a different direction. Some will go to the best-seller shelf. Some will be absorbed back into genre. You know, in bookstores, foreign science fiction isn't shelved in genre bookshelves; it is shelved under "foreign fiction." That's the future of some genre fiction—it will just be fiction. The die-hard fans of hard science fiction will still keep that kind of fiction alive. Internet ordering will help with that. But there is no one future for U.S. science fiction; there are many avenues for the future of genre.