I should not need to write about Miyabe Miyuki. She is the kind of writer I would expect to hear on radio book programmes. See interviewed on arts television shows, read about judging major literary awards. I suspect, indeed, she may well do some, if not all of those. I would expect to see her works in bookshop windows and on the shelves of supermarkets. She occupies the same space as P. D. James and Charlaine Harris and Philip Pullman, and she is easily as good as any and all of them—less class-ridden than James, more literary than Harris, less cynical than Pullman. She is, put simply, one of the great female writers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. And yet, in terms of the English-speaking and reading SF worlds, she flies mostly below the radar.
The reason is simple: Miyabe’s works have been translated into several languages from her native Japanese, but only a handful of her books are available in English, and all of them from the small or obscure presses—mainly by the international branch of Japanese publisher Kodansha or by the admirable (and, in my opinion, unfairly undervalued) Haikasoru. They are not easy to find in most brick and mortar bookshops, and while they can be bought online, a reader needs to know they exist to find them. I came across her by chance, browsing in a now-defunct Japanese bookshop in North London, and by chance seems to be how most of her English-speaking readers find her. And this in itself touches on another problem: why it is that the bulk of books translated into English remain the work of male writers, while female writers—including award-winning, best-selling, critically acclaimed female writers—tend to be left out, translated only partially, translated only late in their careers. But that is a subject for a different article.
The readers who find Miyabe are mainly fans of crime fiction. She started out as a crime writer, and the six of her crime novels available in English have all been well-received (most of these were published by Kodansha). But as a crime novelist, she is by no means straightforward. Though she does write pure detective fiction, her work blends seamlessly into weird crime and paranormal also. Of her work available in English, Crossfire (Kodansha, 2006) and The Sleeping Dragon (Kodansha 2010) deal with psychic abilities, while The Devil’s Whisper deals with the criminal potential of subliminal advertising. All three are fast-paced thrillers, but, like another talented female writer-in-translation, the Icelandic Yrsa Sigurdadóttir, Miyabe provides far more than an exciting story. All three delve deep into the social pressures and contexts that drive and create criminality and take a hard, cold look at class and wealth-based divisions. Unlike the unconscious snobbery of P. D. James, or the romanticism that runs through much modern paranormal fiction, Miyabe refuses to assign blame purely on the basis of origin or to sentimentalize or eroticize her unusual characters. Indeed, her characters are frequently remarkably ordinary—a teenage boy trying to get through school; a minor, easy-going journalist; a middle-aged, unambitious woman police officer; a part-time waitress; and a school drop-out. These are not people looking for adventure or, by and large, to change the world. Rather, they are everyday individuals dealing with odd and frightening situations and resolving them as best they can. Even Junko—the above-mentioned waitress, who is also a powerful pyrokinetic—is motivated by a sense of fairness and justice, explaining her power to herself as a “loaded gun” that she must control and use for good when possible. Her adversary, and co-protagonist, the policewoman Chikako, seeks as much to help Junko as to catch her, and both of them are powerfully aware of the social controls and constructions that restrict them and everyone around them. These same elements—a search for fairness and for a less divided society and for more mutual understanding—also run through The Devil’s Whisper and The Sleeping Dragon. Indeed, the very ordinariness of the latter’s protagonist, the journalist Kosaka, puts something of a crimp into the antagonist’s plans, and rather precipitates the assistance he gets from the young psychic Naoya.
This primacy of ordinariness carries over into her YA and fantasy writing, also. There are no princes and princesses, only everyday schoolchildren caught up into new and odd realities. Both Yuriko/U-ri in The Book of Heroes and Wataru in Brave Story are young teens from lower-middle-class families, who find themselves dealing with both real-world problems—the disappearance of a brother, parental strife, and divorce—and with dangers and issues in fantasy worlds. A concern with the ethics of daily life runs through all of Miyabe’s work that I have read, but it is most apparent in these two books, and particularly in The Book of Heroes. Both Wataru and Yuriko go into alternate worlds to try and solve their problems, but while Wataru’s adventures are framed as a quest with epic fantasy elements, Yuriko’s have a more complex structure. Her brother has been trapped by a book—the titular Book of Heroes, which is a gateway both to heroism in a positive form and to its darker, dangerous side, manifest as the King in Yellow. The Book of Heroes is both an exciting YA adventure and a complex meta-novel, playing off tropes from both American and Japanese horror and examining the nature of fiction itself. To write, in this context, is to lie, and to lie is both to sin and to create. Writers become both the guardians of the world and its downfall, as their words unleash forces of both good and bad. Trying to save her brother, Yuriko encounters worlds of books and worlds within books, is helped by figures from the horror canon and threatened by them, and guided throughout by the oldest books, which talk and lead, confuse and tempt.
A great deal of fantasy concerns itself with good and evil, expressed some way or another and in various degrees of subtlety, but most recent fantasy tends to leave this in the background and relies on reader assumptions. Even the fashion for antiheroes is framed in this way—their habits mark them as questionable to some degree but they are seldom genuinely bad—rather, they are lazy or venal or greedy, but do the right thing when needed. Miyabe likewise does not express her ethical framework overtly, but the sense of ethical awareness is much closer to the surface, in her characters’ thoughts and rationalization. Faced with a chance for revenge on his father and the latter’s new girlfriend, Wataru takes it—but denies and hides from the part of him that did so and must both confront and accept it before he can achieve his quest. Both Wataru and Yuriko learn that achieving a goal requires sacrifice as well as heroism, and sometimes a success is compromised and partial. This is found in Miyabe’s adult works also—and, indeed, in her lyrical and layered ghost fiction, a collection of which is available from Haikasoru (Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo).
We are, in our western culture, currently suspicious of moral fiction—we consider it dull, worry about contagion. Yet all fictions contain assumed, unexpressed rules and moralities of one kind or another, and our suspicion is itself a symptom of a modern world which prioritises and valorises the gains and interests of the individual, requiring acts that help wider society to be rewarded and recognised. Miyabe forces her readers to question that. It is not simply a matter of differing cultures: her characters can be just as individual, just as selfish and self-interested as many found in non-Japanese literature (and there are altruistic characters in modern US and Western European books, too). But Miyabe’s characters do not cheat: they are fully aware of the ethical and social contexts in which they exist and they learn to make choices that are right, not just personally pleasing. They are not saints and their creator does not preach. But her very down-to-earthness makes it clear that no one of us is or should be an island, and our actions must always have consequences, about which we should think.