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Hybrid Child coverOriginally published in 1990, Mariko Ōhara’s Hybrid Child (“Haiburiddo Chairudo”) is her first novel-length work to be translated into English. A bindup composed of two novelettes and one novella, Hybrid Child follows Yoshio Aramaki’s The Sacred Era (1978) to become the second in the University of Minnesota Press’s Parallel Futures series. [1] This series is dedicated to publishing Japanese speculative fiction in translation which “is not content to remain within the habitual space-time divisions” of established SF, but instead uses techniques such as “temporal juxtaposition, disjunction, and multiplication” to problematize and subvert SF genre norms. [2] For these experimentations, both Hybrid Child and The Sacred Era have won the prestigious Seiun award (the Japanese equivalent of the Hugos) for best novel, and are defined by a shared deployment of surrealist strategies of defamiliarization—via a new wave SF sensibility—which result in meditations on the nature of reality as mediated by consciousness. However, unlike The Sacred Era, central to Hybrid Child is a mother-daughter relationship which enables a more sophisticated exploration of female monstrosity and emancipation. Thus, through a sometimes meandering narrative suffused with surrealist aesthetics, fairytale tropes, and graphic violence, Hybrid Child explores the collision of militaristic and maternal forms of control, alongside their resistance through hybridity.

Having seen the end of another Women in Translation month (#WITMonth), I would like to take a moment here in which to underscore the importance of seeing more Japanese female writers being translated. There is no dearth of Japanese women writing speculative fiction; however, with the exception of Kaoru Kurimoto, Sayuri Ueda, and Miyuki Miyabe, few novel-length works have thus far been translated into English. Mariko Ōhara now joins these few, having previously had only three short stories translated into English (namely “The Mental Female,” “Girl,” and “The Whale that Sang on the Milky Way Network”). Jodie Beck’s translation of Hybrid Child is flowing but precise, and deftly manages to maintain Ōhara’s formal experimentations and hypertextual plot leaps, whilst conveying Ōhara’s fusions of the beautiful and the grotesque with aplomb.

Let me front-load my review by stating that Hybrid Child is a pretty wild book—with a narrative sliding between the multiple POVs of a motley lineup of characters. It’s far beyond the scope of this review to cover all these narrative strands (and I will be focusing on the central story arc) but here’s a brief list of some the novel’s costars for your delectation: a Military Priest and quasi-divine leader who is aging backwards (Benjamin Button-style) and often becomes unmoored in time; Shiverer Mouse, a human suffering from a degenerative disease and encased within a technological coffin which ironically keeps him alive; a dead mother resurrected in the form of an extinct interstellar life-form known as a “dragon cosmos”; and a genuinely repellant mob boss who indulges in the most heinous acts of mutilation and murder. Still with me? I could go on with outlining Hybrid Child’s carnivalesque cast but I think I’ve made my point: when it comes to this text, surreal is sometimes an understatement. Consider yourself warned.

Opening with the biblical epigraph, “and the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land,” Ōhara immediately establishes Hybrid Child’s central themes of control, containment and human/nonhuman animal hybrids. This quote presages the opening scene in which the central protagonist, immortal cyborg Sample B#3, has escaped from his confinement within a military installation. As part of a biomechanical cohort designed to be the ultimate weapon against The Adiaptron Empire of Machines, Sample B#3 can metamorphose into any biological being whose genetic material he has “sampled,” a skill for which he and his kind have earned the appellation “Hybrid Child.”

It is important here to note that this genetic “sampling” includes not only physical information but also imparts the memories and senses of the entity sampled. Hybridity within the text therefore includes not only mimicry, but also becomes an alternative means of experiencing the world. Thus, after sampling the meat of a fabulated animal called a ramada (a creature reminiscent of Dali’s The Temptation of St Anthony (1946), and factory-farmed for meat), Sample B#3 resuscitates its memories—which “consisted of nothing but countless brown bars, memories of a cage that extended from floor to ceiling” (p. 11). Other examples include:

the faint memories of the military helicopter P-357Y … the most beautiful series of memories in the world … perpendicular flesh-colored mountain surfaces … the broad sky stretched out in all directions … countless flashing knives gleaming on the blue sea far below. (p. 164)

I particularly appreciated these brief experiential vignettes of interspecies understanding (and I greedily would have liked more). These glimpses into genetically engineered creatures’ experiences of containment and freedom parallel, and are immediately tied to, the struggles against enclosure faced by all of the text’s characters. Sample B#3’s transformations allow for peeks into contrasting aspects of reality as experienced by other forms of being, helping to problematize any notion of a single stable reality. (As you may have already guessed, Hybrid Child has a very malleable understanding of what qualifies as real.) The role of hybridity in the text does have its limits, however, and it is important to underscore that emphasis is placed on Sample B#3’s metamorphoses as simulations. This tension, between becoming and simulating forms of nonhuman life, can be found throughout the history of SF.

Firstly, genetic sampling as a method for understanding and inhabiting other life-worlds did of course remind me of Octavia Butler’s oeuvre, especially the main character Anyanwu from the novel Wild Seed (1980). Anyanwu’s sensitisation to molecular structure enables her to transform into other non-human animals and inhabit their reality. Conversely, Ōhara’s emphasis on simulation, and the gap in knowability it imposes, does harken back to the masterpiece of alien alterity, Stanisław Lem’s Solaris (1961). Hybrid Child’sform of hybridity synthesises Butler’s enhanced understanding and Lem’s simulation process—which reproduces, distorts, and replaces its original (à la Baudrillard). Hybridity and the lifeworlds it conjures fundamentally underscore the slippiness of reality—a slippiness which is, as Ōhara has noted, essential to SF as a literary form:

It seemed to me that the present real world, this side of reality, was wrong, even though most people believe in it ... Science fiction, however, enlightened me to the fact that there is no universal value and that we should see the present world relatively. [3]  

Unlike the rest of his group, who remain passive, seemingly without will, need, or desire (and thus the exemplary military tools), Sample B#3 breaks with the reality he has been ascribed,  through escaping the military complex in the form of a human technician. His escape signifies the evasion of control enabled by hybridity—since Sample B#3 uses mimicry to evade and subvert, rather than further, military agendas. This flight from constraint enables Sample B#3 to exercise free will, as obtained through the transgression of military order and (as we will see) maternalistic forms of care.

Upon his escape, Sample B#3 takes on the guise of a Dadazim, a genetically engineered creature meant to be the perfect pet, and another of the many bricolage creatures Ōhara fabulates. (Think mouthless pig with a humanlike face and an external digestive tract which looks like white flowers on its back.) It is important to note that the Dadazim’s name is more than a near homophone for Dadaism, as, like its avant-garde precursor, the Dadazim is a nonsensical entity which uses the absurd to evade capture and hence undermine the supposed absoluteness of military might. As you may have gleaned from the previous quotes, surreal aesthetics and overt references to art history occur often in the text:

they lay there frozen like objets d’art, still gushing with emotion that could have been fear or could have been insanity … even the solid lake of blood was beautiful, like an intentionally designed artwork. (p. 64)

These frozen relics of violence, where beauty is folded into and extracted from death, further illustrates Ōhara’s treatment of reality as fundamentally surreal and slippery: here reality is aestheticised into an idealised construction similar to an art object. This aesthetic of beauty/grotesquerie threaded throughout the novel is in part what also lends the work its fairytale-like aura. Other recurring motifs, such as predatory white flowers, depict beauty as a carnivorous enticement, a violent end encrypted within the promise of sensory pleasure, which is at times evocative of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979), commingled with the affectless response to violence found in Leonora Carrington’s “The Debutant.

Concordant with the novel as grotesque fairytale, it is whilst in his fabulated Dadazim form that Sample B#3 finds, and is invited into, the secluded house of a writer known only as “Mama.” This house is overseen by an AI “housekeeper” program which is a computational iteration of Mama’s dead daughter, Jonah. Mama, who continues to imprison and terrorise her daughter’s AI avatar, is often characterised as a forgetful tyrant. Hence, whereas Sample B#3’s recovering of memories through sampling leads to greater understanding of other beings’ lifeworlds, here the act of forgetting results in derangement, violence, and a thirst for control. The novel’s perennial sense of containment is literalised through Mama’s house, which serves as both a site of madness and death as well as a means of protection and passage. As a “housekeeper” AI, Jonah is responsible for maintaining the conditions of her house/prison, whilst also serving as the de facto caregiver for her own mother. In other words, Jonah as child/AI remains under her mother’s control whilst simultaneously becoming her mother’s mother.

The structural pattern of Hybrid Child is based on the return and replication of trauma, as “when memories of oppression start to come out, the things that one has experienced are perfectly replicated in reverse” (p. 239). This pattern is performed through the circling relations between characters, where care and control are often inverted and wielded by those formerly enchained by them. Modes of control are therefore not statically assigned. Instead, depictions of power and control throughout the text remain plastic, rendering each character both subjugated and subjugator at different times. This cycle of trauma and control depicts power dynamics as messily attributed, rather than discreetly maintained, enabling the text to take on a more nimble negotiation of how methods of control are enacted. Although I understand its usage on a formal level, then, I found that this obsessive circling around the same mother-daughter power dynamic created a plot based upon extensive repetition, which became a bit tiresome—doubly so as motifs of birth and consumption are perhaps too heavily applied throughout and can thus seem overwrought. I can forgive this repetition, though, as Ōhara’s relentless experimentation did keep me engaged (admittedly sometimes with toes curled) throughout.

The mother-daughter relationship is further reproduced when the narrative moves to the planet of Caritas. Caritas, the Christian notion of love for all things, is another notion of care which is undercut by the planet being “one of the fiercest battlegrounds in the war” (p. 253), a subversion of care which is further satirised by a demented AI named Milagros. Milagros was originally programmed to be a maternal caregiver networked throughout Caritasian society. Due to war-induced neurosis, however, Milagros has become forgetful and deranged, leading to the gradual extermination of the population under her control. The destruction which was wrought by Mama’s forgetfulness is now ratcheted up through Milagros to the level of society at large, leading to the planetary decline of Caritas.

The conflation of military strategy and maternal care as sites of control throughout the text illustrates how sociopolitical structures become entrenched within intrapersonal and interpersonal relations. Thus, sites of maternal excess and constriction increasingly serve as a synecdoche for a sociopolitical milieu which mobilises rhetorics of care as a method of control. Maternal mastery must therefore be curtailed, in order for alternative and collective forms of care to be generated outside of the preexisting militaristic paradigms. As seen with the role of sampling in resurrecting memories, genuine care and love is in fact established through understanding and commonality across completely different realms of being:

Love was the power of abstraction. It inspired two beings to walk to the same beat and to move closer together. The effect of that power went beyond time, beyond each of their individual attributes, and beyond race or species—like a miracle. (p. 221)

Love thus sometimes plays a regenerative role within the text. Genuine care becomes a catalyst for the willing surrender to a melding with another, and as such becomes the novel’s ultimate form of hybridity. This form of love gestures towards the need to build more egalitarian emotional frameworks in order to improve the body politic, and helps the novel reach a denouement beyond the endless replication of capturer and captured, leading to a final, ambiguous but total, unification.

So, how did I feel after finishing this complex novel? On the whole I found it an intriguing work which has helped to further expand my expectations of what SF can do. The standout section of the work for me remains the first novella, which has the greatest aesthetic cohesion and tightest plotting. If you are interested in strange texts which experiment with the limits of SF as a genre, and don’t mind a lot of graphic violence, then this could be the fiction for you.

Endnotes

[1] Unlike many of Minnesota Press’s other translated works, Hybrid Child does not include a foreword or afterword, an omission which seems odd, especially as such experimental work would benefit from greater contextualisation. [return]

[2] https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/series/parallel-futures [return]

[3] The Twister of the Imagination: an Interview with Mariko Ōhara [return]



Rachel Hill has previously written reviews for Foundation, Shoreline of Infinity and Femspec. Originally from North East England, she now lives in London. Interests include science fiction (the weirder the better), science and technology studies, and cross-stitch.
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