For the past two years, I’ve taught a course on alternate history, the premise being to teach a general undergraduate population the basics of critical reading and American history by pairing alternate history novels with secondary historical readings, using the novels as a departure for thinking about history and its legacies in American consciousness. I focus on major moments in American history, such as the Civil War and World War II, and major issues, namely nation building, imperialism, and race. We read novels like Philip K. Dick’s TheMan in the High Castle (1962), Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain (1988), Sesshu Foster’s Atomik Aztex (2005), Robin Gerber’s Eleanor vs. Ike (2008), Matt Ruff’s The Mirage (2012), and Peter Tieryas’s United States of Japan (2016). That last is particularly fun to teach because it allows students to revisit some of the themes of The Man in the High Castle, since both are about a world in which the Nazis and Japanese Empire won WWII and occupy different halves of the North American continent. But where Dick’s novel emphasizes the philosophy of history, Tieryas’s focuses on what it’s like to live and try to thrive under Japanese rule in the eponymous United States of Japan. It is a novel about ideology, the limits of radicalism, and state power.
United States of Japan (henceforth USJ) was a major success for Tieryas, a Korean-born Asian American author of two previous novels and a full-time VFX artist. USJ blends alternate history and detective mystery with aspects of cyberpunk, gaming culture, and mechas to create a generically unique story about a technologically hyper-advanced Japan and USJ in the 1980s that could have been, the American dissidents known as the George Washingtons (GWs) who might have taken issue with the state of things, and the USJ subjects betrayed and hurt by the nation they helped build. USJ follows a Tokko (secret police) agent, Akiko Tsukino, and censorship officer, Beniko Ishimura, as they attempt to solve the murder of a high-ranking military officer’s daughter, supposedly at the hands of the GWs who are planning to launch a video game that tells the story of an American victory in WWII, hoping in the process to incite some rebellion against Japanese leadership in the USJ. The Nazis are entirely peripheral to this novel, which focuses on issues internal to the USJ. The novel charts Japanese atrocities committed against civilians and the totalitarian atmosphere of a world in which censors track all data and Tokko agents kill suspects with abandon. By the end, we discover that the murdered daughter had actually sided with the GWs, just as her mother, the officer’s wife, had, and that Ishimura is something of a dissident himself (since his parents were unfairly executed by the state), despite spending the novel seemingly apathetic to all political interests.
The novel ends with a major battle in San Diego against the GWs, who are essentially religious fanatics who believe their recent leader was the actual Second Coming of Christ, and who tie their religiosity to US nationalism. The novel is eerily familiar in its treatment of religious fundamentalism’s place in contemporary politics, revealing that the US is as much a locus of such religiopolitical fervor as the supposedly more fundamentalist-extremist Muslim world, and I particularly valued USJ as a novel that rejects nationalism of any sort, that casts the state and attempts to build a state as always violent, always damaging to the very people whom the state exists (in Enlightenment political theory) to protect. This timely critique of religious and nationalist ideology just on the horizon of Trump’s election and during a rightward swing for governments across the world, paired with the novel’s brilliant worldbuilding, intertextual play on Dick’s famous novel, and incorporation of contemporary gaming culture (e.g. mob-run professional game tournaments to the death) and Japanese popular culture (especially mechas) made USJ a hit with critics and fans alike. Surprisingly, USJ won no awards in the Anglophone world, but was a huge hit in the Hispanophone world, and in Japan, where Tieryas went on an extensive publicity tour and won the 2017 Seiun Award (the Japanese Nebula) for best translated novel.
Tieryas’s most recent novel, Mecha Samurai Empire, is a chronological sequel set a few years after the events of USJ, but is largely about different situations and characters. Samurai tells the story of Makoto “Mac” Fujimoto, a half-Korean, half-Japanese citizen of the USJ. Orphaned after his mecha pilot parents were killed in combat, the novel follows his journey to becoming a mecha pilot despite the odds. It spans roughly three acts that occur in the mid-1990s in Granada Hills, the “Quiet Border” with the Nazi Americas near what we currently call Texas and Arkansas, and Berkeley. Each act is punctuated by a surprise attack by NARA (think, the ISIS to the GWs’ Al Qaeda) and/or Nazis, wherein Mac is forced to fight for his life. The conclusion of each battle propels him into the next stage of his journey, from a high school student who failed to get into the Berkeley Military Academy (BEMA), to a mecha pilot for a civilian defense organization (RAMDET, Rapid Mobile Defense Team), and eventually to a star pupil at BEMA, where he joins the most elite mecha pilot cadets and tests prototype mechas special built to fight the Nazis’ own superweapons: the biomechs. In this regard, Samurai is a fairly typical military SF novel like all those modeled after Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, following the increasingly prolific career of a soldier who always happens to be in the right place at the right time—only Mac is never more than a cadet, he gets to pilot a mecha against Nazis and their collaborators, and he’s far from the best pilot in the novel (in fact, he’s clearly the weakest among his elite comrades in the Five Tigers). Moreover, the novel constantly problematizes the ethics of chain of command, critiquing the sacrifice of soldiers for the sake of larger goals, and in doing so Tieryas maintains USJ’s established critical interest in the state.
What is surprising about Mecha Samurai Empire as a sequel to USJ, and telling about the worldview embedded in Tieryas’s worldbuilding, is that very little has changed from the first novel. If USJ is about the violences of statehood carried out at the highest levels of military governance, about how even the radicals offer nothing more than violence and a similarly blind ideology driven by a religious fervor that betrays any sincere hope for social or utopian change (other than an evangelical Christian vision of American nationhood), the world of the USJ in Mecha Samurai Empire only a few years later is hardly different. Ishimura’s sacrifice has had little effect, the George Washingtons are gone but replaced by the even more audacious, Nazi-backed organization NARA, and even Tsukino, whom we meet sparingly in Samurai, is unchanged in her devotion to the rule and rightness of law. Only Kujira, the son of a mecha pilot who aids Tsukino and Ishimura, is a dissident, but he already was in USJ, in his melancholy teenage way. So much for Ishimura’s grand sacrifice at the end of USJ; the bureaucracy and power structures of the USJ and the Japanese Empire go on unperturbed.
In Tieryas’s two novels, the state is so monolithic as to be nearly inalterable; this makes for a shockingly nihilistic critique of the sort of individualism that rules so much of liberal leftist thinking about how to bring about social change. It is a denial that the revolution is coming, one that reveals the weaknesses of social action in an era of the total subsumption of life and art to capital in the era of neoliberalism. Samurai documents the constant chafing of individuals against the restraints of power, and the seeming helplessness of even those who achieve the upper echelons of society to make any significant lasting impact. But it is also a nihilism with a purpose, one that turns away from the conclusion that if nothing is to be, don’t try; Tieryas offers hope where there is seemingly none, in the embrace of community and friendship and love, even if such hope is naïve in the face of the immensity of the state and the machinations of global conflict and inequality. As the first-person narrator, Mac leads us through his own complex and evolving reflections on what it means to be a USJ citizen and to serve the Empire as a wannabe mecha pilot. Curiously, Mac’s personal ambition to be a mecha pilot seems to have nothing to do with patriotism, despite the fact that the mecha corps are the single reason the Nazis haven’t gone to war with the empire. Instead, he is driven by a desire to be like his parents (mecha pilots who died in the San Diego battle years earlier), and by a desire to beat the odds. Mac is thus a very traditional character and the novel in some ways is quite the traditional bildungsroman, since it follows Mac as he grows into his manhood by becoming the thing he always wanted to be and by, in the end, getting the girl he always loved—Griselda, the Asian German Nazi biomech pilot and later defector.
Despite this seemingly traditional narrative, Mac is constantly torn between a dedication to his dream and the realization that the people he serves don’t care for his life or the lives of his friends. He is always and only a pawn in larger military games played between USJ officers and the Nazis. This has the effect of defamiliarizing the character from his own—indeed, first person—centrality to the novel. He may be the narrator and the sole character through whose eyes we come to know the world, with whom we sympathize as he loses friends like Hideki while in high school or Wren while in the RAMDET, yet he is ultimately of little significance. The novel even hints that Colonel Yamaoka, a character whom Mac meets briefly and who helps get Mac into BEMA, but who doesn’t remember him a year later, is the central player in all of the events that happen in the novel—he might have even conspired with the Nazis to create the final attack on Berkeley by the Nazi biomechs that will, perhaps in a future novel, lead to war between the USJ and Nazi Americas. Tieryas seems to be commenting on our own position in life, at the mercy of larger power structures, never truly empowered to make significant, lasting change. Our ideologies—for example, the “American Dream” or the idea that we’re all winners for participating—tell us otherwise, and in doing so only help us to work harder in the very ways that support the systems that thrive on our labor and political energies. Mac’s story is so run-of-the-mill that it surprised me at first, since Tieryas can hardly be described as a run-of-the-mill writer. But that’s the genius of Samurai and its subtle reminders of Mac’s powerlessness, his peripherality, and indeed his naïveté (for example, his sincere belief that the emperor is all-knowing and infallible). If we empathize with and see ourselves in Mac, it’s precisely because our lives are as peripheral to power as his.
In the end, the novel has no answers to the predicament of empire and service, of being born under a totalitarian system; it has, instead, only the naive hope of a soldier to change things from the inside, to rise through the ranks in the hopes of being one who never gives orders that knowingly sacrifice soldiers. But for agents of the state there is no freedom from those orders, and this is something that neither Mac nor his Nazi-defector lover Griselda are ever able to see. Samurai is thus a nihilistic look at the situation faced by all who buck against the ideologies of power: not much can be changed, but you can live your life hoping in spite of that. This is the trap of hegemony that Tieryas’s novel brilliantly explores. There are no outs, and confronting this fact only leads to inaction; best, perhaps, to do what little can be done with what spaces of autonomy we can carve out, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Mac has his mecha; we have science fiction.
Mecha Samurai Empire is a thoroughly exhilarating novel, and it’s rare for a novel so heavily indebted to a Japanese genre like the mecha to find such a big release in the US (Samurai was published by Ace/Penguin, while its predecessor was published by the independent SF publisher Angry Robot). It is also an incredibly important novel for our political times that, alongside USJ, deserves attention by critics and fans alike, and will no doubt reward multiple rereadings in the way that the best and most literary SF novels do: by adding texture, challenging earlier assumptions, and revealing new insights each time.
Like some of the most lauded writers of alternate history, Tieryas is a maximalist, describing in detail as much of his world as his editors will let him get away with. This otherwise fast-paced action novel-cum-bildungsroman is slowed to 441 pages; the details are sometimes tedious (for example, all the times Mac’s muscles are sore from training), but the world’s sights, sounds, history, smells, and, especially, its tastes stack up around the reader and coalesce into an intelligible and seemingly familiar reality (with plenty of Easter eggs for those attuned to Tieryas’s interests). Indeed, it is easy to forget that the USJ is not either Japan or the US or the 1990s. So effective is Tieryas’s imitation of a world familiarly unreal that when these irrealities once again rear their heads, it is always a surprise to remember that, say, mechas don’t actually exist, or that neither contemporary Japanese nor Americans believe in the omnipotence of the Emperor and the infallibility of his rule. Mecha Samurai Empire is therefore not only an important novel, one that I would not be surprised to see on award longlists, but also a rare pleasure to get lost in.