Anything that comes with a specifications sheet needs to be distrusted. On pages 293-298 of Yukikaze (fortunately, after we have read the novel) we are given the details of the eponymous Super Sylph aircraft (whose name means "Snow Wind") that is in many ways the central character of this novel. The foreword—an infodump in the form of an extract from a textbook—equally echoes the blandness of the gaming manual rather than something which would make Kambayashi, as one of the appending brief essays on Kambayashi, by Ray Fuyuki, notes, the "Philip K. Dick of Japan."
And indeed unless you are a fan of the series, which has appeared as an anime as well as sequels to the original 1984 novel (this edition is a translation by Neil Nadelman of the revised 2002 edition, incorporating changes made to make it more consistent with the sequels), Yukikaze takes some time to create its effect. When it does, it is a powerful one, and one that stays with you.
Thirty years before the action of this story, a mysterious alien force created a portal between Antarctica and a world dubbed Faery by humanity, which may or may not be the aliens’ homeworld. All that is known about the aliens (called, for reasons that escape me, the JAM) is that they use highly sophisticated technology and are set upon invading Earth. The planet Faery is the battleground between invaders and invaders, and an elite group of misfits using state-of-the-art weaponry is established as the Faery Air Force.
By this point, despite the more "literary" spelling of "Faery" (many other references to the series use "Fairy," and in the interests of space I can only refer you to Tolkien’s essay "On Fairy-Stories" to back my assertion that there is a significant difference of tone here which the translator/publishers have been astute in picking up), anyone over the age of 14 who is without grounding in Japanese manga/anime is likely to be in fits of giggles. The intriguing, if presumably coincidental, similarity of the polar connection to an invading alien world, which is a feature of Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666), may be a source of confusion rather than interest. But read on. Like Cavendish, Kambayashi’s use of situations and imagery which may be simply bizarre to some only shows the sophistication of those tropes.
Yukikaze is less a novel than a collection of stories, and as the overall pattern is realised, Chohei Kambayashi does something extraordinarily difficult. In the beginning, his characters—Yukikaze; Yukikaze's pilot Rei Fukai, whose only emotions seem to be directed towards his plane; Rei’s friend and superior Major Booker; and their commanding officer General Lydia Cooley—are simple ciphers. That is how it should be; the point is that people like Rei, about whom we learn very little, are people who essentially give up their humanity for a cause, or who have humanity beaten out of them. But by the second story, "Never Question the Value of a Knight," it comes to Rei that "humans were necessary in battle. . . . It was such an obvious thing that he’d never thought about it before" (p. 59). Immediately, Rei begins to question it.
The conclusions that Rei comes to are so closely wound up with the direction the plot moves in that vagueness, rather than explanation, is perhaps the best strategy here. The final story has a scene in which, like so much in the novel, a simple action can be interpreted as a metaphor for an underlying theme. It could be argued that this is over-reading what is basically a popular action-adventure story. But such things happen too often to be coincidence. Yukikaze may be a popular action-adventure story, but there is a profound and sophisticated ambiguity here, an insight which is hardly new but which does raise Yukikaze from being a simple novel about, essentially, a "magic weapon" to a human tragedy. Just as Arthur’s relationship with his sword Excalibur is, when we really look at it, deeply disturbing (in Arthur’s case, the possession of a weapon which conveyed invincibility did not prevent the failure of his entire enterprise), so Rei and Yukikaze are in a relationship which cannot be one of equals.
Rei’s alienation becomes increasingly that of a man who has given up his humanity for a cause, yes, but is growing suspicious about why he needs to do this. In "Mysterious Battle Zone" Rei is ordered to fly a mission accompanied by the officious journalist Lander, whose questions, "Why do you fly?" and "What are you thinking of when you’re in combat?" probe at his doubts. Their mission discovers something about the JAM, but the combat is moving beyond Rei’s understanding and capabilities. "Indian Summer" introduces that staple of war stories, the new recruit who lasts precisely as long as the story, but the mechanical heart Tomahawk possesses is both another aspect of the long-running "what is the difference between human and machine?" question and a neat metaphor for Rei’s own isolation. At the end of this story, Rei has learned (or relearned) to weep.
"Faery—Winter," "All Systems Normal," "Battle Spirit," and "Super Phoenix" move the story of Rei and Yukikaze along to its inevitable conclusion. "Faery—Winter" is a tragicomic tale of what happens when a medal is unexpectedly awarded to Amata, one of the grunts whose job is basically to clear the snow from the runways so that the warriors can get on with their job. Possibly the most interesting story in the book, and certainly one that moves the fundamental question of who are the enemy, and who are they actually fighting, along a notch, its exploration of incongruity is moving and shocking. Amata’s medal—the highest possible—breaks him. Before, he knew he was an alcoholic screw-up in a useless job. Afterwards, he is obviously garbage who has been wrongly given an undeserved award. "As soon as he had been decorated, however, his wretchedness had been exposed for all to see" (p. 172). In despair, he enlists Booker’s aid to find out why this happened. In interrogating the computers, what Booker finds out is very little, and that inconclusive, but what we can infer from that is very chilling indeed. The story ends with Amata’s expendability being horribly emphasised.
"All Systems Normal" puts Yukikaze in control of a plane with a higher technical and combat specification, but lower software capabilities. The death of the aircraft’s pilot is the result as, during a dogfight, the machine is put through manoeuvres far beyond those survivable by a human. "Battle Spirit" brings Booker and Rei in contact with Lynne Jackson, whose book about the war provides part of the novel’s introductory matter. Jackson notes that Rei cannot even communicate with his own countrymen: "they can’t follow his digital, machinelike speech . . . perhaps he’s afraid of becoming human again" (p. 246). Yukikaze, Jackson recalls Booker telling her, is the only thing Rei has faith in. But from what Booker says, the war between humanity and the JAM has no meaning behind it, no ideology, other than the fact that the JAM are enemy. Almost Jackson’s last thought in the story is of the size and awesome power of Yukikaze. In English, there’s a clear play on words in the story’s title, and Yukikaze embodies both (it would be interesting to know how far this double meaning exists in the Japanese). The final story involves a new stage in the war, and the tactics of the JAM, and the freeing of the "Battle Spirit"/"Super Phoenix" which is Yukikaze. It is not a hopeful story.
My reading of Yukikaze may be more ironic than that of many of its fans, and I am hampered by not having read Good Luck Yukikaze, its immediate sequel. (My first thought was that if the conclusion of this novel had drawn a line under the Human-JAM war and the saga of Yukikaze it would have been truly powerful, but Ray Fuyuki’s account suggests that Good Luck reverses what I read as the inexorable movement in the first novel, and seeks to answer Rei’s dilemma by striving to make humanity "necessary in battle.") Still, I was expecting something little more than an adventure story, a competent weapons-porn epic perhaps leavened with the stereotypical "war is hell" reflection that seems to be inserted into war stories to add a rudimentary moral compass. Certainly, the figure of the combat soldier who has been dehumanized by his profession but with whom we nevertheless empathize is not exactly original. But not only is Yukikaze well-written, with touches of humour I did not expect, it is seriously and intelligently thought-provoking. What is the place of humanity in modern warfare (or, indeed, in modern life) given the construction of artificially-intelligent systems beyond the level of the simply "human"? Can it be said, even, that humanity needs an enemy to be human? Some hints about the identity and motives of the JAM are given, but they remain a mystery. This is not a story which gives easy closure. Yukikaze does not offer any answers, neither to questions which may be asked about its basic premise nor to the issues raised by them, and I probably would not deny that some of the ambiguities presented are in truth rather glib; but it is a cleverly executed fusion of action, morality, and character. In the end, Rei is an emblem rather than a stereotype; a figure who means rather more than his sketchy portrayal might suggest. From the viewpoints of other characters—Booker, Jackson, etc.—as well as his own thoughts, we see considerably more of Rei than the text itself might suggest, and he is a character worthy of our empathy, partly because we need to look carefully at his attachment to his plane. Yukikaze the fighting machine herself remains an enigma. Yukikaze the novel suggests that if the techniques of this kind of military SF are rigid, like many other forms of SF (read space opera, read hard SF), they can be satisfyingly open in the hands of writers who want to say something interesting.
I still haven’t actually finished the "Yukikaze Fact Sheet," but I would certainly search for the sequels as and when they are translated.
Andy Sawyer is librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at the University of Liverpool Library, Course Director of the MA in Science Fiction Studies offered by the School of English, and a widely published critic. He is Reviews Editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction. He recently co-edited (with David Ketterer) Plan for Chaos, a previously unpublished novel by John Wyndham. He is the 2008 recipient of the Clareson Award for services to science fiction.
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