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Travels in Inner Space

The short stories of the Japanese feminist and science fiction writer Izumi Suzuki have an eerie correspondence to the world of the present day.

In a collection of seven short stories, Verso’s Terminal Boredom introduces Japanese science fiction writer, actress, and ‘countercultural icon’ Izumi Suzuki (1949–86) to English readers for the first time. Translated by Polly Barton, Sam Bett, David Boyd, Daniel Joseph, Aiko Masubuchi, and Helen O’Horan, Terminal Boredom is the first of two planned anthologies of Suzuki’s work. It includes stories in which the presence of a single boy threatens the foundation of a queer matriarchal utopia; interplanetary politics damages a relationship; and a government initiative to curb overpopulation leads people to seek to transfer their essences into someone else’s dreams as a way of living on.

For the contemporary English-language reader, one of the most striking things about Terminal Boredom is Suzuki’s attitude towards gender and sexuality. Suzuki sets out a queer sensibility in the first story, ‘Women and Women’, set in a future  — dystopian or utopian, depending on your viewpoint  — where men are allowed to survive only in reservations for breeding purposes, even more extreme than the separatist vision laid out in Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto of 1967. The gender politics swiftly unroll in its opening, with lines about how men wasted their energy on ‘notions like revolution, work, and art’ while women ‘had to safeguard home and family’ until the late twentieth century when ‘pollution’ caused the male population to dwindle. ‘For some reason,’ writes Suzuki, ‘women had developed the habit of each finding a particular man to love, so they were terribly sad about this.’ The simple, fairy-tale-like language that Suzuki uses to suggest the absurdity of serial monogamy is sustained throughout (despite the range of translators), bringing a casual irony to sweeping observations such as this, and helping to render her complex scenarios plausible whilst retaining the stories’ brevity.

In ‘Women and Women’, the narrator encounters almost universal fear and disgust at her belief that men are not inherently evil and do not deserve such humiliation and imprisonment, and in several of Suzuki’s stories, the governments of their unnamed societies have imposed horrific practices with seemingly little resistance. Writing during the 1970s, amidst widespread youth rebellion in Europe and North America against racism, sexism, colonialism, and war, Suzuki hints that people put up with such awful situations because, perhaps unconsciously, they desire it. This idea is explored most intriguingly in ‘You May Dream’, in which the Population Department put Yoshiko into ‘cryosleep’, all but killing her. The narrator allows Yoshiko to ‘transfer’ into her dreams, and Yoshiko watches as the narrator’s destructive, dictatorial urges, recalling the worst excesses of the twentieth century, play out in her REM sleep.

This is one of several stories in which it can be difficult to establish who is talking, and thus to follow the plot, due to Suzuki’s habit of not attributing much of her dialogue to a particular character. Suzuki mostly avoids excessive exposition, however, and the humour in this consistently funny collection owes much to her economy with language: in ‘Night Picnic’, where the last family surviving in a desolate city learns to be ‘human’ through a fumbling appropriation of culture from books and films, ‘Sis’ tells her parents ‘I’m being rebellious’, and her brother Junior tells her ‘it’s a little weird to call your mom that woman’. In the most obviously comic story, ‘That Old Seaside Club’, a talking chair keeps offering unsolicited life and relationship advice to the narrator. While this may feel like a common sci-fi trope (although it predates the talking toaster in Red Dwarf by over a decade), it’s quite prescient in our age of ‘smart’ devices, and corporate social media accounts that strive unnervingly hard to be your friend.

For all of Suzuki’s humour, Terminal Boredom’s most compelling points are when its emotional core comes through. Most of them are, fundamentally, about the nature of love, how it is shaped by gender roles and expectations, and how relationships can be destroyed by wider political forces. In ‘Forgotten’, a woman from Earth falls for Sol, from the planet Meele, as hostility between the planets escalates. At its heart, it’s about the dangers of nostalgia, especially for war: Sol explains how the inability of Meelians to ‘forget the fear or the tragedy’ of conflict, as ‘our feelings don’t change or get eroded over time’, has allowed them to avoid such catastrophe for two thousand years. On Earth this is obviously not the case, and in implying this, Suzuki aligns herself with her contemporaries who rose up against their parents, who took Japan into the Second World War.

Terminal Boredom is a subtle but sharp collection, then, and a worthwhile introduction to Izumi Suzuki’s work. Another anthology in translation is due next year  — one hopes it will have the same lightness, humour, and consistency as this one, whether it explores the same themes around gender, sexuality, and governance or not.

Izumi Suzuki’s Terminal Boredom: Stories, translated by Polly Barton, Sam Bett, David Boyd, Daniel Joseph, Aiko Masubuchi, and Helen O’Horan, is published by Verso.

About the Author

Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker, whose most recent book was Trans: A Memoir (Verso, 2015). She is the host of Suite (212) on Resonance 104.4fm.