Bruce Sterling. Shinkansen
Literary Freeware: Not For Commercial Use
From SCIENCE FICTION EYE #6
CATSCAN 6 "Shinkansen"
Let me tell you what the 21st Century feels like.
Imagine yourself at an international conference of industrial designers in
Nagoya, Japan. You're not an industrial designer yourself, and you're not
quite sure what you're doing there, but presumably some wealthy civic-
minded group of Nagoyans thought you might have entertainment value, so
they flew you in. You're in a cavernous laser-lit auditorium with 3,000
assorted Japanese, Finns, Germans, Americans, Yugoslavs, Italians, et al., all
wearing identical ID badges, except for a trenchant minority, who have
scribbled "Allons Nagoya" on their badges so that everybody will know
There's a curved foam plug stuck in your ear with a thin gray cord
leading to a black plastic gadget the size of a deck of cards. This is an "ICR-
6000 Conference Receiver." It's a five-channel short-range radio, with a
blurry typed serial number stuck to it with a strip of Scotch Tape. You got
the receiver from a table manned by polite young hostesses, who were
passing out vast heaps of these items, like party favors. Of the five channels
offered, Number 1 is Japanese and Number 2 is, purportedly, English. You get
the strong impression that the French would have preferred Number 3 to be
French, but the Conference offers only two "official languages" and channels
3, 4 and 5 have static.
Muted festivities begin, in the best of taste. First a brief Kabuki skit is
offered, by two expatriate Canadians, dressed in traditional robes. Ardent
students of the Kabuki form, the two Canadians execute ritual moves of
exacting precision, accompanied by bizarre and highly stylized verbal
bellowing. They are, however, speaking not Japanese but English. After some
confusion you realize that this piece, "The Inherited Cramp," is meant to be a
comic performance. Weak culture-shocked chuckles arise here and there
more adventurous members of the audience. Toward the end you
feel that you might get used to this kind of thing if you saw enough of it.
The performance ends to the warm applause of general relief. Assorted
bigwigs take the stage: a master of ceremonies, the keynote speaker, the
Mayor of Nagoya, the Speaker of the City Council, the Governor of the
Prefecture. And then, accompanied by a silverhaired retainer of impressive
stolid dignity, comes the Crown Prince of Japan.
Opening ceremonies of this kind are among the many obligations of this
patient and graceful young aristocrat. The Crown Prince wears a truly
immaculate suit which, at an impolite guess, probably costs as much as a
small car. As a political entity, this symbolic personage is surrounded by
twin bureaucracies of publicity and security. The security is not immediately
evident. Only later will you discover that the entire building has been
carefully sealed by unobtrusive teams of police. On another day, you will
witness the passage of the Prince's motorcade, his spotless armored black
limousine sporting the national flag, accompanied by three other limos of
courtier-bodyguards, two large squads of motorcycle policemen, half-a-
dozen police black-and-whites, and a chuttering surveillance helicopter. As
you stand gawking on the sidewalk you will be questioned briefly, in a
friendly fashion, by a plainclothes policeman who eyes the suspicious bag
you carry with a professional interest.
At the moment, however, you are listening to the speeches of the Nagoya
politicians. The Prince, his posture impeccable, is also listening, or at least
pretending it with a perfect replica of attention. You listen to the hesitant
English on Channel Two with growing amazement. Never have you heard
political speeches of such utter and consummate vacuity. They consist
entirely of benevolent cliche'. Not a ripple of partisan fervor, not a hint of
ideological intent, colors the translated oratory. Even the most vapid
American, or even Russi
an, politician cannot resist a dig at a rival, or an in-
crowd reference to some partisan bit of political-correctness--but this is a
ritual of a different order. It dawns on you that nothing will be said. These
political worthies, sponsors and financiers of the event, are there to color the
air with harmless verbal perfume. "You're here, we're here"--everything that
actually needs to be said has already been communicated nonverbally.
The Prince rises to deliver a brief invocation of even more elevated and
poetic meaninglessness. As he steps to the podium, a torrent of flashbulbs
drenches the stage in stinging electrical white. The Prince, surely blinded,
studies a line of his text. He lifts his chin, recites it, and is blinded again by
the flashes. He looks back to the speech, recites a paragraph in a firm voice
with his head lowered, then looks up again, stoically. Again that staccato
blast of glare. It dawns on you that this is the daily nature of this young
gentleman's existence. He dwells within a triple bell-jar of hypermediated
publicity, aristocratic decorum, and paramilitary paranoia. You reflect with a
mingled respect and pity on the numerous rare personages around the
planet who share his unenviable predicament. Later you will be offered a
chance to meet the Prince in a formal reception line, and will go out of your
way to spare him the minor burden of your presence. It seems the least you
Back in your hotel room, the vapid and low-key Japanese TV is
interrupted by news of a severe California earthquake. By morning swarms
of well-equipped Japanese media journalists will be doing stand-ups before
cracked bridges in San Furansisko and Okran. Distressed Californian natives
are interviewed with an unmistakable human warmth and sympathy.
Japanese banks offer relief money. Medical supplies are flown in. No
particular big deal is made of these acts of charitable solidarity. It's an
earthquake; it's what one does.
You leave Nagoya and take the Shinkansen bullet-tr
ain back to Tokyo. It's
a very nice train, the Shinkansen, but it's not from Mars or anything. There's
been a lot of press about the Shinkansen, but it looks harmless enough,
rather quaint actually, somewhat Art Deco with lots of brushed aircraft
aluminum and stereo ads featuring American popstars. It's very clean, but
like all trains it gets too cold inside and then it gets too hot. You've heard
that bullet-trains can do 200 miles an hour but there's no way the thing tops
130 or so, while you're aboard it. You drink a ten percent carbonated peach
soda and listen to your Walkman. The people inside this purported technical
marvel demonstrate the absolute indifference of long habit.
A friend meets you in Tokyo. You board a commuter subway at rush-
hour. It is like an extremely crowded rolling elevator. Everyone hangs limply
from straps with inert expressions suggesting deep meditation or light
hypnosis. Impetus rolls through the tightly-packed bodies like currents
through a thick stand of kelp. It occurs to you that this is the first time you
have been in Japan without attracting vaguely curious glances as a foreigner.
Nobody is looking at anybody. Were any physical threat or commotion
offered on this subway, the situation would swiftly be nightmarish. But since
nobody stirs, the experience is actually oddly soothing.
You have a dinner appointment with a Japanese rock band. You meet in a
restaurant in a section of Tokyo somewhat akin to, say, Greenwich Village in
1955. Its narrow, crooked streets are full of students, courting couples,
coffee-shops. There's a bit of graffiti here and there--not the lashing, crazed
graffiti of American urban areas, but enough to convey a certain heightened
sense of dissidence.
You and your friend meet the two rock stars, their A&R man, and their
manager. The manager drifts off when he realizes that there is no threat of
any actual business transpiring. You're just a fan. With some translation help
from your friend you eagerly question the music
ians. You long to know
what's cooking in the Tokyo pop-music scene. It transpires that these
particular rockers listen mostly to electronic European dance music. Their
biggest Japanese hit was a song about Paris sung in English.
One of the rockers asks you if you have ever tried electronic brain
stimulation. No, you say--have you? Yes, but it wasn't much good, really. You
recall that, except for occasional problems with junior yakuza bikers high on
cheap Korean speed, Japan hasn't much of a "drug-problem." Everyone sighs
wistfully and lights more cigarettes.
The restaurant you're in offers an indeterminate nonethnic globalized
cuisine whose remote ancestry may have been French. The table is laid like,
say, London in 1880, with butterballs in crystal glass dishes, filigreed forks
as heavy as lead, fish-knives, and arcanely folded cloth napkins. You ask the
musicians if this restaurant is one of their favorite dives. Actually, no. It's
'way too expensive. Eating in posh restaurants is one of those things that one
just doesn't do much of in Japan, like buying gift melons or getting one's suit
pressed. A simple ham and egg breakfast can cost thirty bucks easy--thirty-
five with orange juice. Sane people eat noodles for breakfast for about a
buck and a half.
Wanting to press this queer situation to the limit, you order the squid. It
arrives and it's pretty good. In fact, the squid is great. Munching a tentacle in
wine-sauce you suddenly realize that you are having a *really good time*.
Having dinner with a Japanese rock band in Tokyo is, by any objective
standard, just about the coolest thing you've ever done!
The 21st Century is here all around you, it's happening, and it's craziness,
but it's not bad craziness, it's an *adventure*. It's a total gas. You are seized
by a fierce sense of existential delight.
Everybody grins. And the A&R man picks up the tab.
Shinkansen Part Two:
The Increasingly Unstrange Case of
Lafcadio Hearn and Rick Kennedy
I was in Japan twice
in 1989--two weeks in all. Big deal. This jaunting
hardly makes me an "Old Japan Hand."
But I really wanted to mimic one in this installment of CATSCAN. So I
strongly considered beginning with the traditional Westerner's declaration
that I Understand Nothing About Japan or the Japanese: boy are they ever
mystical, spiritual and inscrutable; why I've been a-livin' here nigh twenty
year with my Japanese wife, Japanese job, Japanese kids and I'm just now a-
scratchin' the surface of the baffling Yamato kokutai . . .
These ritual declarations by career Nipponologists date 'way back to the
archetypal Old Japan Hand, Lafcadio Hearn (aka Yakumo Koizumi) 1850-
1904. Not coincidentally, this kind of rhetoric is very useful in making
*yourself* seem impressively mystic, spiritual and inscrutable. A facade of
inscrutable mysticism is especially handy if you're anxious to hide certain
truths about yourself. Lafcadio Hearn, for instance--I love this guy Hearn,
I've been his devotee for years, and could go on about him all day--Hearn
was your basic congenital SF saint-perv, but in a nineteenth century
environment. Hearn was, in brief, a rootless oddball with severe personality
problems and a pronounced gloating taste for the horrific and bizarre. Born
of a misalliance between a British officer and a young Greek girl, Hearn
passed a classically miserable childhood, until fleeing to America at nineteen.
As a free-lance journalist and part-time translator, penniless, shabby,
declasse' and half-blind, Hearn knocked around all over for years--
Cincinnati, New Orleans, the Caribbean--until ending up in Japan in 1890.
There Hearn made the gratifying discovery that the Japanese could not
tell that he was a weirdo. At home Hearn was alien; in Japan, he was merely
foreign. The Meiji-era Japanese respectfully regarded the junketing Hearn as
an influential man of letters, an intellectual, a poet and philosopher, and they
gave him a University position teaching literature to the rising new
earn (a man of very genuine talent, treated decently for
perhaps the first time in his life) responded by becoming one of Japan's first
and foremost Western popularizers, emitting reams about Shintoism and
ghosts and soul-transference and the ineffableness of everythinghood.
Hearn had always been pretty big on ineffableness, but Japan seemed to
fertilize the guy's eccentricities, and he became one of the truly great fantasy
writers of all time. If you don't know Hearn's work, you owe it to yourself to
discover it: _Kokoro_, _Gleanings in Buddha-Fields_, _Shadowings_,
_Kwaidan_, _Kotto_, all marvelous books (thoughtfully kept in print by
Tuttle Books, that paragon of crosscultural publishers). Hearn's dark
fantasies rival Dunsany and Lovecraft in their intense, brooding
idiosyncrasy; and as a bonus, his journalistic work contains long sustained
passages of close observation and penetrating insight, as well as charming
What did the Japanese make of all this? Well, after many years, the
authorities finally caught on and fired Hearn -- and they had one of the first
Tokyo University riots on their hands. Hearn was impossible to deal with, he
was a paranoiac with a mean streak a mile wide, but his students genuinely
loved the guy. Hearn really spoke to that generation--the generation of
Japanese youth who found themselves in universities, with their minds
permanently and painfully expanded with queer foreign ideas. Here was one
sensei who truly knew their paradoxical sorrows, and shared them. Hearn's
appeal to the new Japan was powerful, for he was simultaneously
ultramodern and sentimentally antiquarian--an exotic patriot--a Western
Orientalist--a scientific mystic.
Lafcadio Hearn loved Japan. He married a Japanese woman, had Japanese
children, took a Japanese name, and was one of the bare handful of
foreigners ever granted Japanese citizenship. And yet he was always a loner,
a congenital outsider, viewing everyone around him through ever-thickening
lenses of h
is peculiar personal philosophy. Paradoxically, I believe that
Lafcadio Hearn chose to stay in Japan because Japan was the place that
allowed him to become most himself. He reached some very personal
But now let's compare the nineteenth-century Hearn to a contemporary
"Old Japan Hand," Rick Kennedy, author of _Home, Sweet Tokyo_ (published,
rather tellingly, by Kodansha Books of Tokyo and New York). Rick Kennedy,
an employee of the globe-spanning Sony Corporation, writes a weekly
column for the English-language "Japan Times." _Home, Sweet Tokyo_ is a
collection of Kennedy's columns. The apt subtitle is "Life in a Weird and
Compared to Hearn, Kennedy has very little in the way of philosophical
spine. This is a magpie collection. Kennedy has an eye for the peculiar that
rivals Hearn's, but no taste at all for the dark and horrific. _Home, Sweet
Tokyo_ is in fact "sweet" and rather cute, with all the boisterous charm of
the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie. There are satires, parodies, in-jokes,
vignettes of daily life in the great metropolis.
And there are interviews, profiles, of the people of Tokyo. Folks of all
sorts: professional pachinko-players, the white-gloved guys who scrub the
subway trains, the dignified chefs of top Tokyo restaurants, office-girls
gamely searching for a rung on a very male corporate ladder.
Hearn did a similar sort of exploratory prying in Japan's nooks and
byways, but the flavor of his reportage is entirely different. Hearn's
Japanese subjects tend to be elfin, evasive personages, alluding to grave
personal tragedies with a flicker of an eyelid and a few stoic verses. Hearn's
subjects are not fully individuated men and women, but incarnated
principles, abstractions, a source for social insights that can degenerate at a
careless touch into racist or jingoistic cliche'.
Kennedy, in stark contrast, treats people as people, hail fellows well met.
As a consequence, his Japan comes across rather like a very crowde
well-heeled Kiwanis Club. He lacks a morbid interest in life's extremities; but
at least he never lashes his subjects to the Procrustean bed of stereotype. He
looks clear-eyed at postmodern Japan in all its individual variety: eldritch
rural grannies and megalopolitan two-year-olds, uptight accountants and
purple-haired metal kids, Shinto antiquarians and red-hot techno-
visionaries, rarefied literati and dumb-ass TV stars.
This is a Japan which can no longer be tidily filed away under "I" for
"Inscrutable" by a WestCiv Establishment with the self-appointed task of
ordering the world. Japan today is an intensely globalized society with sky-
high literacy, very low crime, excellent life-expectancy, tremendous fashion-
sense, and a staggering amount of the electronic substance we used to call
cash. After centuries of horrific vicissitudes and heartbreaking personal
sacrifice, the Japanese are fat, rich, turbo-charged, and ready to party down.
They are jazzing into the 21st-Century global limelight in their velcro'd
sneakers, their jeans stuffed with spare film-packs and gold-plated VISA
cards. Rick Kennedy's book makes it absolutely clear why the Japanese *fully
deserve* to do this, and why all those Japan-bashing sourpuss spoilsports
ought to lighten up and give 'em room to shine.
Like Hearn, Kennedy has a Japanese wife, Japanese children, an intense
commitment to his adopted home. What has happened in the meantime (i.e.,
during the 20th century) is a slow process of "un-strange-ing," of
deromanticism, de-exoticism, a change from watery dream-colors to the
sharp gleam of flashbulbs and neon. It is a process that science fiction
people, as romantics, are likely to regard with deep ambiguity. We are much
cozier with the Hearns of the world than the brisk and workaday Kennedys.
And yet I must return to Hearn's Paradox: that his attempt to "woo the
Muse of the Odd," as he put it, was not a true marriage, but a search for self-
realization. Kennedy, unlike Hearn, can embrace Ot
herness without seeking
moral lessons and mystic archetypes. Kennedy, unlike Hearn, can imagine
himself Japanese. He goes farther yet, for Kennedy knows that if he *were*
Japanese, he would not live in Tokyo. A Japanese Rick Kennedy, he says,
would head at once for Los Angeles, that weird and wonderful city, with its
exotic Yankee luxuries of crowd-free tennis courts and private swimming
And this, it seems to me, is a very worthy insight. This is a true,
postmodern, global cosmopolitanism, rather than Hearn's romantic quest for
Asian grails and unicorns. Cosmopolitanism offers little in the way of spine-
chilling visionary transcendence. Instead, the glamour of Otherness is
internalized, made part of the fabric of daily life. To the global cosmopolite--
an eternal expatriate, no matter what his place of birth--there are no
certainties, no mystic revelations; there are only fluctuating standards of
comparison. The sense-of-wonder is not confined to some distant realm of
Zen or Faerie, safely idealized and outside oneself; instead, *normality itself*
seems more or less disjointed and disquieting, itchy with a numinous glow of
the surreal, "weird and wonderful," as Kennedy says--with the
advantage/drawback that this feeling *never goes away*.
I would urge on every science fiction person the rich experience of
reading Lafcadio Hearn. I share his fascination with thee culture of historical
Japan, the world before the black ships; like Hearn I can mourn its loss. But
it's dead, even if its relics are tended in museums with a nervous care. SF
people need to dote a little less on the long-ago and far-away, and pay more
robust attention to the living: to the elaborate weirdness at work in our own
time. Writers of serious science fiction need to plunge out there into the
bustle and do some basic legwork and come up with some futures people can
believe in. We need to address a new audience: not just the usual SF faithful,
but the real no-kidding folks out there, the global populace,
who can see an
old world order disintegrating every time they turn on the TV, but have no
idea what to make of it, what to think about it, what to do. We need to go
beyond using exotic foreigners as templates for our own fantasies; we need
to find the common ground of common global issues. At the very first and
least, we need to demand more translation-work within our own genre. We
need to leap the Berlin Walls of national marketing and publishing. We need
to get in touch.
The walls are going down all over the world, and soon we'll all be in each
other's laps. Japan's just one country, it's not the be-all and end-all. But
Japan is very crowded, with strictly limited resources; because of that, Japan
today is a dry run under 21st-century conditions. It's not the only such
model; Lebanon and El Salvador are small and crowded too. These places
model possible futures; they are choices we can make. It's all the choice
between a sake bash in the Tokyo Disneyland and a hostage-seizure in a
bombed-out embassy. We must learn from these successes and mistakes;
learn about other people, learn from other people, learn to *be* other people.
We can do it. It's not all that hard. It's fun, even. Everybody can help. It
doesn't take transcendent effort or coaching by cultural pundits. Do one six-
billionth of the work of global understanding, and you have every right to
feel proud of yourself.
The subworld of SF has the advantage of (limited) international appeal,
and can do good work here. If we don't do something, some earnest attempt
to understand and explicate and shape the future--the *real* future,
everybody's future, starting *now*--then in all honesty we should abandon
"Science Fiction" as a genre. We shouldn't keep the rags and tatters of the
thing, while abandoning its birthright and its best native claim to intellectual
legitimacy. There are many worthy ways to write fiction, and escapist genres
aplenty for people who want to write amusing nonsense; but this genre
ought to stand
SF can rise to this challenge. It ain't so tough. SF has risen from the
humblest of origins to beat worse odds in the past. We may be crazy but we
ain't stupid. It's a little-known fact (in which I take intense satisfaction) that
there are as many subscribers to *SF Eye* in Japan as there are in the US and
Canada. It's a step. I hope to see us take many more. Let's blunder on out
there, let's take big risks and make real mistakes, let's utter prophecies and
make public fools of ourselves; we're science fiction writers, that's our
goddamn job. At least we can plead the limpid purity of our intentions.
Yoroshiku onegai itashimasu.
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