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BOOK REVIEW: The Melancholy of Mechagirl by Catherynne M. Valente

REVIEW SUMMARY: Short fiction and poetry with a connection to Japan, including mythology interpretations, dystopian alternate history, the education and protection of artificial intelligences, and the development of the author herself.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Valente has recently garnered a lot of well-deserved attention for her young adult The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland series. Many of the pieces in The Melancholy of Mechagirl have an emotional and autobiographical flavor, and touch on more mature and layered themes, sex and love, failure, expectations vs. reality, and the lies we tell ourselves when hope is on the line.

PROS: Gorgeous prose and imagery; multi-layered and evocative stories that bend back onto themselves, pulling the reader in and offering a unique combination of mythology, intimacy, and science fictional ideas.
CONS: The poetry was mostly lost on me. It was pretty, but I didn’t know what any of it meant.
BOTTOM LINE: This is a must-have collection for both fans of Valente’s works, and readers who are new to her works and are looking for a good starting point.

Catherynne M. Valente spent only a few years in Japan as a young Navy wife, but those few years helped make her the writer she is today. She went for love, armed only with a few stories, and returned with memories of shrines and tsukumogami, patron spirits and folklore, and weaved it all together in a way only Valente’s poetic imagination can. One of her first published novels, In the Night Garden, was born in Japan, and her experiences there, both good and bad, helped shape her into one of our generation’s most imaginative and talented authors.

A quick note on the publisher, Haikasoru. Owned by Viz Media, Haikasoru’s mission is to bring Japanese science fiction to the west, and The Melancholy of Mechagirl is their first book by a western author. The introduction is written by Teruyuki Hashimoto, who explains a handful of Japanese cultural concepts that will become useful to the reader as further pages are turned. That is to say: you should really read the introduction.

“Ink, Water, Milk” and “Fifteen Panels Depicting The Sadness of the Baku” are best experienced if read one right after the other, as companion pieces, as they fractally curl back on themselves. Both also serve as an introduction to the concept of Tsukumogami, inanimate objects who after one hundred years receive a soul, and awaken.

The title of “Ink, Water, Milk” (2013) is already making a reference to what’s found beneath. The Ink sections are the story of Kyorinrin, a paper scroll who writes epics on himself every night, and washes himself clean every morning. His lover is Tsumi, and she is a Kanji in the shape of the word “wife”. She stamps herself on him every way she can, trying to blot out the story he’s trying to tell of a lonely white woman named Akemi. is Tsumi jealous? The Water sections follow Inari, a fox spirit; and Futsukeshibaba, a spirit who yearns to eat the lights of the world. They are watching the harbor, and Futsukeshibaba is already sore that her lover, a blue paper lantern, will leave her in sixty years for a paper scroll. Why would a paper scroll ever fall in love with a fiery lantern? Easy, explains Futsukeshibaba – because we always fall in love with that which can destroy us. The Milk sections are the story of Akemi, the lonely American woman who is lost in Japan. She uses the colors and types of vending machines as landmarks, she can not read the street signs, she does not know what to do with herself. How often can one stamp themselves with a word, and fail to become that word?

In the shorter-than-it-seems “Fifteen Panels Depicting The Sadness of the Baku” (2010), Akekabu is a dream eating spirit. In the bedroom of a lonely western woman, he gorges on her dreamstuff, and falls in love with the awakened folding screen, Rafu, who also lives there. Akakabu begs the leaping dragon covered Rafu to come away with him, but she refuses to leave the woman’s side, citing all the women over the years she has lived with. Rafu feels protective of these women, she’s seen their nakedness and their vulnerabilities. In a fit of jealousy, Akakabu overeats, and in his shame he vomits up the dreamstuff: a Navy not-man, who misses his wife but doesn’t understand what it means. Akekabu tries to educate the not-man dream-thing in the proper behavior of a dream eating spirit, but to no avail. The story has a very sad ending, and Akakabu was right: it’s all his fault.

“One Breath, One Stroke” (2012) is one of the most beautiful pieces of short fiction I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The House of Second Hand Carnelian rests half in the human world, and half in the spirit world. One the human side, the talented calligrapher, Ko, lives by himself, sometimes confused by his loneliness and his inability to leave the surroundings of the House. When Ko travels to the spirit side, he becomes Yuu, a beautiful cherry wood calligraphy brush, who hops around enjoying the company of Hone-Onna, the skeleton woman, Sazae-Onna, the snail woman, a jar of lightning, and a giant catfish. Yuu writes poetry on the bodies of the house’s visitors. Yuu doesn’t understand why he’s left behind during a spirit parade, he nearly kills himself (and Ko) trying to join in. He has no one left to write upon, so he writes upon the House itself, and it slowly turns black under his inky bristles. The imagery in this story is poetic but accessible, sharply defined yet dreamy. Ko/Yuu’s dual nature, Yuu’s not-quite-entry into the spirit world, writing poems and koans on bodies, each as unique as the body on and moment in which it is written. I absolutely loved this story. Perhaps next time, Yuu will truly be able to join the parade.

I always enjoy a good creation myth so “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Space/Time” (2010) was a joy to read. In this piece, Valente has taken various creation myths of Japan, Aztec, Judeo-Christian, Native American and others, and wrapped them a the science fictional cyberspace thinking mindset that’s wrapped around the birth and development of a science fiction writer. Creation of the universe, creation of a person. Of course it all goes together.

Much has already been written about Valente’s Hugo nominated novella, “Silently and Very Fast” (2011), so I will not dwell on the plot of the story. This is a novella I loved at first read, and I knew I’d be peeling back its layers, one by one, word by word, meaning by meaning on each re-read. Surrounded as it is in this volume, by mythologies and parables, I couldn’t help but focus on the storytelling aspect of Elefsis’s life as the AI who lives with a family through multiple generations. Elefsis learns by asking questions, and oftentimes her human “partner” will tell her a story. But not just any story. These are parables to help Elefsis understand who and what she is. Elefsis is Tammuz, who can be forced by Innana to do her bidding. Elefsis is the Machine Princess, who was imprisoned for her own safety and married off to a kind boy. Sometimes Elefsis has a happy ending, sometimes not. But this is the only language she understands, the only language she’s been taught: stories and body language, so this is what her family speaks to her. There is talk of escape, of Elefsis wanting to connect with other AI’s, and story parables of why she can’t. Something else that struck me, is how Elefsis views the different generations of the family. Dominant genes continue in each generation, the dark hair, the shape of the face, personality traits too. Every time Elefsis is implanted into a new family member, she received an update and an upgrade, but loses a part of herself in the process. A new body to partner with, a person who doesn’t share all the memories of the person who came before – isn’t that just another kind of interface update?

The stories and poems presented in The Melancholy of Mechagirl balance dreamlike interpretations of beings with dystopias, the care and feeding of artificial intelligences and far future galactic travels. Each piece touches on the inescapable cultural mythologies that leave their indelible marks on us, pushing gently but inevitably into our worldviews. This collection is a must-have for fans of Valente’s work, and readers who are new to her style and looking for a good starting point.

About Andrea Johnson (99 Articles)
Andrea Johnson also blogs over at where she reviews science fiction and fantasy novels and talks about other nerdy stuff. She's also an interviewer at Apex Magazine. Her apartment looks like a library exploded, and that is how it should be.
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