Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu, won the Hugo for best novel this year, so what better time to ask our esteemed panel the following question…
Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore (translated by Phillip Gabriel) is one of my favorite novels. It tells the story of a teenager who runs away from home and gets a job in a mysterious library, interspersed with the adventures of a man who can talk to cats. (The cat conversing ability comes about after the character recovers from a coma caused by a mysterious unexplained incident in the woods.) The novel won the World Fantasy Award and features Murakami’s usual stylish blend of literary characterization and a world that isn’t quite normal. Many of the novel’s mysteries aren’t explained (one of the top Google auto complete suggestions for Kafka on the Shore is “meaning”), but the writing and story are so engaging that the unresolved story threads weren’t an issue for me.
Murakami is generally one of the more accessible Japanese novelists for English-speaking readers because so many of his influences and cultural references (particularly music) are from English-speaking countries. One of the things I disliked about the translation is that it converts references to yen into dollars, which doesn’t read quite right for me when you have Japanese characters talking about how much things cost in Tokyo.
I’m also fond of All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka (translated by Alexander O. Smith), the science fiction novel where a soldier has to relive the same battle against alien invaders over and over again (described as Groundhog Day with power armor). It’s a fun and thought-provoking read. It was adapted into the film Edge of Tomorrow, which I also enjoyed, but it’s quite different from the book. Just as yen can become dollars, Japanese characters can turn into Tom Cruise.
Now why Kalpa Imperial instead of the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic or anything by Stanislaw Lem? Well, it probably has to do with the fact that it’s a book that’s consistently great throughout, a science fiction novel that reads like a history book and offers some new perspective every time I read it. It’s one of those books I can pick up at any moment and feel as if I was revisiting some old friend. Not only that, but it offers an Exercises in Style master class in genre writing. There are adventure stories that would impress Leiber or Wolfe, Calvinoesque noodling, coming-of-age stories (for the good and not-so-good), rags to riches orphan to monarch fantasy staple stories, and a story that comments on all the other stories and throws them on their ears.
And the sentiment’s all over the place: urbane but never cynical, profane but never crude, whimsical without being twee. If you don’t like where the story takes you, wait a bit and it or the next one will take you someplace else. You can approach it one story at a time or all in one go. Read the opening paragraph of “Down There in the South” and you’ll feel like you’ve experienced an entire world.
It also probably doesn’t hurt that Ursula K. LeGuin made the translation.
Originally titled Teemestarin kirja, it is a Finnish dystopian novel set in the far future in which global warming has made water scarce and Scandinavia is occupied by the state of New Qian. It is the story of 17-year-old Noria Kaitio, an apprentice tea master who will someday take the position of her father, the tea master of her local village.
In this world in which water is restricted and rationed, only tea masters know the locations of hidden water springs, a secret that Noria is bound to protect. Yet it is a secret that the army is determined to uncover.
A lot of writers would have used these elements to write a story filled with action sequences and daring escapes, but The Memory of Water unfolds in a very subtle and low-key manner. Noria tells us about the beginning and the ending of her time as apprentice and later on as tea master. It is the gaze of someone who has just crossed the threshold of adulthood. Gone is the naivety of youth, but one that is not yet jaded with cynicism or the wearing down of age. There is the danger of discovery and throughout the novel there are hints about a conspiracy, but it’s also a story about growing up in a rural village and kinship.
The Memory of Water is a peculiar kind of dystopia, one that is not afraid to show the cruelty and injustice of a future in which drought is used to control a population, but it also has a kind of lyrical restraint and slow tempo that makes certain passages almost read like poetry. It is not often that a novel managed to both make me sad and happy at the same time.
Itäranta has created a world of dust and ashes, but one that is still filled with hope and beauty.
I’ve reviewed a lot of speculative fiction in translation for SF Signal over the past year and it’s been incredibly rewarding. Reading the works of Japanese authors like Kazuki Sakuraba, Yuya Sato, and Taiyo Fujii; popular Polish writer Jacek Dukaj; Chinese sci-fi star Liu Cixin; and Argentina’s own Teresa P. Mira de Echeverría (to name a few) has introduced me to a much-expanded world of ideas and imagination. One of my favorite works of SFF in translation is Dendera by Yuya Sato — it’s about a group of old women who live on a mountain and who must figure out how to survive in the face of frequent bear attacks. Sato skillfully reels the reader in with a mix of sinuous prose and suspense, all the while making us care about the fate of these women who had been left on the mountain to die in a ritual but decided instead to live despite all odds. I plan to read anything by Sato that I can get my hands on.
Vita Nostra by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey, is not an odd little book. It’s an odd great book. It is, more or less, Russian YA — which means that in some ways (e.g., insight of teenagers about motives of other people) it treats Anglophone readers as if they were in junior high school, and in others (e.g. a little mistake can get everyone you love killed) it is depressingly adult. It is a near-literal translation — which means a dialog can combine phrases that would have been at home in Moby Dick with sentences that appear lifted from Winnie the Pooh. Its plot — young people with special talents selected for very special education — is only superficially similar to the Potterverse and the worlds of comic superheroes and supervillains.
And with all that, it’s impossible to put down. As I read it, somewhere in the background my inner translator kept chittering: “I know what it said in the original! This is not how I would have translated it!” — but the story is so compelling, worldbuilding so engrossing, that nothing could pull me out of the flow, and shutting off that annoying voice was easier for this book than for any other with the possible exception of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. Perhaps the only way to fail in the enjoyment of this book is to try to classify or pigeonhole it: almost-but-not-quite YA, a fair approximation of urban fantasy, elements of supernatural suspense — but through it all a wonderful book.
My favourite SF translated work is We, the novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin. I read it because I was interested in a minor 1960s controversy. The book is said to have inspired Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell argued that Huxley’s Brave New World was clearly derived from We and accused Huxley of lying when Huxley said he wrote Brave New World before he’d even heard of We.
It’s pretty clear that it helped to define the dystopian genre:
One State has conquered the entire world and is building a spaceship to conquer extraterrestrial planets. The setting is a city run by the Benefactor and surrounded by a giant wall to protect its citizens from primitive untamed nature. All the citizens are known only by their reference number. D-503 is our narrator, a spacecraft engineer who keeps a secret journal.
Doesn’t that sound amazing? Because I was reading it for historical reasons and had already read so many works inspired by it, I expected to find it slightly dull. To my surprise, it was amazing, with a fast plot and flashes of dark humour. Although it was written in 1917 in Russia, the culture and plot carries over perfectly to my modern-day Western sensibilities.
I was also a bit horrifed at how closely Nineteen Eighty-Four follows We. Orwell apparently read it in French and wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four over the next eight months. To his credit, Orwell stated that he was taking it as the model for his next novel. To be honest, I would use the phrase “borrowed the premise from” rather than “inspired by”.
As an interesting sidenote, the novel was banned in the Soviet Union in 1921 and it’s first publication in Russia wasn’t until 1988.
When I choose my next book to read, I’m sometimes looking for a new adventure in a familiar world, or a reliable work of light entertainment. Most often, though, I’m actually hoping that I’ll discover a book unlike anything I’ve ever read before. That’s what happened when I encountered The Carpet Makers (Die Haarteppichknüpfer) by Andreas Eschbach, translated from the German by Doryl Jensen and published by Tor in 2005.
The short version of this book’s astonishing premise is that the most highly regarded occupation a man can achieve on this particular planet is that of a carpert maker. Each of these men spends his entire adult life weaving a single carpet out of the hair strands provided by his wives and daughters. These carpets are collected by the traders guild and sent to glorify the palace of the far-distant, immortal Galactic Emperor, who is worshipped as a god.
But the story goes much deeper than that.
For me, one of the things that makes this story so unique is that it is structured like the nature of its subject matter: a tightly woven carpet. Each chapter reads almost as a standalone short story. Many different viewpoint characters are introduced, and some may die by the end of their chapters, but their particular roles in the greater story may yet be explored a hundred pages later. And what makes it so uniquely German is that the secret behind the hair carpets is bigger, deeper, more ironic, and more tragic than the reader can possibly anticipate. It’s both terrible and fascinating to contemplate.
I also have to admit that when I read this book, I was hoping it would be the work of German science fiction that I could idolize, because Germany is responsible for my love of SF in the first place. When I was sixteen, I spent my high school junior year as an exchange student in (then West) Germany. I wasn’t fluent enough in German to read beyond children’s books at first, so a kind teacher gave me a box of old SF paperbacks in English that someone had left in his attic, including a hefty dose of Clarke and Asimov. I read my way through that box, found an English-language bookstore with a good-sized SF selection, and became the SF reader I am today. When The Carpet Makers appeared in the U.S., then, I was thrilled to not only get to read a German SF novel in English, but to also have it be that elusive thing: a book unlike anything I’d ever read before.
I also own the Die Haarteppichknüpfer in German, by the way. I have to work hard at it, often comparing what I’m reading to the English translation, but it’s a far more fun way to practice my German than going through grammar exercises.
Dungeon by Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim and others
As I mentioned here recently, I grew up reading French comics in school, but I actually fell out of the habit of reading them — in the original or in translation — until a few years ago, when I discovered Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim’s Dungeon series. Unlike the comics I grew up on, which came from very strong European traditions of cartooning, Dungeon draws heavily on the American fantasy tradition — fantasy role-playing games, in particular, but not the slick, top-down settings that dominated the field from Dragonlance on: instead, Dungeon is probably the closest we’ll ever come to a narrative adaptation of the original Gygax-Arneson megadungeons.
Dungeon is actually three series of comics, running more or less simultaneously but each one covering a different part of the timeline. The middle series, which starts with number 1 and is subtitled Zenith, is set in the eponymous dungeon, a rambling castle with endless underground passages full of monsters and treasure. The twist is that the monsters are actually on payroll, and the dungeon has been stocked by the Keeper, a literal dungeon-master who runs the whole enterprise for profit, making enough from selling the belongings of dead adventurers to offset the occasional loss of treasure. This part of the story focuses more on Herbert, a duck (all of the characters are either monsters or anthropomorphic animals) who is sent to apprentice with the Keeper, and Marvin, a humanoid dragon who is a vegetarian, a conditional pacifist (he can’t fight anyone who makes him angry) and the Keeper’s right-hand man. The two parallel series are The Early Years, which tell the story of the Keeper’s path from an idealistic crime-fighter to the amoral capitalist seen in Zenith, and Twilight, which casts Herbert and Marvin’s buddy comedy adventures in Zenith in sharp relief by showing the final outcome of what seem like jokes in the first adventures — a blind and disillusioned Marvin, a possessed Herbert who’s turned into an honest-to-gosh Dark Lord, and a world that’s literally been torn apart.
What I love most about these books is the way they manage to achieve completely opposite goals. As noted above, a lot of Dungeon is based on the shared cultural stock of late-’70s, early ’80s fantasy — ecologically improbable dungeons, magic swords, dark lords and dragons — but it’s highly idiosyncratic at the same time, with bits of funny cultural cross-pollination (one of my favourite throwaway characters is a mix of Conan and Babar the elephant named Barbar the Cimmerian) and utterly unique inventions like the Keeper’s magic pipe, which is the one God smoked while creating the world. Similarly, the series manages to be both epic and intimate at the same time, telling a self-consciously epic story (in a cute touch, the original French comics are numbered starting at -100 with the first volume of The Early Years, 1 with the first volume of Zenith and 100 with the first volume of Twilight) but generally keeping its focus on how the characters grow and change, from the Keeper’s increasing cynicism to Herbert’s growing confidence as an adventurer, and every panel is also full of little jokes and details that would make Sergio Aragones proud. Both of these elements make the Dungeon series somewhat reminiscent of Pratchett, though Dungeon is significantly darker and more entropic that the generally static Discworld.
It’s not clear exactly how many volumes of Dungeon will actually get made — Trondheim has, at various times, both said that the numbering system is a joke and that he intends to fill in all the gaps — and the parts are not all equally good: to my eye The Early Years is the most emotionally involving and Zenith is the funniest (most of the spin-off volumes are set during that period). Twilight, while reasonably entertaining on its own, is of interest mostly because of the way it recasts the characters from Zenith, and it’s probably no coincidence that its story is the first one to have finished, after four volumes.
The Dungeon series is published by Delcourt in French and NBM in English. I’ve read the series in both and it loses little in translation, but if you read the NBM editions and want more Dungeon — and you probably will — you’ll need to track down the volumes that haven’t been translated yet.