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[GUEST REVIEW] Narelle Ho Sang Reviews UNITED STATES OF JAPAN by Peter Tieryas Liu

REVIEW SUMMARY: Peter Tieryas’ United States of Japan is a smart, gut-wrenching alternative reality that blurs lines between hope, what’s right and wrong in war and under the guise of loyalty, with a focus on emotional truths of human nature.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In an alternate history in which the United States loses World War II to Japan, the novel explores the twists and turns of figuring out who is responsible for the creation of a mysterious game that simulates America winning the war, and why.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Acute observations in great dialogue and characters who are emotionally charged, and tied brilliantly and respectfully to discussions about war; it asks expected questions of its characters and readers but these are delivered in an engaging manner; United States of Japan is set in a world that’s beautifully descriptive, oftentimes shocking and mixed in with outrageous sci-fi environments.
CONS: There are small moments where transitions in environment scenes and character developments may present themselves as sudden shifts, and feel slightly jarring.

Complicated questions and emotions arose as I read United States of Japan, as varying viewpoints and motivations of its central characters were muddied and explored. Billed as a “spiritual sequel” to Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, Peter Tieryas’ vision of an alternative history in which the United States loses World War II and falls under Japan’s rule, is a thoughtfully designed narrative that’s densely layered with no easy answers. It’s one with many elements I’ve spent time wrapping my head around, and it’s what makes it so engaging.

At its core, United States of Japan is constructed as a narrative which incorporates historical atrocities of war and does not sugar-coat its harsh realities. Then, it also asks a set of questions: What if the United States lost the war and came under Japanese rule? What if freedom of the American dream was taken? Would the American spirit die? The simple answer to the last would be “no”. However, what follows is anything but a straightforward story of struggles of one resistance group trying to reclaim their freedom.

Instead, there’s a focus on the struggles within the United States of Japan from the perspectives of two of its own military personnel: Captain Beniko Ishimura and Agent Akiko Tsukino. They have their own sought-after freedoms from internalized guilt, and must come to terms with their roles under the service of the Japanese Empire. The book re-imagines the United States shaped by Japanese and Asian cultural influences. And at the same time, there’s a self-contained tale to unravel with twists of betrayal, honor and vengeance — grounded in a sci-fi setting where advancements in technology both aid and enslave. It’s where many diseases are eradicated, with others created for use in torture, or persuasion. And it’s where mechas are looming military threats, integrated seamlessly into an alive, often shocking, futuristic technological wonder of a world.

The sci-fi aesthetics of United States of Japan create a pulsing vision of California that’s richly depressing, gritty, grotesque, and beautiful in all the intricate care and detail used to describe it. Food is discussed lovingly. Darker aspects of miserable, deplorable human nature and desires are described as engrossingly disturbing when necessary, or painted with strange, imaginative strokes that are a strength to a fully-fleshed out characteristic world, highlighting the habits and interests of its citizens. There’s incredible depth crafted, thanks in part to the visually distinct world of sci-fi fantasy which is balanced by spectacular action scenes with flowing, fast-paced, honest conversations of its characters.

The world sometimes feels small — in a good way — which is a testament to the attention the descriptive language pays on the micro level…to building neighborhoods or casinos, scenery, events and human interactions with their surroundings and each other. But at times, it feels as though, when the camera pans out, that it’s easy to forget how massive a world it really is, in which gigantic mecha also fit into its universe.

Having watched my fair share of anime, there were moments when United States of Japan‘s mecha fights bordered on the insane for being tributes to the genre. They’re visual spectacles carefully and expertly envisioned, but thankfully never the focal point to derail United States of Japan‘s heavy importance to its narrative. The same could be said of the game USA, which is a contraband game spread throughout the Empire, that simulates the United States’ victory.

Tieryas spends some time developing the game, and excitement surrounding it in a particular scene that bears a resemblance to our own current real-world competitive gaming circuit. There’s also time spent demonstrating our fascination with and interconnectivity to a constant stream of information through the internet and our phones (which in USJ presents as ‘porticals’ — all-encompassing high tech advanced communication and gaming devices).

Perhaps more importantly, the game acts as a symbol of hope for the American Rebels known as The George Washingtons. But it is also a major plot point to the overall narrative uncovering the truth behind who made it, and why. While the “who” is hinted at relatively early on, discovering the “why” and exact reasons for involvement sets up a reveal that at face value is surprising enough. However, it gives the game USA an importance that is multi-faceted in what it represents for all characters’ interactions with it — whether as a piece of entertainment, as symbols of hope and rebellion, or as tickets to personal freedoms and justifications of actions.

There’s so much to process in the enthralling story weaved through its two main characters as they serve their own needs and upholding the absolute authority of the Emperor of Japan — in seemingly different ways. The cold, collected approach of the Tokko’s (secret police) Akiko is sharply differentiated to that of the flippant attitude of military Game Censor Beniko and it’s striking — at first. But that would be an oversimplification and disservice to the characters, and is a stagnant first impression that’s quickly dissolved, as their complexities are revealed.

Portrayed as a ruthless ideal of the law, Akiko is strong-willed and, initially, difficult to understand. By extension, Akiko encompasses a view of the rigidity and often frightening reality of United States of Japan‘s world under Japanese rule. She’s often matter-of-fact, as are the rules under this regime but it’s a surface view to the hidden underbelly of the world’s seedier and colorfully corrupt attractiveness as represented through Beniko’s associations, knowledge and outwardly ‘distracted’ cowardice, and selfish pleasure seeking persona.

Beniko’s and Akiko’s development and growth are parceled through a narrative progression standpoint. But their truths and natures are cleverly buried in tragic histories, as both hold on to past secrets, convictions and wavering faiths which shape their humanistic qualities. This allows them to move beyond mere vessels for black and white character viewpoints, and into unexpected, likable and unlikely protagonists.

There are conversations and scenes between Beniko and Akiko about their government which may be perceived as confusing for Akiko’s character as they appear to complicate what is known about her loyalty to the Empire, and undermines her character due to sudden shifts in tone. But these conversations, particularly in the latter part of the narrative, do well to showcase the characters’ personalities and ideals, which are stripped away to reveal their reasons behind their actions which are not so clear cut or one dimensional. It’s a great way in which United States of Japan‘s narrative is emotionally conflicted, deceptive, evolving, pointed and anything but dry. Discourse on religious philosophies, critiques on governance, and use of violence to excuse right from wrong are expected questions, but are answered with snark, rapid-fire wit and questioning intent and truth from all characters. Some responses and actions are no more justifiable in the atrocities characters are willing to commit than that of their enemies’ behavior.

United States of Japan is a tough narrative for me to explain. It’s a poignant reflection which begins with an uncertain future wrapped up with a bleak hope but a hope nonetheless. It creates scenarios that are entrenched in emotion for its characters, which then translate as gutting doses of reality that I’ve been mulling over. What’s been most surprising for me is that I didn’t realize just how invested and entangled I became in their lives, until the final closing moments which enforced its opening sentiments.

Narelle Ho Sang has been published on Kotaku, Tor and is a regular contributor to Nintendo Life and Talk Amongst Yourselves. Her 140 characters or less adventures may be followed on twitter @Zarnyx

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