Books: Terminal Boredom

April 21, 2021 · 0 comments

By Jonathan Clements.

“There is something wrong with our present society,” Izumi Suzuki once wrote, “and I can’t stand SF written by people who don’t understand that… Even when you’re talking about some future society, if you write with full faith in our present world, then nothing changes, you just end up with the same ideas we already have.’

At the time of her death, aged 36, in 1986, Suzuki was still an outsider in the Japanese science fiction scene – patronised and belittled as a mere tourist in a man’s world. Her warnings about the complacency of modern science fiction were ignored by Japan’s mainstream authors for much of the 1970s, only finding a welcome among the handful of writers who embraced the New Wave. The publication by Verso of Terminal Boredom, a collection of some of her punchy, prescient short stories is hence a welcome and long-overdue initiation for English readers. Nobly, the Verso collection does not make any attempt to capitalise on Suzuki’s colourful and tragic life, instead allowing the stories to stand for themselves, without commentary.

“Women and Women” (translated by Daniel Joseph) imagines the conversations and interests of women in a world where, for unspecified reasons, the male population has dwindled to almost nothing. The narrator believes (or rather, has been led to believe) that men were an unwelcome anomaly in human evolution – a brief and unwelcome mutation that turned up, invented war, capitalism and aggro, and then faded away again, leaving women scrabbling to subsist in the ruins of a polluted, post-apocalyptic world. Suzuki’s heroine, however, is an ironically transgressive character: a woman in a society of enforced lesbianism, harbouring a forbidden attraction to the opposite sex. Despite Sappho on the curriculum and the government censorship of corrupting, unreconstructed movies like American Graffiti, she fancies boys.

“Women and Women” is a meditation on gender roles rooted in the feminist experiments of the 1970s, positing a world after an unspecified radical-feminist revolution, in which male children are rounded up and sequestered in concentration camps, raised as little more than nameless sperm donors. But Suzuki’s touchstones for a world of women are also charmingly rooted in glimpses that her own era might offer of this utopia – there are echoes here of fangirling over Takarazuka Revue starlets, and of unicorn-like unthreatening boys common to shojo manga. A generation after Suzuki’s death, her leading story can be read as a meditation on patriarchal values, an inversion of the systemic discriminations of her own time, or a satire on the cluelessly woke.

Translator Daniel Joseph has written a perceptive article about Suzuki in which he identified her fascination with “how the fundamental struggles of everyday life persist regardless of what new technologies infiltrate our lives” and that her stories “represent a kind of SF version of kitchen-sink realism, told from the perspective of the one stuck doing the dishes.” Joseph also translates the collection’s title story, “Terminal Boredom”, in which advances in neuroscience, far from bettering the world, simply serve as a new means of doping and distracting an underclass of jobless teens. In the Star-Trekky future of “Forgotten” (translated by Polly Barton) parents are still disapproving of their daughter’s choice of man, teenagers still flirt with drugs and counter-culture, and mental illness is still a problem. As one character sourly notes, even as Earth becomes a one-nation melting-pot, individual nations are exporting their imperialist ideas into space.

Suzuki excels at unreliable narration. In the Bradbury-esque “Night Picnic” (translated by Sam Bett), four creatures that identify as human beings pore over a library of forgotten books, comically and ham-fistedly trying to reconstruct what it means to be an Earthling. In “That Old Seaside Club” (translated by Helen O’Horan), a possibly drug-addled glimpse of seafront nightlife turns out to be the hallucinatory refuge of a doleful housewife, reliving a replay of her twenties heyday. In much the same fashion, in “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (translated by Aiko Masubuchi), a woman’s recounting of her night-club experiences carries a niggling, growing sense that time is not working in the way it should, and that her perception of the passing of the minutes and the passing of the years might be confused.

“You May Dream” (translated by David Boyd) is similarly cynical about the stories that states narrate to their citizens, a riff redolent of Logan’s Run in which two friends debate how to respond to call-up papers for a population-controlling space colony that may, or may not, be a scam to cull undesirables. But the story is more concerned with one of the spin-offs – the fact that draftees are allowed to inhabit the dreams of someone they leave behind, condemning our heroine to a regrettable sojourn inside the subconscious yearnings and unwelcome obsessions of someone she turned out not to know so well after all.

That’s the exact opposite of the Terminal Boredom collection itself – a welcome glimpse inside the mind of a writer whose talent has been overlooked for far too long.

Jonathan Clements is a Contributing Editor at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Terminal Boredom, by Izumi Suzuki, is published by Verso.

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