United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas
|Book Name:||United States of Japan|
|Publisher(s):||Angry Robot Books|
|Genre(s):||Science-Fiction / Alternative History|
Almost as soon as World War II had finished, the Japanese Government issued numerous apologies for the crimes the country had committed during their 14 years of conflicts (they began warring with China in 1931). These apologies primarily related to the treatment and death rates of prisoners of war and civilians under Japanese occupation. Still, many don’t feel that the extent of what Japan did or could have done, should they not have been defeated, has ever been fully acknowledged by the country’s officials. Millions died, millions were oppressed, human experimentation at Unit 731 could be straight out of a horror movie, and the testimony from Japanese soldiers about the mindset being bred into Japanese going to war makes for difficult reading (the following comes from a soldier who served in China):
“The major means of getting intelligence was to extract information by interrogating prisoners. Torture was an unavoidable necessity. Murdering and burying them follows naturally. You do it so you won’t be found out … We carried out our duty as instructed by our masters … We did it for the sake of our country … On the battlefield, we never really considered the Chinese humans. When you’re winning, the losers look really miserable. We concluded that the Yamato race [i.e., Japanese] was superior.”
So what would have happened if the United States had fallen to Japan during World War II? First, we should remember that it’s a long shot. Most historians agree that the Japanese army lacked the resources to ever go head-to-head with the United States and win. However, should you raise the question, the general consensus is that Japan would have had to hold off provoking the US long enough to gain enough control of numerous continents or have some kind of technological breakthrough.
In Peter Tieryas’s United States of Japan, the author stops Pearl Harbour from ever happening. This means that the US don’t have reason to launch retaliatory attacks on Japan and remain absent from the War whilst the Japanese make progress on other continents. Over the years, Japan gets more and more powerful (and unethical). Their experiments in mechanical technology sees them create the atomic bomb and powerful mechas. In addition, their bio-organic and genetic experimentation has continued and led to all kinds of biotech such as prosthetic Gunarms that replace limbs, viral weapons, and much more besides.
By the time Japan deal America a blow that warrants a reaction, the Japanese are strong enough that after some time at war, America is forced to surrender. The Japanese conquer America and quickly label it the United States of Japan.
Before we continue, it should be said that Peter Tieryas’s novel presumes that should Japan have won the war, they’d have continued down a despicable path, drunk on power and intent at ensuring that every citizen they allow to live within their empire not only follows their command, but believes in and fights for their cause. This is certainly an extreme, but believable scenario. Young Japanese were being taught that their Emperor was a living deity (a descendant of the Sun Goddess) and that the war was an act that would purify them as individuals, their country and the whole world. This, combined with their Samurai heritage, meant that orders went unquestioned (as did their resulting actions) and is one of the reasons so many were willing to die for the cause. Please do note, however, that when the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, the majority counted the end of hostilities as blessed relief. Peter’s version of events looks primarily at the generation who would have grown up within the USJ.
Our protagonist navigating the United States of Japan in the late 1980s is Beniko Ishimura, a video game censor, who reviews choices that those playing games make for possible disenchantment of the empire. This is an important role, because in addition to the weaponised technology discussed earlier, standardised technology has developed much faster than in our own timeline too – mobile smart phones (called porticals) are in use by 1988 and play a big part in the story. Although technically our ‘hero’, Beniko is seen as lazy and far too interested in women, drinking and partying by his superiors. However, because he turned his own parents in to the empire for making disapproving comments about the Emperor’s regime, he has long been seen a most loyal recruit.
Beniko’s point of view will feel familiar to readers who have read George Orwell’s 1984. Beniko’s chapters are expertly crafted to leave the reader with a palpable feeling of anxiety and claustrophobia. Regularly, we see our protagonist double checking his words and expressions, fearful of doing something that could potentially be considered traitorous to the empire or even just taken as an example of not being in fully supportive of the cause. Ben’s position means that he is very aware of how even arbitrary actions can lead to imprisonment, torture or death.
Ben’s life changes dramatically with the arrival of an agent of the secret police named Akiko Tsukino. In contrast to Beniko, Akiko’s early chapters feel full of freedom, assurance and intensity. Aikido’s loyalty is unquestionable, both in her own mind and in the minds of her superiors in the empire too. This means that she has complete belief that each and every action she performs is in the Empire’s best interest and she can do pretty much anything within the USJ as a result. Readers will admire this strong character; although some of her deeds are distasteful in a modern sense, in the world of USJ she is capable, fierce and courageous. Nothing stands in her way. This becomes a trend for Peter within USJ, who seems incapable of creating the flat, stereotypical women that fantasy and science fiction has often embarrassed itself with (especially when going back a few years!).
Although Ben and Akiko don’t see eye-to-eye, the two are forced to work together when an illegal video game begins doing the rounds. This game depicts a world where the United States of America won World War II by defeating the Japanese. The game suggests that the result of this would have been a world full of freedom, promise and hope. As the pair attempt to track down those responsible for the game, their contrasting views of USJ life, opposing personalities and approaches to work makes for some interesting clashes. The matter in which they are investigating – treachery against the empire – is also difficult for both to approach and forces them to ask questions about the way of the world and their place within it by the time the novel concludes.
United States of Japan will please readers who miss the days where Science Fiction introduced the reader to an idea and just ran with it. Rather than the modern requirement for a book to contain one clever twist or another, United States of Japan is more reliant on showing you lots of cool things as the mystery unfolds before a big finale. Additionally, although, as I’ve discussed, I feel that United States of Japan presents a plausible world, Peter doesn’t take the approach of explaining every nuance in a textbook style. This allows Peter to keep the pace breakneck and fill each page with dialogue and character development. By the end of the novel, readers will be amazed at just how much they know about the book’s characters, and how much they’ve all changed. This approach also frees Peter up to introduce outlandish and high-reaching ideas, which creates a world that is not only dark and disturbing, but interesting, unique and intriguing too.
Despite the pointed prose and simple structure, United States of Japan is the kind of book where you get out as much as you put in. If you are in it for the gross torture scenes, mecha, and strange weaponry then you are more than covered, don’t worry. However, if you are willing to take your time to reflect on the disturbing vision of a world that is the result of certain ideologies setting the human race on a different path just a generation or two ago, then you will find a lot of food for thought. I will add that even if you do approach USJ simply for the ‘cool’ and ‘disgusting’ stuff, Peter Tieryas does break from the action at multiple points during the novel (the beginning and end chapters are two easy examples) to really showcase his ability to evoke emotion in the reader and leave them deeply unsettled or even close to tears.
In summary: United States of Japan sees an author capable of beautiful, evocative prose writing a fast-paced Science Fiction novel of old. This results in a journey through an alternative version of our world that is as fascinating as it is disturbing and as full of emotion as it is full of adrenalin. This novel will stay with readers far beyond the final pages, forcing them to reassess the potential impact of who wins the world’s wars.