There always seemed a massive gap between the things science fiction and fantasy promised they could do, and the things they actually did for the most part. I was weaned on some of SF's most maverick and outré minds — Philip K. Dick, Stanisław Lem, "James Tiptree Jr." (Alice Sheldon), Doris Lessing, Theodore Sturgeon, Ursula K. LeGuin, Samuel R. Delaney — and if they set such a high bar, it was only because all of us would be better off for it. When I found out too much of the rest of SF didn't come anywhere near that level, I lost interest in the genre for a long time. Call it a prejudice on my part, but there it was.
If Izumi Suzuki's work had been published in English in my youth, I would have added her name to that short list. Terminal Boredom is the first volume of her work to appear in English, and I can only hope it isn't the last, because Suzuki's legacy as a person and a writer is too fascinating to be lost in the language gap. Her work will have little to offer for those who are interested in SF from what I guess could be called the "mechanical" perspective, where the author comes up with some gizmo or discovery, and either tries to spin a plot around it or investigate its social impact. Suzuki was more interested in the personal side.
Speaking for the voiceless through science fiction
Suzuki was a fixture in Japan's counterculture scene during the 1960s and 1970s. She left a straight job to further her career as a model, actor, and writer, and her first SF stories appeared in 1972, although even in that outsider's rubric she would continue to remain an outsider merely by dint of being female (something doubly true in Japan as it was most anywhere else). But she stuck it out, and made fruitful connections: Photographer Nobuyoshi Araki worked with her, as did Art Theatre Guild director Shūji Terayama (who helped stage some of her plays) and "pinku eiga" maverick Kōji Wakamatsu. She married and bore a daughter with underground jazz legend Kaoru Abe, and their marriage ended after four broiling years (later dramatized by Wakamatsu in his 1995 film Endless Waltz), with Abe dying of a drug overdose a year later. Suzuki went on to write SF for another decade, but in 1986, at the age of 36, struggling against frail health and poverty to raise her daughter single-handedly, she ended her life by hanging herself.
Every author's fiction reflects, if only at a great distance, who they were and how they saw things. Suzuki was a woman in a society that had little room for women with maverick ambitions. Where they found a way in at all, it was through the grace of some male gatekeeper — Araki using her as a model, Terayama staging her plays — but almost never on their own terms. Suzuki's worldview in her fiction embodies itself through the perspectives of people stuck in the worlds where science-fictional things happen, the ones who run the risk of having no voice about the goings-on at all, maybe not even an inner voice.
Consider the opening story in the collection, "Women And Women". Its setting is ostensibly science-fictional, a world where men exhausted their lease on existence and now live as an endangered (and dangerous) species under the cloistering of women. Few women ever see a man; they're used mostly for the one thing they provide, the ability to propagate the species. The young narrator has been brought up with a line of revisionist propaganda of how all this came about, and believes it with all the accepted indifference that the rest of us believe about history. Then one day she actually meets a young man — passing through her neighborhood in disguise — and she realizes her understanding, and everyone else's, was just a construction, that once knocked over cannot be re-righted.
As SF, this is scarcely the most original thing. But as SF-as-allegory, it's jolting: the way it reveals itself as allegory, and what kind, drops incrementally. For all those who come of age in our world, especially women, the opposite sex might as well be an alien race, and the firsthand discovery of what lies behind that is as shattering as the moment in any dystopian novel when the protagonist realizes their entire society is built on a monstrous deception. The ending I find especially telling: the female protagonist, now reeling from the realization, prepares to note the truth of things in her diary, but refrains. This world doesn't even give her the power of inner resistance, let alone anything outwards.
"Night Picnic" shows another way Suzuki used SF, as commentary on our notions of what it means to be human. Those who might compare Suzuki to Phil K. Dick can use this story as a fine example, for it correlates with Dick's work in two ways — it asks what our definitions of things like "human" really mean, and it uses jet-black humor and irony, not ponderous philosophizing, to make its points. A family of humans has established a kind of mini-colony for itself on a planet far from Earth, self-consciously trying to keep alive human traditions like going on picnics and savoring classic movies. The father's enthusiasm for the project outstrips everyone else's, and at first we attribute this fervor to something else: maybe the rest of the family wants to just adapt itself to a lifestyle more honestly suited to the stars. Then we find the family's not human at all, but a race of shape-shifters that stumbled across the remnants of a human colony and cosplayed as us for so long they lost any sense of identity except the need to cling to the one they borrowed. Once stripped of it, they lose purpose. We are asked to consider how much different this is from the beings they imitated, and whether or not they acquired this very limitation from us to begin with.
"Forgotten" plays like a multi-way mix: a failed relationship story, a smoldering tale of political intrigue like a John le Carré short about the miserable lives of diplomats, and a science fiction overlay that turns out to have more relevance that we might think. Human Emma dates an alien, Sol, whose civilization is considered an underdeveloped backwater and whose species differs chiefly from humans in that they have a stronger emotional cultural memory, and can't forget large-scale pain like the agony of war. Emma's need to smother her pains under a haze of drugs and forgetfulness are echoes of the larger weaknesses of her species. That makes her the ideal victim for a political power play.
Never slumming, but a native
Among the many reviews of Cormac McCarthy's The Road on Goodreads, there is one that singles it out as a classic example of an A-list literary author going slumming. In this case, the genre is postapocalyptic SF, the label that covers everything from World War Z to Phil K. Dick's Dr. Bloodmoney and chestnuts like Earth Abides. The problem is not that someone of McCarthy's caliber, reputation, and aura wants to write such a work, but that they do so out of questionable motives — not to marry the underlying idea with artistry and insight, but to muscle into the territory and show people how it's really done. It's insulting to both genre and literary fiction lovers alike (as if there was in fact any real dichotomy there), because it assumes the former are where the buck always stops and the latter are nothing but groundlings who need to be shown the light.
I don't think the issue is not that much SF isn't what I hoped it could be (as I mentioned in above), because ninety percent of everything is mediocre-to-terrible. Rather, it's that many of the people who try to suggest improvements do so from the outside looking in. Not as people who genuinely love SF and want to do something constructive with it, but as people who see literary space to be entered and claimed as their own, whether or not they have any right to it.
Early on in Terminal Boredom I wondered if I would be dealing with such a case. Suzuki was manifestly uninterested in the technical details of her mini-worlds, and in my experience that's been one symptom of a writer who cared little about SF inwardly. But as I read on, I realized that was only because most of the people she was talking about in her stories were like that. They are like us in that they know and care little of, say, how Facebook works, only that for them it's become a default mode of communication and discourse, and that they have some vague unease about how much of their lives it's eaten. But of the exact details of the technosocial scam it embodies, and how to escape from it, they know little or nothing. Suzuki makes the most of this kind of feeling: that of being flattened on the underside of society, of history, of the worldview that shapes those things.
The only other author I've read from Japan so far that reminds me even distantly of Suzuki is Yasutaka Tsutsui, the prolific satirist who also used SF and fantasy as a medium for socially conscious and ambitious ideas. I first encountered him in English through his short story "Standing Woman" in OMNI in the early '80s (I couldn't have been more than eight or nine at the time!), about people condemned to be transformed gradually into trees for increasingly minor social infractions. Far more of his work (including Paprika, the inspiration for the Satoshi Kon film) is available in English than in Suzuki's, but I have to wonder how much more favorably she would compare against him — and the rest of his peers — with more of hers available to read.
One of the revolutions of SF was how it grew to include stories about people who were victims of the technological imperative rather than heroes of the scientific worldview. Much of SF is cautionary, but in the "as long as we don't make this technical mistake, we'll be fine" mode. This new cautionary mode saw the fault not in our stars, but with us — with human nature being foolish enough to assume a technical solution lay in any given social or even technical problem. Suzuki's work is in that personal cautionary tradition, in big part because of her emphasis on the people who end up at the bottom of the heap. There but for the grace of god go the rest of us — and maybe those are us, if we have the nerve to see how much we share with them. We rarely do.