- Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime
Fascination with popular forms of Japanese culture on the one hand and the listing of “standardization and exporting” of “cool Japan content” by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry as a national strategic project on the other places area studies in the tricky position of answering a demand for information without lapsing into fanboy-like enthusiasms or uncritical alignment with the soft-power strategies of the state.1 The edited volume [End Page 237] Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams walks that line rather well and, though uneven in conception and execution, is a good starting point for further research into the relation of science fiction, technology, and media.
The book is divided into two parts with five essays on prose science fiction and six on anime forms. The introduction contains useful references to the main issues in the Japanese-language secondary literature on science fiction since the 1960s, including the important debate about Robert Heinlein’s seminal Starship Troopers (1959), the precursor to the mecha genre. A further strength is the inclusion of three translated essays by Japanese writers and engagement with Japanese-language criticism. The footnotes are an absolute treasure and provide a solid reading program for graduate seminars or scholars who would like to explore the field. Competing volumes on Japanese culture by faculty in North American university departments of English often make little or no reference to untranslated sources. The lack of a bibliography in the present volume is a puzzling lapse, making it necessary to scan footnotes to locate information.
The argument for the coherence of the essays is that Japanese science fiction, faced with the dominance of North American prose science fiction in the postwar period, asserted its global existence in newer media. This is not quite persuasive: the division of the book between prose and anime still seems to posit prose as a Q-source (i.e., the “origins” of the subtitle), while the concentration on anime and the omission of radio, manga, plastic models, and video games weaken this as a thesis on media. There is little discussion of genre theory or the theory of science fiction and, with the exception of Azuma Hiroki, the authors make little effort to provide explicit, working definitions of science fiction nor a means of distinguishing science fiction from other types of fiction or from science. References in the editors’ introduction to hybridity, transgression, and the “impossibility of the effort to map origins or boundaries” (p. xi) are by now rote and result in a volume that does not define its object and collects its examples by a naive empiricism. The result is that the two halves do not wholly cohere into a thesis about the study of science fiction.
An underlying psychoanalytic premise in numerous essays is that the transformations and monstrous forms that emerge in the alternate worlds of science fiction are really about what terrifies and arouses us in the present, but this does not distinguish science fiction from other types of fiction, or from art in general. From the gathered instances, science fiction seems to be about the consequences of technology as a means of making direct, practical interventions in the material world (often the body) and is set in the near future. A modernist version of Marshall McLuhan’s thesis that “the medium is the message,” where the medium is the object, or that the contents of old media are the new media, runs through multiple essays. However, the un-spoken [End Page 238] theoretical basis is this psychoanalytic version of the unconscious, rather than information or media theory.
The essays here were previously published, with six chapters coming from a 2001 special issue of a journal that was based on an earlier symposium. The afterword is also reprinted, though presumably the intervening years have occasioned further thought. This familiar model of academic productivity introduces slight...