A question that came up during this year’s Best Translated Book Award was how much attention should be given to supplementary material? Or, put another way, how important is the context in determining how you feel about a book? An author’s or translator’s note, a forward or afterward by a famous fan, a podcast analyzing the text chapter by chapter or an interview with the author — all of these things can drastically change your relationship to a piece of writing.
But there are also times when extra information, additional insight into the text, can enhance your reading. You can’t always depend on being able to navigate a novel intuitively. This is often a challenge when reading translations, where we’re navigating cultural, historical and linguistic differences in addition to the complexities of plot and structure. Hybrid Child, by Mariko Ōhara, is a futuristic novel that spans centuries. Crowded with multiple narratives, any one of which could be detached and developed into a standalone book, understanding it as a work of “widescreen baroque” is essential to appreciate the intricacies of Ōhara’s writing.
The term “widescreen baroque” was coined by the writer Brian Aldiss to describe a sci-fi subgenre characterized by elaborate, over-the-top plots, a preoccupation with metaphysical ideas, and a taste for the dramatic. Books that fall into this category “…obey a dictionary definition of baroque; which is to say that they have a bold and exuberant rather than a fine style, they are eccentric, and sometimes degenerate into extravagance. They like a wide screen, with space and possibly time travel as props, and at least the whole solar system as their setting.” Every page turn should introduce a new spectacle. The plots should jump from one incredible premise to another. If you don’t feel a little bit off-balance, then the author is doing something wrong.
Hybrid Child is divided into three sections, each one set in a completely different time and terrain. The sections are connected by a small group of reoccurring characters, chief among these is a cyborg, B #3. But Ōhara uses a cacophony of perspectives and voices to tell her stories. Hybrid Child is a chaotic and noisy text. Her secondary characters are often the more compelling: a young man who is kept alive in a mobile egg he likens to a coffin and a housekeeping robot whose emotions push against the borders of her programming are two of my favorites.
Suddenly, the tin robot felt sad and hopeless. At least if she were human, she could have a short nap, or a deep sleep, or get tipsy on booze — there would be all kinds of options.
Deep in reverie, the tin robot thought about the girl who had flown away and left her.
“What is it? Looks like you want to say something. Come on, say it. It’s almost time for you to make dinner.”
The tin robot looked at the old master with her two widely spaced eyes.
As for the plot: the first section is a horror story which descends into a standoff with the military. We are introduced to an unnamed, middle-aged woman, living in isolation. Everything about her home, from the house to the landscape around her (snowcovered), is relentlessly and antiseptically white. B #3 has escaped from the government facility where he was created and is being tracked by soldiers. As he approaches the house he shifts into the form of a Dadazim, a doglike creature genetically engineered to be the perfect house pet. The woman welcomes and feeds him. B #3 begins communicating with the home’s only other occupant, the house’s A.I., which manifests as a holograph of the woman’s dead daughter. It’s not exactly an Ex Machina situation but conveys the same sinister feel.
B #3, we soon learn, is capable of taking on the form of any biological creature by sampling its cells. He can even combine samples of different organisms, creating entirely new species. By the end of the first section, B #3 will take the form of his host’s dead daughter, Jonah. As Jonah, he escapes and finds temporary sanctuary and happiness in Section Two: Farewell. In Section Three: Aquaplanet (which makes up the bulk of the novel) she will make a journey through space and time to a new planet whose inhabitants live with uncertainty. The A.I., Milagros, who controls the planet’s systems is teetering on the edge of madness.
According to the translator, Jodie Beck, whose clear prose styling deserves credit for holding the book together, “the three stories that compose Hybrid Child were originally serialized in SF Magazine in Japan between 1984 and 1990, and all three were compiled together and published as a single book by Hayakawa Publishers in 1990.” That, and the knowledge that the author intended this as an example of “widescreen baroque”, goes a long way toward explaining the disconnected nature of the three parts. Though Ōhara threads elements and characters through the different plots in an attempt to unify them, the changes in the setting are abrupt. Time jumps add to the discord.
Perhaps Ohara’s greatest strength is the vividness of the characters she creates. One of these is the Military Priest, for whom time is not a linear construct. He slips through the time stream, manipulating it to bear witness to key events and to pursue B #3/Jonah. The fact that he exists untethered to a specific time or place eventually drives him insane. But not before he hatches a plan to put an end to B #3/Jonah. He is an irredeemably evil character, endowed with godlike powers.
Like Yoshio Aramaki, whose novel The Sacred Era* is also part of the University of Minnesota Press’ Parallel Future series, Ōhara’s book is burdened by Judeo-Christian metaphors. Mother-figures weighed down by Freudian symbolism appear in every section. There are awkward (and disturbing) sex scenes. There’s a lot to unpack… more, perhaps, than is necessary. I’d argue that, in the end, each individual section is better than the sum of its parts.
I found Hybrid Child a problematic book on many levels. In a way, Ōhara’s novel can be read as a complex coming of age story that explores our place in the universe, the nature of consciousness and the existence of god. But these themes are so deeply buried under extraneous rubble that they lose definition, becoming amorphous. And, despite being written by a woman, there are parts which have me questioning it being labeled a feminist work of science fiction.
This perceived messiness, though, is also an essential characteristic of the project. And, admittedly, there’s something charming about its imperfections. But are they working in service to, or distracting away from, the emotional connection the reader is meant to feel to the story? Therein lies the danger of writing within the framework of a genre.
*”The Parallel Futures book series is dedicated to translations of key works of Japanese science fiction intervening creatively and critically into temporal processes of social and political subjectification… These works prefer temporal juxtaposition, disjunction, and multiplication, seeking intensifiers of mobile force and difference rather than forms of representation, aiming not to pull the future into the present but to generate parallel, diagonal, and transversal futures whereby space-time emerges, as not yet again.”-from the University of Minnesota Press website