United States of Japan takes a similar premise as Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle in an even more dystopian direction, that premise being that America lost the war, Nazi Germany has the Eastern portion, Japan has the Western portion and the Nazi’s and the Japanese Empire are distrustful frenemies. All of the action takes place on the west coast with the Nazi’s being a mere mention. If you like your visions of the future dark and dystopian, there’s plenty of that here. There is also plenty of hope and a recognition of fortitude in the face of totalitarianism. This is a personal journey and a political movement. There are no one dimensional characters (although some of the bad guys are thoroughly bad).
[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received an advanced review copy from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.]
What makes this book such a rare gem is that it manages to do all things well. Its writing is clever, careful and often beautifully phrased, which is especially challenging with contemporary dialog (about which more later). America, mainly focused on California, is reeling in the aftermath of its devastating post-World War II loss. In depicting said America, Mr. Tieryas’ follows Chekhov’s dictum: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” He does so in spades, painting the scene in all of its livid, detailed glory which sometimes presents surprises and is always all too believable. The characters are multidimensional, interesting and, often, not nice. They, too, are full of surprises. The cohesive narrative flows quickly while pulling you completely in and spitting you, wrung out, by the end. Often, good books do two or three of these aspects of writing well; Mr. Tieryas accomplishes the rare feat of nailing every one, making this a great book.
So I’ve bestowed high praise on the book. Why? Well let’s take a deeper dive into each of these elements of writing:
Phrasing: In some ways, this is the most impressive aspect of the book. This is a fast moving, action packed book with intrigue and twists. Most of the beautiful phrasing I find has a bit more stately pace such as Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus or Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane. Not that they’re slow, but they are less focused on action. Moreover, this is a contemporary novel (where as the two examples I gave are either timeless or historic). Why does this make it harder? We tend to be a little lazy, often using shorthand, and have less precision in our speech than in times past. I’m not saying formal (or stuffy) writing has better phrasing, rather we tend to use lazy phrases like “I’m good,” “you feel” and “what’s up?” Not bad in and of themselves, but less than eloquent (unless judiciously used). Mr. Tieryas uses phrases like: “The skyline was a fissured gradient of conflicted red, forlorn gray and dissipated azure” “The Americans they saw were in a daze, faces devoid of emotion, a hollowness that made them appear to be ghosts in costume. They saw Ruth and Ezekiel walking past, but gave no reaction, their spirits crushed by the specter of a carmine Helios above.” Even the quick dialog has some punch: “It’s a viral gun that rewrites the history of your blood. If I shot you with this, in five minutes, you wouldn’t be recognizable.” Yes, I had some visions that turned out to be tame compared to someone we later see injected with this. Is all of the dialog brilliant? Of course not; some is quite matter of fact. However, the whole tenor of the book is careful, frequently lovely, phrasing matching the milieu of the world around the characters.
World Building: Mr. Tieryas builds an amazingly complex world that vastly changes the culture of western America to a confluence of Japanese and American culture and different from both. It is populated with Mechas, giant human-piloted robots with supporting intelligence made to look like Samurai, portical (similar to tablets), electric cars and bio and mechanical body enhancements. Often words from Japanese culture are embedded in the story and dialog. So it’s this complex shift in culture and technology and yet, with some cool hat trick, he makes it all make sense without being overwhelming. By the time you finish the book, it seems to take on a believable life of its own that, while not comfortable (who would voluntarily live in such a world), seems natural. I also love the gaming culture.
Characters: The main characters, Beniko Ishimura and Akiko Tzukino, are complex and starkly different. There are aspects about both that grow to appreciate. There are surprise moments for some of the characters, but no jarring changes from the type of people they’ve presented themselves to be. They are not alone as characters of interest. Suffice it to say that the characters are varied, mostly complex and interesting. Their relationships with one another are not the focus of the book but build, especially between the primary figures, throughout the book.
Narrative: While there are stories within stories, twists and turns and cultural and references that are unfamiliar (at least to me), the storyline is clear, compelling and coherent. I love this take on an alternate history, albeit not the actual alternative itself. This has the right feel for a possible weird, wacky and messy alternative to the fairly weird, wacky and messy world in which we live. I appreciate how much of the narrative is grounded. No one comes out smelling like roses. Not only do Americans put Japanese (and just plain Asian looking) people into concentration camps, but in this version, do horrific things when they become desperate. The Japanese are willing to do anything to remain in power, even 40 years after their victory. Well told and well done.
Honestly, this is one of my favorite book I’ve read this year and on my all time favorite books. This is my introduction to Mr. Tieryas’ writing, so I will be adding Bald New World and Watering Haven to my list of books to read.
World Building: 5/5
After my lengthy hiatus from reviews, I’ll add a new feature (for any who might have glanced at my previous reviews), music by which to read the book.
A Little Book Music: I spent a good deal of time listening to Anne Akiko Meyers Plays Satoh / Debussy / Messiaen / Takemitsu / Ravel. Especially apropos was Satoh’s ‘Birds In Warped Time II’. Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack, Inception also works well. I’m sure there’s some head-banging screemo that would work for parts, but I just can’t read to that.