Snails on a Razor’s Edge – A Review of United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas

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When non-Filipino friends come to visit the Philippines, one of the things many of my family suggest they do is take Carlos Celdran’s walking tour of Intramuros. He has an interesting reputation in the local political scene, mostly thanks to his ”Damaso” protest in 2010, and more recently his commentary on and subsequent apology to Rodrigo Duterte’s supporters in the months leading up to the Philippine presidential elections earlier this year. However, one cannot deny that his walking tour (which he describes as “performance art in the guise of a walking tour”) is entertaining and very informative.

One of the things Celdran likes to talk about is the American occupation – in particular, he likes to remind his listeners (particularly the Americans in the audience, if there are any) that the reason why Manila is the way it is now is because Douglas MacArthur decided to bomb the Japanese out of it. Before World War II, Manila was once a beautiful city, probably one of the most beautiful in Asia (or at least Southeast-Asia), but after World War II, it was almost utterly destroyed: the second most-devastated city after Warsaw. During his tour, Celdran says that when the Americans bombed the city – when they levelled the historical, cultural, educational, religious, and political heart of an entire nation – and then replaced all that was lost with American architecture and culture in the years after, they essentially ripped out the identity of a people. And that identity is something Filipinos today are desperately searching for, but can never find.

And yet, despite this history, it’s still interesting to imagine what would happen if things had gone differently – if, for example, the Philippines had remained independent after the declaration on June 12, 1898. Would we have faced the Japanese alone? Would our country even have been a target? Or would we have been their allies? Perhaps Manila would not have been bombed to the ground. Perhaps my people would not feel so lost.

But that is neither here nor there, some historians say; they argue that such thinking is wasteful, and distracts from the “real” work of understanding history. Still, there are many history enthusiasts who enjoy contemplating those other paths, other futures that could have been. On one hand, it can actually help us understand history better by imagining how one small thing can create knock-on effects on other things further down the line; on the other, it’s simply a great deal of fun. It also helps that thinking about such things can lead to some very interesting stories.

Among those interesting stories is Peter Tieryas’s United States of Japan. Dubbed a “successor to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle”, it is set in the 1980s, but in an alternate-reality United States where the Axis powers won World War II (more or less the same setting as The Man in the High Castle, in fact). Everyone thinks that this is the way the world should be, that what Japan and her allies did in the War was just and right, and that if the old United States was still standing, the world would be a terrible place to live in.

And yet there are those who think the exact opposite. Beniko Ishimura, a censor who specialises in video games, must work with Akiko Tsukino, a member of the USJ’s secret police, to uncover the creator of a subversive, and therefore very illegal, video game that presents players with the following scenario: what if America had won the war? As the two of them attempt to track down the game’s creator, they both slowly come to learn the dark truths behind the government they serve – and that history is never as clear, nor as straightforward, as it might seem.

It has been a very long time since I last read The Man in the High Castle (more than ten years now, if my memory serves), but that is no hindrance to enjoying this novel. The reader does not need to have read Dick’s novel to enjoy Tieryas’s; the latter’s world-building is strong enough to stand on its own, independent from Dick’s original work, though the connection between the two remains in the form of various details and references scattered throughout the story. Reading The Man in the High Castle before reading United States of Japan will certainly add depth and dimension to the reader’s experience of Tieryas’s book, but it is not absolutely necessary that he or she do so.

Tieryas’s characterisation is just as strong as his world-building. I am especially fond of Beniko Ishimura, who is about as far from the “typical” protagonist for a dystopian alternate-universe novel as it is possible to get:

“If you talk about this communication to anyone tonight, I have orders to kill you,” the messenger warned.

“What about tomorrow?”

Here’s another example:

“Leave your portical on the bed, open your window, and jump out.”

“Is there a Plan B?”

“What’s wrong with Plan A?”

He envisioned himself splattering against the cement. “I think I’d rather die in an explosion than falling down from a building.”

“Can’t you take a leap of faith?”

“In you?”

But the scene that really, truly endeared Beniko to me is this one:

“Even now, you’re thinking about food?”

“I’m sorry. It’s the only way I can keep myself from getting too depressed about the situation.”

Given his reactions to danger and high-pressure situations, it is quite obvious Beniko isn’t exactly the kind of rise-to-the-situation hero the reader tends to encounter in a lot of sci-fi – but I think that’s the point. Some readers might find him annoying, but I think Beniko is typical for a person living under an oppressive regime. His laziness and lack of initiative – character traits some readers have found unlikeable – are safety mechanisms: he deliberately keeps himself under the radar so that he can keep on living his life without drawing attention, because attention, in a society like the one portrayed in the novel, can mean a death sentence.

Akiko Tsukino, on the other hand, might be considered his exact opposite – particularly the zeal she displays for her work as a Tokko officer:

“Anyone you know pass away?”

“Someone leading the bomb squad,” Akiko replied. “I was supposed to be in her place.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I didn’t know her well,” Akiko stated. “But she died in the line of service. There is no greater honor.”

This extends to her personal life:

She’d reminded her boyfriend of his duty. “If more men with your genetic history don’t contribute to the fertility clinic, the population of pureblooded Japanese will disappear in the USJ.”

“Why’d you volunteer me for this?” he groaned.

“Because we’re citizens of the Empire and it’s our obligation to help in any way possible.”

Based solely on the above excerpts, it might be easy to dismiss Akiko as nothing more than a rabid zealot who will do anything and everything for the sake of her ideology. But that is, thankfully, not the case, since the below excerpt suggests, fairly early on in the novel, that Akiko’s fanaticism might not run quite as deep as she makes it out to Beniko:

“What’s the big deal about being pure Japanese? You’re French and Korean, and you’re a more important part of the Empire than I ever will be.”

She bristled at his reminder of her polluted ancestry. “The fact that you’re full blooded Japanese is essential to the Empire,” she said, even though, objectively, it made no sense. Some of the finest officers she’d ever served with were of mixed ethnicity, whereas many of the pureblooded Japanese were arrogant assholes who felt too privileged to listen to common sense.

Taken individually, Akiko and Beniko might be considered mildly interesting. However, the real magic happens when they interact with each other, breaking each other down to the barest bones of their beliefs and ideologies before building each other up again. It doesn’t seem that way at first, given how angry they both are at the world and at each other, but that is precisely what happens: Akiko challenges Beniko’s passivity, while Beniko pokes holes in Akiko’s ideology. That, I think, is the best part about this novel: how these two characters play off each other in a way that furthers both their character development and the plot. I find myself wishing that there are more relationships like theirs in fiction: relationships that are (far) less about romance, but more about the unlikeliest partnerships working out in such a way that both characters grow.

In terms of plot, this book doesn’t really do anything all that new: it treads a similar path as The Man in the High Castle and 1984. But what makes it stand out are not the events, but the way in which those events are told. In my opinion, the manhunt that throws Akiko and Beniko together isn’t nearly as important as how that hunt uncovers the truth underneath the shiny, technologically-advanced, cybernetic facade of the United States of Japan. It is still a fun plot, but even if the reader figures out the game creator’s identity before it is revealed in the story, he or she will still want to keep reading because he or she will want to know what happens to Akiko and Beniko now that their entire worldview has been shattered – and what they will do with the truths they have uncovered. This novel’s primary plot, then, is not about finding a criminal, but about finding the truth – in the most painful way possible.

As for themes, this novel touches on ground that is fairly close to reality – or at least, my reality. Many from my parents’ generation lived under the shadow of the Marcos dictatorship, and they still remember how friends and family members would suddenly disappear, how entire families would be executed for unknown reasons. Some of them express a lingering guilt about their passivity during the martial law years: would fewer of their loved ones have been killed if they had been more active in their protests against the regime? Or was it the right decision to remain passive, because if they had been more active they might have caused more trouble and led to more deaths? And as my generation stares down the barrel of a possible dictatorship, as we watch (and protest with #CardboardJustice) the extrajudicial killings of alleged drug pushers and users, I, and many others, find ourselves asking: what do we do? What can we do – before it’s too late?

Overall, United States of Japan is a dark, disturbing read – but also a timely one, which is only as it should be. Though the giant mecha on the cover might suggest epic battles on the scale of the ones presented in Pacific Rim, this is by no means a happy book, nor is it an easy one (conceptually, at least; Tieryas’s writing is a pleasure to read). It makes the reader imagine what it would be like to live in a world where the government polices the very thoughts of its citizens via the Internet; where one’s rise through the system is achieved by saving face at any cost; and where the truth is not what actually is, but what the regime says it is, and then asks: “Will you take action to make sure this does not happen to you?” This is a question that needs to be asked more often, given the current political climate in the world today, and I am glad this novel encourages that kind of questioning. The world needs a lot more like it.

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2 thoughts on “Snails on a Razor’s Edge – A Review of United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas

  1. Now I can’t help but want a book that describes what the Philippines could have been if it weren’t for the Americans…. (Do you happen to know of any?)

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