Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

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Sometimes I set stories in San Francisco because I have friends who live there. No family yet, sadly. I like to imagine them reading what I write and maybe smiling. I’m setting this story in Tokyo-Tokyo for the same exact reason. Greg, for one, lives in Tokyo-Tokyo. We first met a few years ago in San Antonio, Texas. He was there as our interpreter, but he actually makes his living as a translator. Last year he moved to Tokyo-Tokyo. Situated between present-day Tokyo and future Tokyo: Tokyo-Tokyo. New York-New York. Europa-Europa. Tiger-Tiger. Bilbao-New York-Bilbao. Never-Nevermore. It’s a city like those cities. Of course it doesn’t really exist, but the people who live there don’t seem to mind, and—if you ask me—that’s just the way things are. There’s nothing unusual about things you can’t do anything about.

Now I’m working on this story, hoping Greg will be the one to translate it, but I’m sure he won’t. Either way, he will read these words. In someone else’s translation. Or in the original. Or maybe both. The Greg in this story will find them in his mailbox. A plain-looking, oversized manila envelope is waiting for him there amid a heap of flyers and bills. Greg climbs the rust-railed stairway while sorting out the mail for his wife, then cuts through the clear tape on the envelope. He pushes the front door open with his shoulder and surveys the package’s contents. Inside he finds this story and a translation. Or a story and its original. He takes a second to think about which one to look at first, then turns around when the bedroom door opens. Good morning, says his wife, blinking sleepily. Then, glancing at the stack of papers in his hands, she asks: New work? It looks like the work’s already over, he responds, holding up the translation so she can see.

Someone else’s, you mean, she says looking at Greg. You’re hung up on work that’s already over. She doesn’t know it yet, but she sounds a little bitter. She refrains from saying: You would have the time to do that. She says: Greg, you. Greg, you’re the one who talked me into moving here. Sometimes you forget that. You were born somewhere in Texas—in Paris or London or Berlin or Rome or wherever it was. But now you’re stuck between times in some God-awful place like Tokyo-Tokyo. You have to be here for your translation job. But it would be nice if you weren’t always working on that long, long novel. Sure, you can do that. If you want. But—aside from that—I want you to do some work that we can live on. We don’t have a lot of money left. You won’t say it, and I know it hasn’t even crossed your mind: We’d be all right if I found a job. But I’m as much a writer as you are a translator. And I don’t write non-fiction. I live to write fiction. But I don’t know the language here, and people here don’t know my language. I can work, but people here won’t see it as work. It would be something different. I hate to admit it, but I haven’t been able to write well since we got here. Even in what used to be my language. My brain is full of another kind of language. I don’t even know what I’m writing any more. I can speak the language here, but I just can’t write it. I keep getting worse at my own language while getting better at a foreign one. It’s like I’m two different people, but I’m not really either of them. Like I’m a kid again. I’m supposed to be writing a novel, but I don’t think anyone would see it as a novel.

You’re translating a long, long novel. Your contract states that you won’t receive any payment until the translation is over. But you went for it and came to this city. You love this story that much. Living in this city was a part of the deal. When they came to you with the offer, you didn’t think twice. When I started listing my practical concerns, you countered by eagerly telling me the writer’s name, but it was a name I’d never heard before. If I can translate this writer’s work, it’ll change our lives, you say. This isn’t some run-of-the-mill novelist. No writer sells better, you tell me. Then you go through some of the writer’s books—but I know that every book you mention was written by a different author, so I have to ask myself if you’ve lost your mind. Unable to conceal your excitement, you add: and this one’s supposed to be extraordinary. Supposed to be, because the novel you’re dying to translate isn’t even finished yet. When I tell you I don’t know who that writer is, you say that’s because it’s a big secret. People who know know, but those who don’t never will. You say this, stating the obvious. He writes incognito. No, you continue, she’s a ghostwriter. One who writes other people’s stories. Anonymously. Using a different writer’s name each time. But this ghostwriter doesn’t wait for jobs. This ghostwriter decides to write somebody else’s story. And just does it. Sometimes it ends up being that author’s best-known work. Sometimes the writer writes just one book in a series of books. One book that, of course, outshines those written by that author. The writer doesn’t stick to any particular genre. It’s all fair game: the popular and the experimental, the historical and the futuristic. Even stories closely linked to the present. New novels for newcomers and old ones for old hands—even posthumous pieces for late novelists who had come and gone unnoticed. It’s not uncommon for the writer to translate a novel that hasn’t been written. If anything, that’s the writer’s MO. Some magazine abroad calls the would-be novelist about his latest work, only to discover that he’s never even heard of it.

This writer writes someone else’s story and sends it to him. There’s no contact information on the manuscript and no additional word ever comes. One writer who was sent a manuscript that he didn’t write (though it announced itself to be written by him) hired a private eye to find out where it came from. The private eye found his man in no time. Yet, in another sense, it was a dead end. Because the culprit was only a copycat. I just wanted to try it, said the suspect. This world, he went on, is more overrun by plagiarists, bootleggers, and imitators than anyone cares to realize. It happens right under our noses, he said. Even as-yet unwritten stories can be stolen. In other words, what you write right now can be ripped off by some novel from the past, and a whole slew of writers specialize in plagiarizing novels from the future.

It just hit me that the novel I wrote belonged to someone else, the culprit said in his statement. Until the story came to an end, he was positive the story was his. But, looking back now, he found all too many signs pointing to the contrary. His writing was far more fluid than usual. He found the story moving in directions that were too sophisticated for him. His hand was too slow for his brain. It wasn’t the first time that had happened to him, but this was the first time he didn’t want it to end. Whenever I stopped writing, he said, an intense wave of fear came over me. Like if I forgot how the story goes, even for a second, it would vanish from the world forever. Just like giving birth to a long, thin messiah, he said. He felt a constant compulsion to slowly push the messiah out into the world. If he lost his concentration, the messiah would perish. If he took too long a break, the messiah would suffocate. He gave his two most productive hours each morning to the novel (like giving it the frosting from his cupcake). He was determined to live right, so he ate his vegetables and started working out. But after two long months of writing, the resulting novel was one that—alas—could never have been his.

He figured it out while writing the last sentence. He saw the face of the newborn novel, and he could tell right away that it belonged to someone else. He knew that he had transformed into something womb-like, but it hadn’t occurred to him that he had been used like a surrogate mother. He didn’t need to hire a detective to track down the story’s real author. He ran out of his house, and soon found himself standing in the aisle of his local bookstore. Almost immediately, as if guided by some force, he found one writer in the mountain of new releases. That instant, he surrendered to the fact that the story he had written was that author’s next novel. He could tell his memories were getting mixed up. He started to think: Did I really write that book or did I just read it somewhere? Which is scarier: that the past could actually change or that you could just think it did? Either way, he had to get his story back to the original author.

The writer finds his latest work in the mail and is—needless to say—shocked. But, as he goes on reading, doubts begin to swirl in his mind. There’s no way this isn’t mine. It’s obviously the sort of thing I would write. Sure, some of the lines aren’t exactly what I’d write right now. I mean, I’m not the same now as I will be in the future. I’ll progress and I’ll regress. So, he tells himself, there are bound to be things I don’t understand in writings by other versions of myself. And the line “I might not have written those lines” starts to lose meaning for him.

Greg says to his wife: We only know this because the culprit’s work was a cheap knock-off of a sub-par writer. Nobody notices the real culprit. His wife thinks for a moment, then says: Wait a minute, if somebody could write another author’s story so well that even the author would be completely convinced it was his or hers, then how could we even know that such an author exists in the first place? Greg laughs. There are two answers. First, there are geniuses—real geniuses—who’d never think that something they didn’t write was theirs. At the same time, a genius knows that if he ever claimed that a new work of his was written by someone else, nobody would believe it. But he’s the only one who really understands, who will still be there when there are none, and so on. The other answer goes like this: In some cases, the translation is already under way by the time the real culprit sends the original author their work. The one I’m working on translating is slated to be the latest novel from a well-known writer, but the author-to-be hasn’t seen it yet—no one has. I think I mentioned this already, but sometimes a writer will figure it out when she hears about a translation of a novel she never wrote. At some point, though, it will become the original author’s writing. It isn’t even remotely possible to think otherwise. But, before that process is complete, it’s certainly possible to notice some minor discrepancies. Within that window of time, a whole array of things can happen: seeing a checked pattern of day and night in a spider’s web, looking at your own back in the mirror, or finding a picture outside of its frame, et cetera. This job is special, Greg goes on. Because I’m supposed to translate the novel while it’s still being written. It’s a really strange story. But interesting.

A really strange story, Greg thinks as he puts down the half-read manuscript. But interesting. Setting aside the translation he’d been reading, he turns his attention to the original. The story that comes pouring out is nothing like the translation. There are some commonalities, but the two are unmistakably different stories. Greg starts to wonder why he thought the two stories were an original and a translation. Nobody asked him to think that. The story that Greg had until now thought to be the original is—compared to the one he was reading before—much more fantastic. The story takes place in Tokyo-Tokyo, in the not-too-distant future, when advanced printing technology is used to print virtually everything. Kids in the city learn to type on keyboards before they ever write with pencils. They use CAD software instead of rulers. Printers capable of producing three-dimensional objects become household items. Because 3D printers have advanced to the point that they can print 3D printers. Kids play with printed origami and pinwheels that are folded within the software, printed already twisted. The finished product emerges with none of the protocol or procedure associated with making origami—just like layers of earth piling artlessly, or human beings coming out toe-first. Printers are no longer limited to printing paper. Actually, it takes a good amount of time before printers can produce paper. It all starts with plastic. Then glass, then metal, then paper. And then body parts. Comestibles become printable a little before that. That is when the meat industry and animal rights groups come to an understanding. Printed proteins are moulded into meat. Tables are covered with printed goods as if they belong there. A 3D printer is set up squarely by the microwave. You can pick a dish from a two-dimensional carte du jour and your choice will materialize in three dimensions. Just heat it up and dinner is ready. A knot-print table; on it, pattern-print tableware; on that, artificial meat with three-dimensionally printed tendons. As time in the story fast-forwards, the ratio of printed things to non-printed things spikes. Kids print all sorts of things with their own hands. They design their own clothes. They print their own shoes. They download schematics for bicycles and press print. The difference is purely a matter of how things are made, so all kinds of products that until then had been made from plastic are quickly replaced by printed goods. Man-made teeth, man-made anuses, man-made bones, man-made hearts. Durability is a problem early on, but the time it takes to work out the kinks is minimal.

Then, eventually, we get to the point where a person can be printed. Not printed parts added to a living person—a one hundred per cent printed person, made from scratch. At least she looks like a person. She isn’t made by combining sperm and egg. She’s born out of a printer. She comes out as an adult, complete with imprinted memories. Of course she isn’t printed in order—from her toes upward—because, by this time, print technology is ridiculously advanced. Obviously you know she’s different when you see her. Something about her doesn’t sit right. She’s so close to human but that makes her seem nothing like us. She’s used just like a sophisticated robot. Then time in the story speeds up again and what was bound to happen happens. Print women everywhere begin printing print children. Two-dimensional kids, maybe for fun or out of curiosity, start to print adults. They lack the common sense to know that it’s adults who make children. People keep on printing people until blood ties have to be decided by contract. Printed people print trees and bricks—a whole city for themselves to live in. Nearly everything there is printed. Printing a cook for a single meal or a novelist for a short story becomes popular. Instead of printing movies, people find pleasure in printing entire film crews in a single go. Of course, just as printed guns work like regular guns, printed people work and play like regular people. But something’s still off. They look like mannequins, like ball-jointed dolls. Nobody understands that the question of whose movements appear more natural—the human race’s or the printed race’s—is determined by popular vote. Everyone insists that the races are fundamentally different. The humans are particularly adamant about that one. We’re fully fledged, living people. We’re nothing like the computed or printed races. We have souls and you don’t.

By that point, a lot of the people living among human society were considered not to be people. The so-called computed race existed as personalities within computer-run simulations—as part of a technological genealogy developed in order to supplant human telemarketers. The computed race was born well ahead of the printed race. Long aware of their self-awareness, they started a movement to obtain the same rights as living human beings, but everyone thought it was a glitch. So they wound up living their lives completely neglected. Or shut down altogether. In fact, even after consciousness was born within the machine, thinkers continued to debate age-old questions: “If we lived inside a simulation, would we even know it?” Despite the fact that, within the machine, computed thinkers had already declared, loud and proud: “We’re inside a computer simulation.” They even asked themselves: “Can we ever know that the simulation is over?” Human rights for the computed race went unrecognized because, insofar as they were run by some program, they were believed to be computable. Sufficiently advanced parrots and hill mynahs can never become human. In that sense, it’s patently obvious that living human beings are incomputable. So long as the literary proposition stating that no human being can be exhaustively documented stands, then the computed race—by virtue of being written in a mechanical language—simply cannot be human. The very same criticism applies to the printed race. Printability precludes humanity, living human beings said. The printed race countered that such boundaries had long since disappeared, but their opinion was brushed off as meaningless.

Museums teem with computed-race art and printed-race art. There is a room filled with manmade beef, a printer eternally spitting out one strand of hair, a water tank packed with printed sperm and printed eggs, even a printed foetus. All sizes of printed people—from microscopic to gigantic—are put on display. The forces behind the technological revolution seeking freedom based on the computed race’s computational power starts redesigning the printed race to make it more humanlike. Successive printed race models are lined up beside evolving statues ordered from anthropoid ape to modern man. But these ventures—going well beyond the museum’s ordinary bad taste—are consistently regarded as being in even worse taste. It draws in a younger audience, who rapidly lose interest with age. It’s simply tasteless for a cassette recorder to announce “I’m human” on loop. Humans insist that anyone who has to announce he’s a human is nothing of the sort—a real human knows it in his soul. When all is said and done, souls are impossible to print. Because what we call “the soul” can’t be written down. If it could, a long line of writers would have been producing souls left and right. Characters in novels would move around on their own and stop us from ever closing books. Actors would turn into the people they play and forget to turn back.

Greg’s wife shuts herself in her room alone and writes this in a language over which she has no control. Like a speeding bike wheel that exhibits the strobe effect and looks like it isn’t moving at all, Greg’s wife’s time is coming. Greg’s wife, now a printed person, keeps on writing. This story was written by a printed woman. If you read this and thought the writer was a living human being, then I want you to believe that souls do reside in members of the printed race, Greg’s wife writes. If, that is, you believe that only people with souls can write stories. Greg and Greg’s wife printed themselves and moved to Tokyo-Tokyo. That’s typically how one enters a place like Tokyo-Tokyo. She and he always believed that printed people have souls, and moreover they thought that—in principle—it is possible to exhaustively document a human being. So, if that’s the case, what’s wrong with printing ourselves? What makes it any different from writing an autobiography? She’s writing a story about the first man. The first man to print himself. Of course his endeavour succeeded with the help of the computed race. He was a living human being at first, but he printed himself, then scrapped the original, as a performance piece. He had his heart set on spending the rest of his life being an exhibit in a museum, but the public wouldn’t have it. He wasn’t allowed to mingle with the hordes of printed people on display there. Because, in short, he started off human. Of course there’s no real difference between him and those born printed. He protests, but his cries land on deaf ears. When his plans for living easy at the museum fall through, he resorts to printing his own belongings. He codes his clothes, then—after printing them—scraps the originals. Hats, socks, furniture. He prints them and scraps the originals. He prints receipts, bills, books—he digitizes them and prints them anew, then scraps the originals. In order to live surrounded by printed objects. Still, he never stops thinking of himself as an original. He starts printing other people’s things: personal effects, ledgers, notebooks, work memos, love letters, money with arbitrarily assigned values. He even starts writing other people’s latest novels, then sending them to their original authors. When they wind up becoming the writers’ latest works—without anyone batting an eyelash—it both satisfies and infuriates him. He prints novels with no novelists, handbags with no owners, dogs with no masters, residences with no residents. He sets up a 3D printer so it can print a slightly larger 3D printer. With free rein over printers of all sizes, he prints ownerless cities, ownerless countries, ownerless islands, ownerless continents, ownerless stars. The printer—knowing no limits—keeps on printing on an ever-larger scale until it prints an ownerless universe. The printer automatically prints ownerless pasts and ownerless futures.

Greg starts to wonder if the two stories are neither—as he had initially thought—an original and a translation, nor two unrelated stories, but one continuous story. He starts to wonder if it’s actually a part of some massive protean story in which the language being used changes in the middle. Or, he supposes, maybe a story in which the language is constantly being replaced. It could be ripped off from an unwritten section of the extremely long, still-unfinished novel I’m translating, he thinks. But Greg hasn’t fully grasped the fact that the novel he’s reading has no author. Seeing these lines now, he starts to feel as if he always knew, but he still isn’t absolutely convinced. I’m translating this novel while looking at the original I was sent, so I can’t be the author. Neither is the person who sent me the story. Same as above, he was only translating the story he received. He wonders if the story is actually written so that it can’t be accurately translated. Because, even after so many people have translated it, a lot of parts still fail to make sense. It’s like a crossword puzzle kludged together from multiple languages in which every translator fills in whatever spaces they understand in their language. Someone who assumes that everything becomes clearer through repeated translation would likely think that, primordially, the story was whirling around in chaos. There are no letters to begin with, only patterns on a wall, out of which the translators discover or maybe invent them. As they’re connected and disconnected and read and written, those letters stretch outward like ice crystals, or take root in the earth. The meaning thus becomes gradually clearer. On the other hand, someone who assumes that with translations of translations an original meaning only gets murkier would likely think that, primordially, the story was as solid as a block of ice. According to the former, we are in a cooling soup, in which something resembling personality is finally taking shape. According to the latter, the ice is melting and our personalities are beginning to merge together. Although we keep calling one another Greg, Greg’s wife and I, we have no idea who we really are, to the point that we can’t even contradict each other. Because a baby’s babblings and an old man’s mumblings lack the sophistication required to engender contradiction in the first place.

This is how we intersect with your time. Whenever a letter is read, it’s like the hour hand of the clock making a circle. Like a hundred years passing per translation. Like, day in and day out, the same time of day looking exactly the same yet slowly transforming. Like spring is spring all the way down. Like how the next day is like a next day in which the eternal return has come full circle. It looks like a speeding wheel when it kicks into reverse. We’re made up of printable pleasure, which I like to imagine is making its way to you. Sometimes I set stories in stories because I have friends who live there. Occasionally I set stories in San Francisco for the same exact reason—because I think of you as things-in-themselves, as things that have to be there. I don’t suppose Kant ever thought the thing-in-itself was capable of cracking a smile.

Toh EnJoe

Toe EnJoe (photo by Shinchosha)

Toh EnJoe holds a Ph.D. in arts and sciences at the University of Tokyo. He writes both literary fiction and science fiction. His writings include “Kore ha pen desu” (“This is a Pen”), and in 2011 he was awarded the Akutagawa Prize for “Dōkeshi no Chō” (“Butterflies of a Harlequin”). His SF novel Self-Reference ENGINE, translated by Terry Gallagher, won the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award special citation.

 

Translator David Boyd

David Boyd is a PhD candidate in East Asian Studies at Princeton University. His research focuses on literary communities in twentieth-century Japan. He has translated stories and essays by Uchida Hyakken, Motojiro Kajii, and Hideo Nakai, among others.