Sunday, April 12, 2015

Yukikaze (book) by Chohei Kambayashi, translated by Neil Nadelman

Yukikaze is a Japanese military science fiction novel. This English edition was published by Haikasoru. I bought my copy used online.

Review:

I actually bought Good Luck, Yukikaze, the sequel to this book, first – the mention of AIs in the publisher description piqued my interest. After I realized I'd screwed up, I of course had to buy Yukikaze, but the whole thing made me a little nervous. If I hated Yukikaze, its sequel would probably have sat on my shelves, taunting me and collecting dust, until I finally guiltily added it to my “sell to used bookstore” pile unread. But I did not hate it. I loved it.

Thirty or so years ago, the JAM, mysterious aliens, invaded Earth using a strange portal located in the Antarctic. We managed to beat them back, and, in the book's present, the war now takes place entirely on Faery, the planet just on the other side of the portal. The war has absolutely nothing to do with the average, every day lives of most human beings, and most of the people fighting the JAM are actually convicts from various countries, serving their time on the Faery Air Force (FAF) base.

Rei is one such convict. He's part of the SAF (Special Air Force), and Yukikaze, his fighter plane, is a Super Sylph. Super Sylphs have powerful central computers that collect combat activity data, and their duty is to always make it back, even if it means watching while FAF comrades die. SAF pilots like Rei are selected for their ability to be as cold and detached as possible.

The beginning of this book, the foreword, was a little rough. So many acronyms, so much jargon. I kept having to flip back and reread certain paragraphs and pages, and I was worried that it was a sign of worse to come. Thankfully, after that I pretty much gobbled the book up. The jargon and acronyms never went away, but I got used to a lot of it and just accepted that I wasn't going to be able to follow every last bit of it. I was still able to picture the aerial battles and get the gist of what was going on, and that was all that mattered.

The way Yukikaze was structured made it feel almost like a series of short stories, each dealing with a particular chunk of time in Rei and Yukikaze's partnership. The "stories"/chapters were, of course, tied together by Rei and Yukikaze, but they were also tied together by the book's themes of isolation, the futility of the war, and the necessity (or lack thereof) of humans in a war fought by machines. One of the things I loved about the book was the way little details gradually coalesced into something strange and sometimes unsettling.

One of the odd things about Yukikaze was how bare-bones all the characters were, even Rei. We never learned what crime Rei committed, how he became an SAF pilot, or what his life on Earth was like. He had a few stray thoughts about a past girlfriend who left him, but that was it. It fit with the way just about everyone in this book was isolated. The FAF was so isolated from Earth that it was viewed with almost as much fear and suspicion as the JAM. The SAF, in turn, was isolated from the rest of the FAF. Although Rei had one human friend, his entire existence was pretty much wrapped up in Yukikaze.

That's why the possibility that humans might not be necessary to fight the JAM shook him so badly. If humans weren't necessary, that would mean that Yukikaze didn't need him, and he couldn't accept that. This was, for me, one of the most gut-wrenching threads in the book, especially as the true shape of the war between the JAM and the Earth became clearer and Yukikaze became more independent.

One of the things I was hoping to get out of this book was an awesome sentient fighter plane, which is what the publisher description led me to expect. It took a long time, but the book eventually delivered. Just not in the way I expected, or to the extent I hoped for. Yukikaze started off as a really excellent fighter plane with a very advanced central computer, but still primarily in Rei's control. She gradually became more intelligent and capable of operating without her pilot. Indeed, at times she actively ignored her pilot. However, she could barely communicate (with Rei, anyway – she communicated with other computers just fine), and the motivations behind her actions usually had multiple possible interpretations.

As much as I dreaded the direction the book seemed to be taking, the second half of it was my favorite. I loved learning a bit more about the JAM, and the question of where human beings stood in the war kept me at the edge of my seat. When Yukikaze began to come into her own, it was glorious. And also kind of terrifying.

All in all, I loved this book, even though the ending left me feeling a little sad and hollow. Thankfully, I can take care of that with the sequel. I looked at the original publication dates for Yukikaze and its sequel and was a little horrified to learn that they were published 15 years apart. That hurts just thinking about it.

Additional Comments:

I couldn't figure out how to fit this in my review, but I felt it needed to be mentioned. There is an instance of semi-sexualized violence near the end – a male character attacks a woman who is drugging him, rips her shirt open, and bites out a chunk of one of her breasts. Even if Kambayashi considered the biting itself to be necessary, I'm not sure why he chose that particular body part.

Extras:
  • Yukikaze fact sheet (6 pages)
  • "About Yukikaze" by Chohei Kambayashi
  • "Human/Inhuman" by Ran Ishidou - I didn't always agree with the way Yukikaze was interpreted, but it was still an interesting essay, and some of the interpretations hadn't even occurred to me.
  • "The JAM Are There" by Ray Fuyuki - More literary analysis. This essay was less interesting to me.
  • List of abbreviations and acronyms
My knowledge of military sci-fi is poor, so my read-alikes/watch-alikes list isn't very good, unfortunately.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Ancillary Justice (book) by Ann Leckie - I haven't read this yet, but it's on my TBR pile. This might work for those looking for more sci-fi (military sci-fi) featuring AIs. Reviews indicate that Leckie made some interesting stylistic choices, so I'm going to guess that her writing style is way different from Kambayashi's.
  • Hammer's Slammers (anthology) by David Drake - Again, not one I've read, although the quote on the cover of Good Luck, Yukikaze indicates that Drake thought his military sci-fi and Yukikaze were similar. This collection of short stories is the first book in Drake's Hammer's Slammers military sci-fi series.
  • The Sky Crawlers (anime movie) - I haven't seen this, although what little I've heard about it makes it sound like it might be a good match for fans of Yukikaze. It has aerial battles, and I've heard that it's fairly bleak (another one of those "pointless war, at great cost to those stuck fighting it" stories, I think).
  • Bolo (anthology) by Keith Laumer - I haven't read this, but the description indicates that it's more military sci-fi in which humans have created war machines that have evolved out of our control. 
  • Yukikaze (anime OVA) - Yes, there is an anime. I have no idea what it's like, although I looked at a few screenshots, and Rei and Major Booker are way prettier than I would have expected.

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