Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Science fiction that reads like science

Biogenesis by Tatsuaki Ishiguro is difficult to discuss. I thoroughly enjoyed the book's four stories and am writing this to introduce other people to Ishiguro's work, but I'm afraid I'm not skillful enough convey what makes the book so special.

Because, on the one hand, three of the four stories follow the form of a scientific report, not the most engaging short story format. (And I thought the last story in a more traditional form was not up to the level of the first three.) These could be accounts of research into actual plants and animals. There is very little action and the drama comes almost entirely from scientific discovery, investigations into a winged mouse that weeps blood tears and whose tiny "wings" vibrate and emit a faint glow in the dark...into a woman with pure white hair, no memory, and a body temperature of 75.2 F...into a plant
that seems to need both radioactivity and human blood to thrive...and into a marine creature with miraculous cancer-healing powers. This is science fiction with a focus on science.

What makes the stories so powerful are the very human actions and conflicts of the scientists and others—army officers, doctors, professors, assistants, and observers—as they struggle to understand the mouse, woman, weed, and sea squirt that do not fit into standard categories. But not only to understand, to have consequences from the research. Why, Ishiguro is asking, do some species survive while others become extinct?

He observes, "In and of itself, the natural world admits of no laws or consistent narratives based on hypotheses. Attaching meaning to the natural world's various phenomena and aligning them into convincing narratives merely serves human interests. No matter how quantitatively a law is expressed, it is a human application and nothing more."

Three of the stories are set in Hokkaido and in the recent past when the northernmost Japanese island was even more wild and uncivilized than it is today. Ishiguro was born in Hokkaido in 1961, has served as a lecturer at Tokyo University and as an assistant professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, so he is writing from inside knowledge. For example: "Adjusting the type and length of the primer as I went, I repeated the same steps nearly thirty times until finally, through trial and error, a single instance of synthetic reaction occurred. Using the automated DNA analyzer, I fed the resultant base strand into the computer. The results showed a perfect match for human (Homo sapiens) DNA."

The translations by Brian Watson and James Balzer, as the quotes above suggest, are fluent and clear. And Ishiguro studs the stories with interesting observations: "A progressive endeavor is rarely understood and when it comes to reporting on a rare illness, it is basically impossible if the messenger is not trusted. Were Yuki [the woman with abnormally low body temperature] to be transferred to some research facility, it is clear that she would be treated like a lab animal." In another story, the military allows the research to continue only because the army believes it will help the war effort.

Had an acquaintance recommended Biogenesis to me, I'm not sure I would have bothered. Now that I've read these unusual and powerful stories, all I can do is say I'm glad I have read them and to recommend them to others.


  1. Thank you for reading my book. Your comment is so sharp. Yes, I wrote the last novel for a magazine (specialized in only science fiction) completely different from the other three ones. And whats more, you exactly picked up what I wanted to say in my novel. I am really moved that I can share my world with you. Many thanks,
    Tatsuaki Ishiguro

    1. いしぐろ先生、本当にお本は面白くて楽しくて。ありがとございます。(また、私の日本語が下手だから、これを失礼ください。)