A Female Vision of Sci-Fi

During her relatively short life, Izumi Suzuki (1949–1986) has been many things. A keypunch operator, a bar hostess, a nude model — portrayed by controversial photographer Nobuyoshi Araki — and an actor in both pink films (a genre of Japanese sexploitation movies) and onstage. Most importantly, and throughout, she was a writer. 

In 1975 Suzuki eventually published her debut short story, “The Witch’s Apprentice,” in the renowned Japanese science-fiction journal S-F Magazine. The issue, dedicated to women writers, presented a cohort of established Western authors, like Pamela Sargent, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, but it also introduced Suzuki, and novelist Yūko Yamao, to Japanese readers. From then on, Suzuki published short stories in sci-fi magazines producing an influential, albeit modest, oeuvre. 

A fraction of her work finally has been translated into English. Terminal Boredom (Verso, 2021) offers a fascinating opportunity to nose dive into Suzuki’s subconscious through a selection of seven short stories translated by Polly Barton, Sam Bett, David Boyd, Daniel Joseph, Aiko Masubuchi, and Helen O’Horan.

Deeply conscious of the times in which she lived, Suzuki imbued her stories with overarching nihilism and unrest, brought about in Japan by the student protests of the 1960s and the radical revision of “women’s roles” promulgated by the Women’s Liberation Movement (known as ūman ribu, “woman lib”) in the ’70s, as well as a sharp critique of Japan’s soaring consumerism in the 1980s. Mixing in references to pop culture — the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” is playing in a bar on a faraway planet in “That Old Seaside Club”; an alien praises his Terran girlfriend for being “the reincarnation of Brigitte Bardot” in “Forgotten” — Suzuki draws maps of future worlds. Although characterized by intergalactic conflicts, cryosleep practices to curb overpopulation, and virtual realities to battle existential dread, they are anchored in the past. 

The detritus of 20th-century culture reinforces the feeling of eerie familiarity that oozes from Suzuki’s settings. Even in “Night Picnic,” for instance, whose action takes place on a planet with “a different orbital period than Earth,” the algid urban geography feels very much terrestrial.

Another singular aspect of Suzuki’s texts draws from the cultural milieu of Women’s Liberation, while simultaneously being prescient and fresh. This is Suzuki’s understanding and representation of gender, which is apparent not only in her unconventional portrayal of female characters, but also in a fluid investigation of identities. In the male-dominated sci-fi literary world, Suzuki was among the first authors to introduce a different vision of femininity, one that departed from the sexist tropes and stereotypes so abundant in the work of male writers. To do so, she appropriated the favored mode of expression in Japanese highbrow literature — the confessional, semi-autobiographical, first-person narrative that is characteristic of the shi-shōsetsu (“I-novel”) — and then contaminated it with the articulations of speculative fiction.

In her introspective, first-person stories, the world is filtered and analyzed through the eyes of her female characters. Perhaps it’s not by chance that the only story in Terminal Boredom that adopts a third-person perspective is “Night Picnic,” in which the main character is a young man and, most importantly, not a human. 

Originally published in S-F Magazine in 1977, “Women and Women” exemplifies Suzuki’s revisions of gender roles. Set in the near future, the story envisions a lesbian matriarchal society in which men are confined to a ghetto and condemned to damnatio memoriae (books and films portraying them are banned). Although a gendered division of labor is purportedly a thing of the past, gender binarism is far from being obsolete. Suzuki writes:

Women live with other women. The strange thing is, one of them always does her best to emulate what we’re told masculinity was like in the old days.

While there are older women who exhibit an ample chest and a faint beard, which the narrator describes as “probably the result of some hormonal imbalance,” once shōjo (“girls”) manga become a hit among teenagers, a Takarazuka Revue-style revolution takes place. The young, gentler, charming male ideal depicted in manga becomes the girls’ new point of reference. These idealized male bodies recur in Suzuki’s other stories as well. In “That Old Seaside Club,” the narrator’s lover, Naoshi, fits the description; half human and half alien, with deep green hair, he is mostly expressionless but exudes an ethereal beauty. Naoshi could have come straight from an anime. Sol is another gorgeous, green-haired alien with violet eyes, who is caught up in diplomatic space conflicts in the anti-authoritarian story “Forgotten.” 

For Suzuki, gender identities are further complicated within dreams. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” recounts the disastrous side effects of drugs that inspire “the joy of knowing that my own creation and the creation of the universe are intimately connected.” Reiko remembers the time she met her ex, a boy with long hair and a girlish face. In her dreams, he appears as a woman named Jane, who “can do any kind of housework,” definitely “the kind of guy who never needs to get married.” Conversely, in “You May Dream,” the narrator questions gender roles and their own identity through repeated conversations with a friend in a dream, until, eventually, they break the binary:

What was it about her that was turning me into a man? Got to be all that femininity. She’s acting like such a woman (as society defines the role, anyway) that I have to play the man just to keep the balance. What if I ran into a boy? Could I even play the part of a woman? I don’t need men here […] I’ve already got everything I need. Syzygy? Androgyny? I’m no man and I’m no woman. Who needs gender anyway? I just want to get out of this place, to be on my own.

Through a peculiarly blithe sense of despair, depictions of apathetic youths who struggle to comply with the requirements of a capitalist society, and fossilized cultural references, Suzuki creates worlds in which technology is meaninglessly called upon to patch up shattered relationships. Incapable of escaping the suffering of her own life, she committed suicide in 1986. Her suicide drastically conveys, as Suzuki notes in her last story, “Terminal Boredom”:

[…] there’s a simple way of dealing with everything that’s been weighing on you up until now. You can just tack on an illogical ending to the story, like a deus ex machina for life.

Terminal Boredom by Izumi Suzuki is published by Verso and is available online and in bookstores.

Izumi Suzuki introduced a different vision of femininity, one that departed from the stereotypes so abundant in the work of male writers.Read MoreBooks, Izumi Suzuki, Reviews, Verso Books, WeekendHyperallergicRead More

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