Terminal Boredom by Izumi Suzuki
Reviewed by Nick Hubble
Verso are best known for publishing fairly weighty tomes of left-wing politics, history and theory, but in September 2019 they launched Verso Fiction: ‘a new series of uncompromisingly intelligent and beautiful books with an international focus.’ Terminal Boredom ticks all these boxes but more importantly it has an authentic edgy feel to it that is a welcome reminder of the days when spikiness and attitude were not just marketing categories but a genuine challenge to post-war consumerist complacency. While this period feel is not surprising given that the seven short stories collected here were first published in the 1970s and 1980s, it is a shock that it has taken over 35 years to translate the work of Izumi Suzuki (1949-1986) into English. I suspect that any Anglosphere publishers who might have contemplated it found the complete lack of sentiment too bleak. The overall themes are suggested by the title of the recent review of this edition in the New York Times: ‘Where Every Coupling Depends on Lies, and Men Are Aliens’. However, such themes are now commercially attractive and, more fundamentally, the context of reception has changed now. For example, while themes revolving around androgyny were countercultural in the 1970s and 1980s, the existence of nonbinary genders is now widely accepted within society and I suspect that this is the context in which Suzuki would be understood today.
The first story, ‘Women and Women’ (translated by Daniel Joseph), originally published in 1977, is described as a ‘queer matriarchal utopia’ on the back cover but as a dystopia in the entry for Suzuki in The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction.
However, it is more sophisticated than either of those possibilities, casting traditional gender roles as an adolescent fantasy. The story is ambivalent, registering the loss for the society that has gone but expressing no enthusiasm for a return to it. There is a sense that change will come one day but it will be in response to a call not yet apparent. The protagonist of the next story, ‘You May Dream’ (translated by David Boyd), rejects society because of the way it is structured: ‘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.’ The movement between these two stories anticipates the complicated cultural shift in feminism over the last fifty years.
Part of the attraction of reading these stories, therefore, is the sense of how 1980s ‘Blank Generation’ concerns bleed into the present. This is most obvious in the title story (also translated by Joseph) which combines alienation with a shock ending. However, I preferred the stories that developed older SF ideas. ‘Night Picnic’, translated by Sam Bett with a nice touch of period American idiom, reads like a more extreme version of John Varley’s 1974 story ‘Picnic on Nearside’, which is referenced in the text. While Varley challenges sex and gender norms, Suzuki wittily deconstructs all such meanings, as her protagonist realises that ‘the idea of linear time does no one any good if all that matters is survival’. In contrast, ‘The Old Seaside Club’ feels almost like social realism, enhanced by the gritter British tone of Helen O’Horan’s translation. Amidst the bars and nightclubs of the off-planet seaside resort, the protagonist’s CHAIR insists on reminding her that ‘You have to cook, clean, look after the kids when they’re sick. You have to go out to work’. ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ (translated by Aiko Masubuchi) involves a disturbing gender/ageing paradox that recalls Heinlein’s ‘“—All You Zombies—”’ (1959).
There is enough here to see why Suzuki was considered, as the back-cover blurb notes, ‘a legend of Japanese science fiction and a countercultural icon’. I’ll certainly be looking out for Love<Death, a second collection of Suzuki’s stories that Verso will be publishing in 2022.