Monday, July 12, 2010

Book/Magazine Review: The Next Continent by Issui Ogawa Translated by Jim Hubbert

There is a sub-genre of science fiction in which the conflict revolves around overcoming a technological limitation, such as building a space station or finding the solution to an unsolvable math problem. While it’s not as action-packed as, say, space opera, if done right, the narrative can be just as engrossing. I’d classify The Next Continent as one such book as it deals with the engineering, economic, and political problems of building a wedding palace on the moon.

The first hurdle of such a book is establishing a way for the reader to be invested in the story. This isn’t a treatise nor a dissertation for example so Issui Ogawa cannot simply barrage us with exposition. He accomplishes this task by giving us a character we can relate to, in this case engineer Aomine. For the most part, it’s his perspective that pervades most of the novel. And yet, to a certain extent, it’s not about him more than it is about another pivotal character in the book, Tae, whose dream it is to build a wedding palace on the moon. But because a lot of the scenes with Tae is filtered through the eyes of Aomine and other minor characters, it makes the reader’s impression of her all that more effective. One qualm I have is that for the first half of the book, Tae’s characterization is mostly that of a Mary Sue: she’s brilliant for her age and has the wealth to back up her ambitions. Even the premise that she’ll inevitably hook up with Aomine feels initially contrived but thankfully, Ogawa eventually adds depth to her. For the most part, however, the reader relates more with Aomine because right from the outset, he feels more authentic and well-rounded.

The second problem is establishing the conflict. In this case, it’s the engineering problems of building a habitable place on the moon: what materials needs to be used? How will it be transported? How will it be built? In addition, this needs to be placed in the context of the hard science fiction genre. Too much super science and the feat feels unimpressive. Remaining too faithful to reality, on the other hand, begs the question why we haven’t done it yet. For the most part, The Next Continent has a firm ground on hard science fiction. Most of its proposed solutions sound reasonable, although it has its fair-share of hand-waving. Thankfully many of what I consider ridiculous hand-waving appears early in the book: one of the established facts for example is that the countries involved in the ownership of the Spratly islands peacefully settle their differences, which is a stark contrast to this reader’s reality (I don’t think our government would easily give up its bid for the Spratly islands). Other, more integral hand-waving such as the development of new rocket technology is not without its own risk, so fits the conventions of this hard sf novel.

Since this is a novel originally published in Japan and written by a Japanese author, it’s to be expected that one of the conceits of the book is that the Japanese would be the first to establish a wedding palace on the moon. Having said that, Ogawa doesn’t ignore the other countries who have a space program. China and the US are given the limelight in the book as well, and the author strikes a balance in showcasing both their strengths and flaws.

Writing-wise, Ogawa has a good sense of pacing. The first chapter for example immediately puts Aomine in a situation of conflict, quickly establishing what he is capable of without boring the reader with exposition. The exposition itself appears in the second chapter but by then, the reader is eager for answers.

The progression of the conflict is also in line with this. At first, the establishment of the moon palace is simply a problem of engineering. Soon, problems like marketing and politics become a deciding factor, and even the sub-plot of Tae’s relationship with her father become relevant to the novel.

Jetse de Vries edited the Shine Anthology of Optimistic Science Fiction as he was looking for stories that featured optimistic science fiction stories and after reading The Next Continent, the book is easily one of the books I’d recommend to him. It harkens to conventions of a certain genre of science fiction and yet is nonetheless infused with Japanese optimism and culture.

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