United states of Japan, by Peter Tieryas

United states of Japan Book Cover United states of Japan
Peter Tieryas
Science fiction, alternate history
Angry robot
March 1 2015

Decades ago, Japan won the Second World War. Americans worship their infallible Emperor, and nobody believes that Japan’s conduct in the war was anything but exemplary. Nobody, that is, except the George Washingtons – a shadowy group of rebels fighting for freedom. Their latest subversive tactic is to distribute an illegal video game that asks players to imagine what the world might be like if the United States had won the war instead.

Captain Beniko Ishimura’s job is to censor video games, and he’s tasked with getting to the bottom of this disturbing new development. But Ishimura’s hiding something… He’s slowly been discovering that the case of the George Washingtons is more complicated than it seems, and the subversive videogame’s origins are even more controversial and dangerous than the censors originally suspected.

Part detective story, part brutal alternate history, United States of Japan is a stunning successor to Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.

Ah. If a book blurb alludes to things like "Alternate history", "PKD-esque", or "mechas"(!), you may correctly predict I will want to be all over it.   The united states of Japan knows this.

We start out with the classic idea - What if the axis had won the war? In this version,  Japan seizes control of the western US,  while we're told the Germans are still fighting it out over the east coast.  At the time of the events concerning protagonist Ben Ishimura, the history of these events is already rewritten as Emperor propaganda - both the very recent history and the more distant. (Ghenghis Khan was a great Japanese hero, see.)

I like Ben Ishimura - his character is the most memorable part of the story, which is a story it is nearly impossible to read without comparing it to, as everyone keeps saying, The man in the high castle. The comparison is unfair; They are different stories, and Tieryas is not actually trying to do a PKD thing. Not the way I read it, anyway.  What they have in common is a world in which Japan was among the great victors of the war, it has made life somewhat different in the US, and... that's it, really. PKD does his special which-reality-is-the-real-one thing, while this novel has Ben Ishimura tangled up with a mysterious portable game that portrays a world in which Japan lost the war.  A terrible game that must be stopped, obviously, because it casts Japan and the Emperor in an unfavorable light, and makes the conquered and subdued Americans out to be heroes with heroic values. And stuff. Frightful!

Unfortunately, the story didn't really flow for me until well after the halfway point. It took a long time to care even a little about any character, and while there was plenty of dystopian-totalitarian shock and horror, it just fell a bit flat for this reader.

The devil you know, by K.J. Parker

The devil you know Book Cover The devil you know
K.J. Parker
March 1st 2015

This novella is terribly stylish and terribly clever. Not only that, it is the second novella of that description by K.J. Parker published by tor.com.  I only mention this because if you like The devil you know, and haven't already read The last witness, you will want to!  They aren't really connected - although I believe they're set on the same map.

So! A great, aging philosopher decides to make a deal with a devil.  He doesn't have a history as a religious man - rather the opposite - but he's very, very good at making a convincing case for just about anything. Including the existence of entities interested in the eternal torment of human souls.  Specifically, his soul.

The story is told from two changing points of view; that of the philosopher and that of the devil. These transitions aren't marked, which isn't much of a problem if you're reasonably awake while reading, but, well, can confuse you if you're not.

The philosopher is said to have asked for this particular devil by name, but that name is never explicitly offered to readers - probably because the devil is every devil,  and the philosopher is every philosopher. (This is actually quite funny as several well-known titles are attributed to this one philosopher throughout the book.  A lot of the story makes him out to be Nietzsche, but, well, there's some stark moral philosophy and there's some Adam Smith and... okay, maybe this isn't going to amuse everyone as much as it did me.)

Can a human outsmart a devil?  Maybe that depends on exactly what defines human and devil.  What can a human do that a demon can't,  and vice versa? It tends to look like a game of definitions, and I thorougly enjoy reading that - I mean, this- sort of thing.

I hope the rest of the books published under this name (I know K. J. Parker is a pseudonym for Tom Holt) are of the same ilk as these recent novellas - Clearly, I must go forth and find out.