July 25, 2024


Science It Works

‘Terminal Boredom’ is a treasure trove of Izumi Suzuki’s subversive science fiction

Reading the brief biography of Izumi Suzuki on publisher Verso Books’ website, it’s hard to believe she isn’t more famous. In the 1970s, she was a model and an actress in mainstream cinema and pinku eiga (erotic films), and after the death of her husband, jazz musician Kaoru Abe, she became a prolific writer of darkly playful and subversive fiction. And yet, her creative output was cut short in 1986, when she took her own life at the age of 36.

Terminal Boredom: Stories, by Izumi Suzuki
Translated by Polly Barton, Sam Bett, David Boyd, Daniel Joseph, Aiko Masubuchi and Helen O’Horan
224 pages

Although she left behind a wealth of work that embodied Japan’s counterculture, and she and Abe were the subjects of Koji Wakamatsu’s 1995 biopic “Endless Waltz,” Suzuki has little name recognition among modern readers.

“She’s virtually unknown in Japan at this point, let alone the rest of the world,” says translator Daniel Joseph, who worked on “Terminal Boredom,” a newly translated collection of Suzuki’s stories. Under the editorship of Cian McCourt, who came across Suzuki’s work almost by accident, her legacy will be realized in English for the first time from April 20.

“A friend of mine came across a reference to Suzuki in an academic journal and flagged it to me,” McCourt says. “I ran into difficulty finding anyone who knew anything more about her, but the few scraps I could find about Suzuki had me intrigued. I kept on pestering people until eventually I was put in touch with (translator) Sam Bett, who swiftly validated my notion that we were onto something.”

Their starting point was “The Covenant,” an 800-page collection of stories, then several novels and essays. “Sam, David (Boyd) and Dan dove headfirst into (‘The Covenant’), and when they surfaced, they did so with phrases like ‘treasure trove,’” McCourt says.

Seven of Suzuki’s stories were then translated into English by six translators. They are all speculative science fiction, but it may not be what many readers imagine when they picture the genre.

“Suzuki’s work is rooted in everyday life, but at the same time tethered to reality in only the most tenuous of ways,” says Joseph, who translated two stories, “Women and Women” and the collection’s titular tale. “Unlike a lot of science fiction, the details are often sketchy at best. She’s much more concerned with the emotional experience of her characters than with high-concept worldbuilding, yet the distance and sense of dissonance that sci-fi affords is what elevates her writing.”

“Suzuki uses elements of science fiction to stage unique chamber plays and character studies,” McCourt says. “You get the sense that her characters would still wind up in abject scrapes were they to pop up in a piece of realist writing, but Suzuki uses the tools and tropes of science fiction to get at their motivations — and their flaws — in inventive and fun ways.”

Bett, who translated “Night Picnic,” takes McCourt’s statement further: “This is kitchen sink realism, but the women tell the stories, which are often set in outer space or an alternate universe.”

The story that best exemplifies Suzuki’s take on the sci-fi genre is “That Old Seaside Club,” in which virtual reality is used as a form of therapeutic treatment. Translator Helen O’Horan describes the story as “dealing with the psychology of addiction and the spiritual limits of a frictionless dreamworld — uncannily relevant for us now in our siloed tech utopias.”

Suzuki is never didactic, though. “The story is really open to interpretation, which is important for sci-fi if it’s to stand the test of time,” O’Horan says. “Suzuki doesn’t shove a particular historically contingent social commentary down your throat, which some more ‘hard’ sci-fi tends to do. Current audiences may respond personally to certain themes that could’ve been more peripheral or speculative to readers at the time.”

While some of the stories are contemporary in their approach to concerns with gender, sexuality and identity, the fact that they were written decades ago raised issues for the translators.

“It was hard to imagine the story from the author’s perspective,” O’Horan says. “This is fiction written before I was born, about an age in which I live. When the narrator scrolls through thousands of albums on a jukebox screen, for instance, I initially didn’t bat an eye. But back in the 1980s this would’ve been pretty sci-fi!”

“In our translations, the six of us wrestled with similar issues,” adds Boyd, who translated “You May Dream.” “Each of us felt very strongly about preserving the emotions, ambiguities and tones running through Suzuki’s stories. To an extent, we developed different voices to fit the needs of each story, but all of these voices begin with — and ultimately belong to — Suzuki.”

“Suzuki’s writing is so unassuming that it’s easy to think of her prose as simplistic, but she was in total control of her craft,” Joseph says. “Everything she does is intentional, designed to create a creeping sense of alienation.”

And these stories do so in spades. On paper, seven stories seems like a thin collection, but each of the worlds Suzuki creates is deep and complex, with many of the questions raised lingering long after the last page and making you crave more. As Boyd says, “The seven stories in ‘Terminal Boredom’ are a great start, but there’s a lot more where that came from.”

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