Japanese Sci-Fi: Bizarre, Illusive

THE BEST JAPANESE SCIENCE FICTION STORIES Edited by John L. Apostolou and Martin H. Greenberg

New York: Dembner Books, 174 pp., $16.95

THE best science fiction in the world today is written in English, most of it in the United States. This is not chauvinism; it is what one discovers by reading extensively. From Swift's time to our own, sophisticated, probing speculative fiction that takes us deeply within ourselves, as well as out of this world so we can see it better, has been composed (often by superb stylists) in English.

``The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories'' will do nothing to alter that perception. Its main appeal will be to those fascinated by how the Japanese psyche manifests itself in this genre.

The foreword by Grania Davis reveals how translation challenges the best and brightest of writers, many of whom feel that it extends their boundaries, making them more original and elastic artists. No reader will ever enjoy this East-West exchange as much as the translators who labored with love to bring another language - and another mode of perception - to life.

The one tale with ``mass'' appeal would attract aficionados of visceral (rather than psychological) ``horror'' stories. ``The Savage Mouth'' consumes the body that sustains it; Sakyo Komatsu provides a gory recipe for humans who prefer to eat themselves up - rather than cruelly cannibalize the whole world. It is the only tale of its kind in the collection; the others are not so much narratives as suggestive arrangements of perceptions, subtle shades of pale so tenuous that describing them seems to falsify them.

The most delectable selection - in the way the tip of one cold asparagus spear is delectable - is ``Triceratops,'' by Tensei Kono. A summary of it seems deceptively cogent, even dramatic; the story itself is more like a confused waking dream.

A universe of dinosaurs intersects with the mundane world of father and son prosaically cycling in the neighborhood. Giant reptile projections, translucent holographs of brontosaurus size, are superimposed on the garden, the house, the garage. A spectral triceratops crossing the road is only the start - and not visible to everyone, just to the bemused father and son. A bus full of giggling children drives through the carnage of a tyrannosaur battle, never realizing where they have been. Father and son bear unwilling witness to worlds that intersect ours whether we see them or not.

This is a fragile imagist Japanese variation on the question of whether the unseen tree that falls in the forest really falls at all. The answer lies in the final words of the hallucinatory vision (one cannot call it a story): ``The world, the world's a trifle.''

The difference between this mirage of a fiction and the bloody recipes of a madman carving up his own leg for dinner give piquant Eastern nuances to the old Western saw, ``Chacun `a son go^ut.'' There may even be a reader somewhere who will be amused by Ryo Hanmura's ``Cardboard Box,'' the emotional odyssey of a box of tangerines from ripe fulfillment to emptiness. There are people and pets who are planted and vegetate into wife and dog trees, and people who liquify in a melting world. But enigmas are not universally beloved.

The smile invited is as fine, dry and fragile as rice paper, and as disembodied as the Cheshire's famous grin, whether it hovers over a mysterious hole that eats everything we want to get rid of, or a charming and deadly robot belle dame sans merci, who gives each bar customer exactly what he wants.

Symbolism, metaphysics, and surrealism alone do not constitute a story - just a (sometimes) memorable cross-cultural experience. The Japanese fantasies offered for our enlightenment are tangential, inferential, poetic, palpable - but they do not tie into the comforting Western Weltanschauung we have come to expect. You have to want to see deeply into these gnomic not-quite tales in order to see anything at all.

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