"Every great empire has a mountain of corpses underneath it as a foundation. The Romans, the Chinese - even the Americans wiped out millions of Indians and enslaved the African natives. No one remembers those who were sacrificed. Its like our earthquakes that wipe away the glories of the past. We've used the atomic torpedo on the Americans three times and they were all launched on the same day. There's still fierce debate about whether it was even necessary. The Americans were ready to surrender."
'United States Of Japan' is an alternate history that manages to bring something fresh to the well-mined 'Axis wins World War II and rules the USA' seam whilst asking probing and pertinent questions about Imperialism, censorship and torture. Directly in dialogue with 'The Man In The High Castle', Philip K. Dick's iconic novel with a similar premise, where Dick imagines a relatively benign Japanese occupied West Coast in comparison to the Nazi occupied East, author Peter Tieryas is more keenly aware of the downsides of the Hirohito Japanese Empire, from its rigid social hierarchy to its war crimes, as well as the horrors suffered by Japanese Americans during the war. He also has a keener understanding than Dick of Japanese pop culture. The end result is a book that is both an exciting, pulpy adventure full of action, violence and giant mecha fights and a thoughtful and disturbing dissection of the tactics by which world powers are forged and maintained.
Captain Beniko Ishimura is a video game censor. Infamous for turning in his parents as traitors when he was still a child, now he is a layabout and womaniser, overlooked for promotion by his superiors because of his attitude. His life changes when Agent Akiko Tsukino of the Tokubetsu Koto Keisatsu, the Japanese secret police, enlists his help in tracking down General Mutsuraga, whom Beniko served under in San Diego. Mutsuraga is suspected of being behind 'United States Of America', the subversive but highly popular new video game that imagines a world in which the Americans won the war, which the George Washingtons, a desperate band of American rebels, are using as their latest propaganda tactic. Their journey to the heart of San Diego is an exploration of the seedy underbelly of the Empire, the limits of Akiko's conviction in her beliefs, and the ghosts of Beniko's past.
'United States Of Japan' opens with the Japanese armed forces in America liberating the Japanese Americans from the internment camps. The spirit of victory and jubilation among the prisoners is soon shattered by the soldiers unceremoniously killing a woman for insulting the Emperor. This is Tieryas' approach in microcosm; in-depth knowledge of the horrors of World War II are used to show the sinister flipside to life in the United States of Japan. Each of these things in turn tells us something about our reality. The world in 'United States Of Japan', by the lat 80's, has advances in biotechnology far outstripping our own, with complex human-machine interfaces, cures for most cancers, and work being done on limb regeneration. But then Tieryas makes it clear where all these medical advances have come from by invoking Unit 731, the Japanese army's biological and chemical warfare department that carried out lethal human experimentation, which in this alternate universe is still going strong. The impressive life-saving medical advances have been built on human suffering and death. This in turn reminds the reader that modern research on hypothermia and phosphene gas has referenced the Nazi deathcamp experiments, and that the members of Unit 731 were never brought to trial in return for giving the Americans access to their research on bio-weapons. Similarly, the USJ is in possession of technology far more advanced than our own, with mobile personal computers and a rudimentary form of internet already in widespread use, not to mention the giant mechas. But again this technological advancement has been achieved and driven through years of war providing the funding and inclination, in much the same way that the American space programme was built on the rocket science of the Nazis. Thus the book, through the remove of its alternate history conceit, reminds us how many of our modern day creature comforts are tainted by the horrific legacy of the genocides of World War II.
However 'United States Of Japan' isn't only concerned with the legacy of the past. Indeed any worthwhile alternate history doesn't only provide an engaging answer to the question, "What if?", it should also use that different perspective to shed new light on aspects of our own world. The book is also very much about the biggest anxieties facing the United States of America today: surveillance, torture, terrorism, and racism as a fallout of colonialism. The USJ is a surveillance state worthy of Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'. Beniko's turning in of his parents even echoes a plot point from that book. The people live in fear of the secret police, and live in a world of censorship where history is rewritten. Echoing Winston's job rewriting old newspapers, Beniko works as a censor regulating video games. This demonstrates how Tieryas updates Orwell's paranoia for the digital age; part of Beniko's job as a games censor is monitoring people's choice of games and their choices within the game to root out subversive thought. Rather than betray themselves by seditious writing, the modern day potential revolutionary is more likely to be given away by their browser history. This ties into our current fears that the government could be tracking us via our internet profiles and IP addresses. Indeed, there is thematic significance in the George Washingtons spreading their revolutionary message via video game, the internet acting both as a tool for control but also as a space where subversive messages can be spread and insurrection can happen. It's also a powerful argument for video games being an artform in their own right, one where conversations about politics and how to build a better world can happen.
One of the major themes of the book is the dehumanising nature of torture. Tieryas is correct in portraying torture not as a useful tool for garnering intelligence information, which it isn't, but as a tool used by brutal regimes for imposing fear, humiliation and control over victims. Part of Akiko's job in the Tokko is administering torture to suspects; the goal is rarely to get information but usually to frighten or punish those that the Tokko has already deemed guilty. Over the course of the book she finds herself subjected to her own methods when she is first captured by the George Washingtons and later framed by her own superiors. Despite the presence of SFnal forms of torture, like genetically engineered viruses designed to kill prisoners in the maximum amount of pain, many of the tortures portrayed in the book are more grounded, from 'excrement torture' to flesh eating ants to the interrogation techniques used by the agents. Tieryas excels in portraying torture deglamourised, in all its horror. It is the domain of the secret police not because of its value as an information gathering tool, but because it is part of the general architecture of fear and paranoia that powers a police state. As Akiko suffers through the pain and humiliation she inflicted on others, she comes to have a new found respect and empathy for her victims which makes her question her fanatical belief in the Emperor.
'United States Of Japan' explores the West's fear of home-grown terrorism, and how this relates to the USA's and the United Kingdom's legacy of colonialism and imperialism. The George Washingtons are violent murderous insurgents, but Tieryas takes the time to show us where they are coming from. They are rebelling against an oppressive system of invading rulers who have overwritten their history and their culture and have imposed a racially segregated hierarchy upon them in which they are second class citizens. This is a direct reflection of the USA's and Britain's colonial past, the conflict engineered by the USJ in San Diego echoing these countries' abysmal record in the third world. Tieryas explores how the fallout from a racist and oppressive system can only be violence, the kicking back of people forced into impossible situations. It is this complexity that makes the book so compelling.
All of which suggests that 'United States Of Japan' is heavy going; the impressive thing is that it manages to cover all this thematic ground in an enjoyable, pulpy action adventure. Tieryas takes us on a tour of the underbelly of USJ society, a trek through the grime and gunge of strip malls inhabited by sushi restaurants and hookers through to yakuza-run offshore video game tournaments. The books takes an infectious joy in showing the weird, wonderful and terrifying subcultures and characters that manage to thrive beneath the cracks of an oppressive dystopia. Like Dick's 'The Man In The High Castle', 'United States Of Japan' is interested in how people live in an intrinsically corrupt world. Nowhere is this more clear than in the struggles of its two main characters. Akiko's journey is one towards redemption; as she sees more of the hypocrisy of her own government and the secret police, and understands more of the pain and suffering she has been inflicting on people. she learns to question the things she has accepted all her life as the truth. Beniko's story is no less compelling; learning that he turned in his parents is the kind of thing that immediately distances a protagonist from the reader. However the more we get to learn about him and his history, the more we learn that much of what he shows the world is a front, and that underneath is someone who does actually have an admirable moral code. The final section of the book recontextualises his actions in a way that is both surprising and finally brings the character into clearer focus, ensuring that the characters as well as the world stay with the reader long after the book is finished.