Review: 'Automatic Eve,' By Rokuro Inui Rokuro Inui's mosaic novel is set in a lush alternate Japan, full of cricket fighting tournaments, beautiful automata and intricate webs of plot and counter-plot around the mysterious Eve.
NPR logo In 'Automatic Eve,' Steampunk Meets 'Blade Runner' — In Japan

In 'Automatic Eve,' Steampunk Meets 'Blade Runner' — In Japan

I'm going to give you the Hollywood elevator pitch in order to secure your attention: This is a Japanese steampunk novel for fans of Blade Runner. Do I have your attention now? Good. Because we're going to flash back in time to 2009, when Haikasoru popped into the world.

Haikasoru was intended as the English-language book imprint of Viz Media, which produces many mangas. Its bold, eclectic catalogue was overseen by Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington, and it was a sight to behold. Japanese short story collections, novels, novellas and anthologies in a variety of tones and styles marched out of the imprint. It had good cover art, an interesting list of authors and bold science fiction books.

Unfortunately, Haikasoru didn't quite catch the imagination of the public in the United States. Its biggest hit was probably All You Need is Kill, adapted into the Tom Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow, but otherwise it sadly went on being ignored by most of the speculative fiction fans, while ironically producing the stuff fans say they hunger for.

Fancy reading a vampire novel with non-Western vampires? There's A Small Charred Face. How about a book starring elderly women who battle a dangerous bear? Meet Dendera. Haikosaru was smart. Perhaps too smart for its own good. It closed its doors this summer. It's not gone, but currently hibernating, having drifted into a hiatus, though the intention is for it to regroup and remerge in some new form. Yet the first chapter of this imprint, so to speak, is ending. Whatever happens next will be part of Haikasoru 2.0 (this is my own nickname for it, don't take it as a future moniker).

But the first incarnation of the imprint has one last, lyrical swan song before it drifts to sleep: Automatic Eve, a mosaic novel.

I like mosaic novels thanks to having read Clifford D. Simak's City as a teenager. Some people despise them, the break with non-linearity, the short episodes building up to something more, frustrate certain readers. But even if you don't exactly fancy that format, Rokuro Inui's Automatic Eve, translated by Matt Treyvaud, works well. Characters, situations and plot points reoccur during the course of the book, so that you are left with a feeling of coherence rather than of stories thinly strung together, which can be the issue that turns readers away from mosaic novels in the first place – and sometimes earns them the pejorative term of "fix-ups."

Much of the wonder of the book derives from its setting and mechanics. In a steampunk Japan where artisans can produce automatons that perfectly mimic humans and animals, an intricate web of deceit and secrets has been laid down. At the center of this web sits the beautiful, mysterious Eve and her father, an inventor with ties to both the shogunate and the ruling imperial house, which are locked in a battle for power.

Inui produces a lush, vibrant world of cricket fighting tournaments, sumo wrestling, steaming bath houses and brothels. There are plots and counter-plots and counters to those counter-plots. Each section is a surprise, a reassessment of what happened before.

So far so good, but the extra secret sauce that makes it all come together is Inui's constant rumination about the soul and what it means to be human, the difference between what is real and what is artificial. There's something beautiful here, in some of the sentences, a special wistfulness, and yet it also feels like a noir — though instead of dames in high heels, we have courtesans in kimonos and hard-boiled samurais with a hand on their swords, ready to chop off limbs.

It's an intricate book, filled with lies and spies, with violence and politics. Some readers thrust into this strange landscape will throw their hands in the air and walk away, irritated by the lack of more familiar surroundings, by the constant presence of characters who are not quite likeable, by the shuffling of points of view inherent in a mosaic novel.

But dear reader, if you are one of those people who has hungered for something else, for an elaborate feast for the senses, you should give this a try. Haikasoru produced good books, but more than that, it gave us a view into a seldom-glimpsed literary field — Japanese speculative fiction — and Automatic Eve is a great example of the brilliant books they produced. I hope there is a Haikasoru 2.0 in the near future and that like Mothra it emerges from its cocoon once more, ready to astonish us.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is an award-winning author and editor. Her most recent novel is Gods of Jade and Shadow. She tweets at @silviamg.