Looking Back To See Ahead

Image: Angry Robot Books

In the 1940s, detective Dick Tracy teased comic book readers familiar with rotary dial phones and hand-wound watches with an electronic wrist radio that, looking back from today, appears a lot like an Apple Watch.

In Peter Tieryas’ new science-fiction novel United States of Japan (Angry Robot Books 2016), it is a flesh phone–literally embedded inside the guts of an individual–that seems an awful lot like you’re reading about an all-too-close future.

This happens regularly during the book, which is not set decades from now but in a post-war twentieth century America, where the United States lost World War II to Germany and Japan. Japan occupies the West Coast, including San Francisco and a brutally occupied San Diego, where much of the novel is set. The story offers up sprawling online gaming environments of existential national importance, giant Japanese military battle robots, or mecha, and semi-official military biological experiments as a back-to-the future reminder that our contemporary understanding of technology is only a temporary awareness of what is possible. Tieryas does this by looking backwards in time with an alternate history of America’s late twentieth century in the spirit of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Ben, the book’s protagonist, is a game designer of unusual talent whose sense of duty and obligation is caught between the reality of the United States of Japan and the potential of a revived vision of what the United States of America could become.

Peter Tieryas, who also wrote Bald New World (2014) and Watering Heaven (2012), discussed The United States of Japan with The Art of the Future Project. Here are excerpts from the interview:

What was the inspiration for United States of Japan, and what do alternate histories reveal about the future?

It’s always been a puzzle to me which books come to fruition and which ones get buried in a catacomb of drafts that are never completed. The main inspiration for United States of Japan is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. PKD wanted to write a sequel, but he found the research material so disturbing (particularly getting into the mind of the Nazis) that he couldn’t. I’d long wanted to tell a story exploring the tragedies on the Pacific front and had been throwing around a bunch of ideas. When I found out PKD wanted to write a sequel, I was gripped by the idea of writing a follow up. At the same time, I was afraid of tackling it because I knew I would be eliciting a lot of understandable suspicion/resistance from those who revered the original. I’m a very different writer from PKD, particularly from a thematic perspective, but I felt his approach to the alternate history was compelling because it focused on the characters rather than the technology or the quirks of the alternate history.

So I started drafting away and that’s how the spiritual sequel was born. What I found fascinating in writing USJ was how often I found connections to the present and what it revealed about what was going on in the world right now. To use a bit of a cliché, alternate histories are dark mirrors of our own society, and I think the best alternate histories, even futuristic science fiction, reveal more about our present than anything else- our hopes, nightmares, regrets, ghosts, and aspirations.

In the world you built, how did you decide which tech should be retro and which should be far-out or unfamiliar?

I used The Man in the High Castle as a barometer. Germans are already undergoing space travel in High Castle, not to mention draining the entire Mediterranean using nuclear power, and that’s just in the 60s. I was actually disappointed at how backward the Japanese were in comparison and leveling the playing field was one of the main things I did in the book. Another big part of it was that I took the alternate history into account. In USJ, the Japanese in WWII, rather than attacking Southeast Asia, agree to attack the Soviet Union from the east at the same time Germany launches Operation Barbarossa. I also assume the Germans didn’t engage Yugoslavia in their revolt (which delayed Barbarossa four weeks, time that would be crucial in their march/blitzkrieg to Moscow which would get stopped when winter arrived early). That in turn would prevent America from imposing an oil embargo and also put off the attack at Pearl Harbor. With the Soviet Union conquered, Germany would finish off the rest of Europe and Japan would gain the natural resources of Southeast Asia. The Axis develop atomic weapons which they’d use to defeat America, despite America’s superior production capabilities. This meant no ten to twenty years of reconstruction for Japan and I accelerate their tech about two decades from late 1989. I also assume the Japanese Empire now has the resources of the entire western half of Northern America (including Alaska and Texas) as well as all of Asia.

Technology like gaming and mechas falls under the military budget, giving them priority in the USJ. And from that, I took speculative leaps where I needed, knowing the trajectory in our own history and projecting it back in a way I hoped would be plausible.

Where I had most fun was taking familiar, even retro elements, then giving them their alternate history spin on it. In USJ, there is no Silicon Valley so simple things like the mouse don’t exist. That made me wonder, how do people interact with their “porticals” (which are our computers)? What kind of games exist in the alternate Japan? Showcasing the unfamiliar only works if it’s based on what is real in our own universe and what we know about our own timeline. So in that sense, they’re symbiotic, even if they’re very different.

Describe the research process for USJ.

The final result is structured in a way to organize the chaos that went into the research and some of it was methodical in the sense that I read every book I could find on the Pacific Front of WWII. But much of it was like an organic explosion of ideas from a variety of sources. Wiki has its limits, even though it’s great as a starting point. Since I was writing about issues that are still contentious in Asia, I wanted to get as many of the facts right as I could. The difficult part is that depending on who you read and which perspective you read from, you get a different take on those facts. A lot of people think of WWII as starting around 1939. But the war on the Pacific front had been going on much longer, even back to 1931 when the Empire invaded Manchuria. So that meant reading lots of books, watching a whole lot of documentaries, interviewing people where I could, and repeating the process.

The notion of duty, and honor, to family and nation is a very powerful theme in the book at a time when allegiance in the twenty-first century can be a really complicated concept. How did you approach those themes?

I think it goes back to a lot of my favorite childhood stories from all over Asia like the honor of the generals in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the sense of duty in the samurai in Kurosawa’s films like Seven Samurai, the grim sense of loyalty in Kinji Fukasaku’s Yakuza Papers, and of course, the videogames in which characters strive to do what’s right like Chrono Trigger. What makes them so compelling is that they’re constantly pushing those aforementioned concepts to their limits in the context of real life circumstances. Samurai can’t always be honorable, gangsters shouldn’t always be blindly loyal, generals might need to act dishonorably for a greater good, and so on.

In writing, I try to resist simplifying and categorizing a whole group of people as this or that. Even within same countries and families, views of loyalty and duty can be vastly different. But it’s in that dialect/opposition of those diverging perspectives that some of the best stories arise and I hoped to portray that in the characters of USJ. Each has a unique take on “duty and honor,” even if the expression of those traits lead them to outwardly be antagonistic to one another.

The depiction of mecha and their pilots is very realistic, like you’d really spent time wrenching on them. Will we ever see mecha in our lifetime?

I hope so! Unfortunately, I don’t think they will, not so much because we can’t technically achieve it (as some people have done as a hobby like in the upcoming USA vs. Japan mech fight), but it doesn’t make sense from a geopolitical and financial sense. Who would you use the mecha against?

In USJ, mechas are a symbol of the Emperor and exist principally in the Empire to counter the Nazis and instill order. But it’s also rooted in the historically failed attempt by the Axis forces to develop bigger weapons. The Germans had that with the Schwerer Gustav railway gun and their attempt to build Panzer VIII Maus super tanks (which was developed by Ferdinand Porsche). The Japanese were rumored to be working on the O-I super tank which would be around 100-120 tons with a crew of eleven. Both suffered from issues with engine drive and mobility, especially the railway gun which was locked to the trains that drove it. A mecha would be ideal when it came to mobility, being bipedal. Plus, the entire frame could be used to store a nuclear reactor (that’s why they’re so big in the book).

But I think the trend our technology is going is sleeker, quicker, and stealthier. The only place where I could see something like mecha happening in the future is if we had to undergo a massive geofront reconstruction, either in space or our own planet depending on what occurs with climate change. That, or an alien invasion of giant monsters.

Video game design is elevated to a very high level in USJ. Do you see gaming as leading to a darker future like Ready Player One or something that offers a sort of proving ground or rallying point for a positive future?

I think positive future. I grew up with games and they were such an important part of my childhood, not just for their entertainment value, but their ability to inspire. I mentioned Chrono Trigger and how I’ve always been deeply moved by the main character’s heroic selflessness. I loved how Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud struggled with identity and personal failure, and the way the protagonist of Dragon Quest V learns about family after his own mother passed away during childbirth so that when he has children of his own, there is a very emotional sense of legacy. For me, my love for gaming is what gave me many of the opportunities I had and I wouldn’t be the writer I am, both intellectually and job-wise, without that. I’ve made so many friendships based on a common love of gaming, and even if there are darker aspects to it, the positive is truly inspiring. I think we do have to remain vigilant to protect gaming from becoming exploitative and this is brilliantly portrayed in Ready Player One at Chtonia when all the other avatars come to Parzival’s aide to defeat the “evil corporation,” IOI.

There’s a fascinating–and disturbing–exploration of biological modification that seems prescient. Was that a bit of a reveal from your crystal ball?

The research around the human experimentation during WWII gave me nightmares. I was waking up in the middle of the night, covered in sweat. It’s one of the areas I had the hardest time researching, and even harder writing. One comment I’ve seen among some of the reviewers is surprise at the high level of violence. I completely agree with them. The violence in the book is brutally unglamorous and repulsive. I felt to disguise, even censor the torture scenes, would betray its very nature, not just for the victims, but for the perpetrators as well.

I was surprised to learn that after the war, many of the main scientists behind some of the more terrifying experimentation were given amnesty by the Ally forces in exchange for their research and information. That made me wonder, what if some of the medical advances we have were due to what happened back then? The scientists were carrying out live vivisections on people, studying the effects of diseases, removing limbs and organs and re-adding them back in. What if that never stopped? Would our medical knowledge be even more advanced?

Thoughts like that gave me the chills. I got why PKD had a hard time writing a sequel.

You’re talking about great power conflict, US vs. Japan. Vs. Germany, and today that ‘World War’ notion is often broached in a US vs China context. What’s your take on that kind of rivalry in the twenty-first century?

My sincere hope is rather than an adversarial role like in USJ, I hope we can follow the Star Trek template and work together similar to the Federation to achieve common goals while resolving disputes respectfully in points of contention. There’s so many big issues that we, as humanity, have to face together. At the same time, my hope in USJ is to explore much of the history that still haunts the international policies throughout Asia and bring some of them to light. I’m often surprised that in the early reaction to USJ, those unfamiliar with the past have a very different reading than those who know at least a little bit about it. There’s so much that has happened in Asia to the point where cities, streets, even buildings have a past that shapes the cultural landscape. More familiarity with that past will, I hope, make for a better understanding in both hemispheres.

What’s your writing practice like in terms of where and how you get it done? And what do you turn to for inspiration?

With USJ, it took several drafts before I was able to finalize the direction. I remember one of the first attempts actually split the book into seven chapters and each was told from a different perspective inside the Empire. I tend to be free-flowing at the beginning, letting the ideas take a life of their own. I think the book really didn’t start to get going until I realized at its core, USJ is about two very different characters, Akiko and Ben, finding their humanity despite living in an authoritarian system designed to crush resistance. Akiko’s arc became the driving force of the book, and her journey was the one that was most important for me.

In terms of specifics, I tend not to follow any rules like X amount of pages or words per day, or even where I write, etc. Once I know the characters and what they’re aiming for, the book tends to write itself no matter where I am or how much I write. After a draft I’m happy with, I get to editing. In USJ, we spent over a year in that process. Iterations are where you make the dross into something precious. I hammered at the book until the very end and honestly probably would have kept on editing if not for the deadline.

What are you writing/reading/playing right now that you can’t put down?

I’ve been catching up on TV shows and games. One that I’ve put off as not to be indirectly influenced by it is The Man in the High Castle TV show. I’m currently reading Brenda Cooper’s Edge of Dark, Sylvain Neuvel’s

Sleeping Giants, and Samuel Sattin’s The Silent End. I’m also playing Xenoblade Chronicles X when I can and reading a bunch of nonfiction to prepare for more stories in the United States of Japan.