United States of Japan, by Peter Tieryas. Nottingham, England: Angry Robot, March 2016. 400 pages. $14.99, paper.
We owe Philip K. Dick a lot. With every sentence he wrote, Dick helped many writers and readers break through the doors of imagination and ask “what if?” He made us think, and he sparked a new generation of writers to jump high, write fast, and explain things later. Dick, in many ways, has influenced how we operate on a day-to-day basis, and he did it over fifty years ago. One of those writers is Peter Tieryas, whose new novel United States of Japan is an homage to Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.
Homages are difficult. A writer must move within a world created by someone else, add something substantially and different to it and also do the original work justice. Sometimes the result of that undertaking can be seen as nothing more than fan fiction. United States of Japan, however, is not fan fiction. It’s a revival of asking that “what if?” question as loud as possible and going deep into the well of inspiration, history, and culture to find an answer. It’s not a haphazard take one might have over a few beers on the stoop. No, Tieryas’s new novel is clearly the result of something that’s been dwelling in the mind of a highly creative and thoughtful writer for a long time.
For those who don’t already know about Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle, please go to the nearest bookstore or library and read it. The novel presents an alternate history in which Japan and Germany overtake the United States in the Second World War. They end up invading and occupying America’s coastal areas—Japan on the West, Germany in the East. The very idea seems farfetched now, but these were still serious concerns at the time Dick was writing. So much so that one could still find bunkers near the beaches of California and read about German submarines off Montauk, New York. With The Man in the High Castle, Dick takes this fear a step further. And in The United States of Japan, Tieryas upholds that tradition—but also jumps with it. He infuses this idea of an Axis-occupied America with primarily Japanese culture, online and virtual gaming, and giant mechas. On the surface, it should be enough to convince any High Castle fan. But on a deeper reading, it’s the perfect answer for those still asking “what if?”
Tieryas’s story follows Captain Beniko Ishimura, an American soldier of Japanese descent who is seen as “barely competent, a man who is too comfortable with what he views as a stable job.” He’s getting through the day, well, just barely. He also has a controversial past—he’s on the record for selling out his own rebel-sympathizing parents to the Japanese government (a story that develops into its own storyline late in the novel). Captain Ishimura’s job is in censorship—allowing Tieryas to invoke a kind of Orwellian 1984 everyman—and our protagonist is tasked with finding the creator of a new simulation game caused by the George Washingtons—a rebel American resistance group—and to quell any possibly rebellion. Here, Tieryas updates Dick’s novel-within-the-novel aspect of The Man in the High Castle by “updating” it to an alternative reality simulation game within an alternative reality novel. Another man character, Akiko Tsukino, is an Ahabian vehicle of revenge, or at least comes across as such in the beginning scenes, and acts as a foil of sorts for the lackadaisical Ishimura. It’s not a good-cop bad-cop mix—rather—it’s a thinker and a doer. They complement each other in an incredible way and propel the story forward by a mix of personal feelings and quick-thinking violence. And for a book that will surely be thrown under the microscope of the science fiction and alternative history elements, United States of Japan puts together a solid and compelling plot. This isn’t window dressing; this is the real deal.
A built-in issue with homages is the sense of place. One must create a new world while also faithfully recreating an existing one. Early on, there is a definite sense of disorientation as the reader sees multiple characters, settings, and feels out the mood of the novel. It’s disorienting in a way eerily similar to opening your eyes after a nap outside, your focus blurry because of the sun. We see an internment camp liberation with a shocking discovery, we are introduced to Ben’s parents briefly, and then we are thrown forward in time to a more “present” day. While the idea of mechas and military-grade video games might stand out, the underlying understanding of the Japanese culture lurks dangerously below the surface. This is the engine of the novel—it’s not a black-and-white allegory of good and evil. This is a novel is about the difficulties all people must face when conflicted with power and loyalty. This might not be the sequel readers were expecting, but it’s certainly the one that allows us to ask “what if?” again and again.
Nick Sweeney lives in Lindenhurst, New York. He is allergic to dogs and chocolate and yes, he knows how terrible it must be.