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by Sucharitkul
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Science Fiction
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Somtow is a Thai-American musician/composer and the author of speculative and horror fiction. Speculative fiction is an area of interest for me, but it was, believe it or not, haiku that drew me in as a particular passion of mine.

FREE shipping on qualifying offers. The Millennial War left a sullen void where civilization once stood. But then the whales began their song - a mysterious song that resounded throughout the polluted seas and told an ancient heartbreaking tale that moved the survivors to revive and honored ritual.

The Millennial War left a sullen void where civilization once stood

The Millennial War left a sullen void where civilization once stood. But then the whales began their song - a mysterious song that resounded throughout the polluted seas and told an ancient heartbreaking tale that moved the survivors to revive an honored ritual.

Other readers will always be interested in your opinion of the books you've read. Whether you've loved the book or not, if you give your honest and detailed thoughts then people will find new books that are right for them. 1. The Sword of Orley.

Written by. Somtow Sucharitkul. Manufacturer: Pocket Books Release date: 1 September 1981 ISBN-10 : 0671836013 ISBN-13: 9780671836016.

Uncorrected proof of the authors first novel. Boxes but prefer to ship UPS where possible).

He is also a science fiction, fantasy, and horror author writing in English. Somtow has both Thai and American citizenship. A descendant of the Royal Chakri dynasty (his grandfather's sister was a cousin and consort of King Vajiravudh), Somtow was born in Bangkok

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Book by Sucharitkul

What do you get when a burned-out, English-educated, Thai composer, who sometimes resides in the United States, and has read too much Mishima, starts to write science fiction?

Well, damn. You get something bizarre and almost beautiful. I say "almost" because S.P. Somtow tried to structure his 1981 novel Starship and Haiku like haiku--or at least, to make the experience of reading it recall the experience of reading haiku in macro. But it's a novel, which is sort of the anti-haiku form. So neither form--haiku, novel--quite succeeds, and neither quite fails, either. And there's a large admixture of pulpy prose in here, making the proceedings occasionally awkward.

The story: In the third decade of the 21st century, after a devastating nuclear war has left the Earth utterly moribund, politically-neutral Japan is the only country on Earth not left as a post-apocalyptic landscape. Two aging rivals--Ishida and Takahashi--form the powerful arms of a triumvirate that has taken over Japan. The faithless Ishida is the Minister of Survival and the superficial Takahashi is the Minister of Ending, charged with assisting the people to achieve perfect suicides to expiate humanity's crime of destroying the Earth.

Ishida has a secret project. Before the millenial war, the Russians (the book was written around 1980, remember) had completed a starship and left it orbiting the Earth. Ishida has a team of mostly western scientists building a rocket that will take a group of colonists to the Russian generational ship, which they will then aim at Tau Ceti, a four-thousand-year journey. The broader point is to ensure the survival of the human race in the face of its extinction through a devastating virus and debilitating mutations. The more specific point is to ensure the survival of Ishida's own daughter, Ryoko.

Knowing that Ryoko is particularly Japanese (I know, just go with it for a minute) and likely to wish for a beautiful death, Ishida sends her on a trip to Hawai'i to view the devastation firsthand. While there, she meets Josh Nakamura, a Japanese American man, and his younger brother Didi, a "strange" or mutant. Didi's mutation keeps him physically childlike and enables him to read minds and perform a certain amount of telekinesis. He keeps this secret from Josh, for some reason, and Josh thinks Didi is a cretin. Didi is all about joy and beauty and Josh doesn't get the whole Japanese thing.

There's a bit of back and forth and stuff happens. Upshot is that Ryoko develops a relationship with a whale, who (here comes the really bizarre part) reveals to the ministers that (mild spoiler) whales are the parents of the Japanese, a human sub-species that is human-shaped and whale-minded. That's where the Japanese obsession with beauty and death comes from (I know, bear with me a moment.) The whale also outs Ishida's anti-suicide starship plan. This revelation causes the rivals Ishida and Takahashi to kick into high gear. Takahashi becomes a deathgod, hounding people into suicide to expiate their patricidal sin (killing whales) and Ishida sends Ryoko off to make the starship thing happen. And so on.

Like I said, bizarre. On the one hand, there's this insanely reductive view of the Japanese as monolithically suicide-crazy and beauty-obsessed. On the other, there's a fairly nuanced (for 1981) understanding of a Japanese American identity in the person of Josh Nakamura, who may look like he's sprung from whales, but holds no truck with killing yourself after seeing the perfect teabowl or some such s***.

(There's a bit of business about how Josh and Didi get to Japan through trading their dead grandmother's antique teabowl for passage to a Japanese ship's captain who seriously considers immediate suicide since he is unlikely to see anything that beautiful again. The captain tempers his disgust for Josh's inability to see the bowl's beauty with the reflection that Josh was not raised Japanese, so it's not his fault. I have no idea if this was intentionally or unintentionally comic.)

But you can also read this as a secondary world novel, in which the "Japanese" are not our Japanese, but rather what Japanese would be if they were descended from whales. Yeah. Because of all the interesting things about this book, the most interesting is that it's the first SF novel--or maybe even the first novel, period--that I've read that instinctively understands two things about Asian America: its pan-Asian ethic, and its cultural Japan-centeredness.

The pan-Asian ethic is implied rather than stated. The only character whose identity isn't reduced to utter silliness is the proto-JA Josh. While reading Josh's character, you can't help but be aware that the author is Thai, but of a privileged enough background to have been educated abroad and to consider himself among the international creative community. Maybe it's just me, but his presentation of Josh's JAness feels proprietary: the presentation of a hybrid identity that's shared by the author by virtue of being Asian--any Asian--and transnational.

The 80's Asian American Japan-centerness was partly external and partly internal. Japan in the early 80's was on the ascendant, economically speaking. SF was fascinated with it as the supposed culture of the future (see Blade Runner and Neuromancer), and mainstream America was both fascinated by its exotic cultural--and business--virtues (see Gung Ho and Die Hard), and angered by its smooth victory over Detroit (see Vincent Chin). So Asian Americans in the 80's were forced to deal with mainstream America's perceptions of Japan, both "positive" and negative.

On the other hand, the 80's was when the redress movement for WWII Japanese American internment really heated up. (Reparations were finally awarded in 1988.) The Asian American Movement of the 1970's, which created the notion of a pan-ethnic Asian American identity, put a lot of its energy towards redress, and as a result, many Asian Americans who are not of Japanese ancestry feel a strong identification with Japanese Americans.

So it's fascinating that this book was written during all this ferment--and written at a time when American-raised Asian Americans were struggling to find an idiom to tell their stories in. Somtow doesn't explicate this particular Japanocentric, pan-ethnic Asian American sensibility so much as embody it in the book. He might not even have been entirely aware of it.

On another track, the book is a lovely experiment that recalls for me--of all things--Ernest Hogan's High Aztech. They were written about ten years apart and share almost nothing, except--and this is important--length, and hybridity. Both are not so successful as novels, both better read as impressionistic essays on 21st Century cities, technology, and human understanding.

I loved this book, which is unusual for me. I don't often love books this close to failure. But this one has done things I never thought to do with writing: taken the Mishima-style core of beauty and suicide that I've also felt and tried to write about, and made a piece out of it that I would never have thought to make.

(cross-posted from SeeLight blog: [...]
Somtow Sucharitkul (S. P. Somtow after 1985) is a fascinating individual. He’s a Thai-American SFF author/composer who moved back and forth between Thailand and the UK (English was his first language and he received his education at the University of Cambridge). Perhaps best known for his Mallworld sequence of stories (1979-2000), Somtow’s output is immense and ranges from horror to mainstream fiction (in addition to numerous symphonies and operas).

His first novel Starship & Haiku (1981), which won the 1982 Locus Best First Novel Award, joins the ranks of a veritable subgenre of SF about whales and pseudo-whales—including (off the top of my head, there are bound to be more!): Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), Ian Watson’s The Jonah Kit (1975), T. J. Bass’ The Godwhale (1974), Philip José Farmer’s The Wind Whales of Ishmael (1971), John Varley’s Gaean series (1979-1984), Alan Dean Foster’s Cachalot (1980), and Robert F. Young’s Spacewhale sequence of short stories (1962-1980) which includes “Starscape with Frieze of Dreams” (1970). And yes, a whale makes a fateful appearance in Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)… The interest in whale SF was probably rooted to the increasing scientific research on whale song in the 1970s. And whales do hold a certain allure as the largest mammals on our planet!

Bluntly put, Starship & Haiku (1981) does not reach the heights of T. J. Bass’ The Godwhale (1974) or Ian Watson’s The Jonah Kit (1975). Original premise and somewhat thought-provoking moments? Yes. A successful novel? Not so much. For another view of the novel, see The Little Red Reviewer [here].

Recommended only for those desperate for more 70s/80s post-apocalyptic SF…

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (as always, spoilers)

“Look! Skeletons,

in their best holiday clothes,

viewing flowers.

—-Onitsura (1961-1738)” (9).

Queue post-apocalyptical world after the so-called Millennial War that shattered the moon into pieces… America has fallen into a balkanized state of warring kingdoms. Three kings rule Hawaii: “they all have gangs of wild people, and they go around killing people, but usually they don’t come near the hotels or town” (45). The oceans are polluted and only a few fishing vessels ply their waters. Japan maintains a semblance or order and control but manipulative leaders, drawing on the pull of ritual suicide (somehow innate in the Japanese people), were “devoted to death: to encouraging the people to die, with honor, rather than ravaged by plague, or deformed by the caprice of mutation, into things no longer human” (73).

Into this greater morass of things comes two parallel narratives that intertwine and culminate (with the help of some whales), eventually, in a sad, but transcendent, deliverance… First, there’s Ryoko Ishida, the daughter of an important Japanese government official, she comes of age on a journey to Hawaii where she learns of her ability to communicate with whales. Her father, behind the back of Takahashi and Kawaguchi, develops a program where a spaceship will rescue some of Earth’s inhabitants.

In Hawaii she encounters Josh Nakamura, who is profoundly reluctant to acknowledge his Japanese heritage. Josh lives with his brother Didi (perpetually in boy form, unable to speak to humans, but, who along with Ryoko, is able to communicate with whales) and spends his days caring for the mutated. Moments of body horror abound: “And then again when he was holding a strange in his arms. It was only a little kid. There was nothing wrong with it to look at, it was a beautiful child, an angel. But everything was wrong as it could be, inside, it was a jumble of misdirected plumbing and misplaced organs and missing tubes and upside-down valves—” (39). After his encounter with Ryoko, to whom he is strongly drawn, he decides that he will leave violence torn Hawaii for Japan (with the help of an heirloom from his deceased grandmother).

I would want to live in a place where “King of Hawaii, a stripling, a black guy, surrounded by spiders of all colors, wielding their makeshift clubs in their funny uniforms with extra arm-holes. He was on a tattered throne, an old leather armchair” rules supreme (50)!

Ryoko herself “inherited most strongly the ability to communicate” with the whales, who are also the ancestors of man (73). After her return to Japan, while out at sea with her father and Takashi and Kawaguchi, is impregnated by a whale (70). And, these strange offspring that inhabit her ovaries, are a new species that might escape a dying earth. If only they will escape the suicidal doom propagated by the Death Lord, and facilitated by a rewritten play of Ryoko’s whale insemination and various nefarious holographic projections….

Final Thoughts

What I enjoyed: There are evocative moments scattered amongst the pages. The first line for example, “Spring, season of suicides, came suddenly for Akiro Ishida…” (8). Likewise, a framing metaphor of seemingly incongruent events/ideas, for example the notion of “beautiful death,” appears and reappears. These are highlighted by some gorgeous haikus from historical masters that play into the theme. And similar incongruent forces and natures form the core of many of the characters; Didi, who cannot speak but has the most to say; Ryoko, the most “Japanese” of the Japanese, and the one who refuses to commit suicide; and Josh Nakamura, who proclaims his “Americanness” but is drawn to Japan…

One particular incongruent moment particularly intrigues me, while Ryoko wanders across the Japanese landscape in the throws of mass suicide, she encounters the symbol of herself in the play, The Romance of the Young Girl and the Whale (86) created by Takahashi to compels people to their deaths. She too feels drawn by its message, although, ultimately she knows it is but a fiction, a myth constructed around events in her life for reasons which are not hers.

Likewise, although many might dismiss them as silly affectations rather that a more serious exploration of non-human communication, Sucharitkul’s use of diagrams to illustrate whale speech at some level does perhaps indicate connections that are more conducive to diagrammatic explanation….

However, these elements do not combine to create an otherworldly experience. The reader is mired with forced characterization (the kissing sequence during an earthquake between Ryoko and Josh is profoundly painful) and a tendency to resort to very predictable post-apocalyptical tropes that undermine the fascinating sheen of Japanese culture—how many times do we see pre-cogs in these worlds? Josh himself is a poorly drawn character. At one moment he cares for the mutated, in another instance he is content to recount how he throws stones at them! (“Or they would throw stones at the veggies and watch them wilt,” 54). His profound dislike for his grandmother, despite her endless protestations that he has lost his Japanese heritage verges on inhuman… In this world replete with death and despair, one would imagine that the few connections we are able to maintain would be affective in some way.

And we will not talk about Ryoko’s forced impregnation by a whale.