Monday Original Content: An Interview with Nick Mamatas

This week on the WSNB, Charles Tan interviews Nick Mamatas, editor of the new Haikasoru line of Japanese SF in English translation.

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, looking back at 2009, do you think the goals of the Haikasoru line were achieved?

Absolutely — we hit the ground running with a diverse list (a little hard SF, some adventure, even a horror title) and got some excellent feedback from the fans and the book trade in the US, the UK, and beyond. I think our timing was right—after all, as Haikasoru launched, we also saw elsewhere in the field an “international SF” issue of Words Without Borders, and an anthology and website dedicated to “world SF.” We wanted to be a part of the greater conversation in the field over the future of science fiction, and we did it handily.

You mention diversity. Do you have a hardline stance on what to publish, such as “strictly SF,” or will you branch out into other related genres, such as fantasy and more horror?

Nope, like I said, we’re casting a wide net. Usurper of the Sun by Housuke Nojiri is hard SF; The Book of Heroes by Miyuki Miyabe is fantasy (with a connection to the classic weird fiction of Robert W. Chambers!), ZOO by Otsuichi is a collection of dark fantasy/SF/suspense—sort of like a Robert Bloch or Ray Bradbury. We’re looking to do the best genre material from Japan, though our emphasis will continue to be on SF in broad strokes.

What made Viz decide to branch out into science fiction?

There are many fans amongst the editorial staff and it made sense when looking to branch out in to some new markets, as businesses often try, because the bookstore buyers for graphic novels/manga also tend to be the people who buy for the SF/F section. VIZ has had some success with novels before, such as the original edition of Battle Royale, so a line was the logical next step.

Can you share with us some of the titles you’ll be releasing this year?

In March we have The Stories of Ibis by Hiroshi Yamamoto, a great novel-in-stories about the development of strong AI (and also about the history of SF!). A chapter has already been published in Words Without Borders.

We also have Slum Online by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, which is a coming-of-age story about an MMO enthusiast. We’re also thrilled that this edition will contain a sequel novelette, “Bonus Round”, written expressly for us. So, this represents our first utterly original content. Sakurazaka also wrote All You Need Is KILL, one of our 2009 launch titles.

In May we have a great big book called Loups-Garous by Natsuhiko Kyogoku, who is known for his very unusual and uncanny mysteries in Japan. This book is a satire of teen culture in a future where almost everyone is a social isolate—even junior high schoolers live alone—who depends on his or her palmtop computer for communication, education, etc. And there’s a serial killer on the loose…

We also have The Next Continent by Issui Ogawa in May, which is about the construction of a private place of leisure on the moon. We’ve also published Ogawa before, with The Lord of the Sands of Time, but this is a hard SF title—there’s an entire chapter that’s practically about the use of regolith to make concrete— rather than a wild time-travel adventure. It’s gripping though, and has a fun romance element.

We have other books lined up too, but these are the ones in the starting gate. We put out two titles every other month.

Wow, that’s a lot of titles. Who decides which books gets translated and what’s the selection process like?

Haikasoru’s editor-in-chief Masumi Washington reads Japanese SF (both magazines and books) widely and keeps an eye out for good titles. Then we commission quick translations of chapters and get synopses of, say, eight or ten books, and from there we’ll have some formal or informal discussions and pick three or four. We like to try a mix—so for example, this month (January 2010) we’ll be releasing a military SF title, Yukikaze, by Chōhei Kanbayashi and also The Book of Heroes, the fantasy I mentioned earlier. So we try to be sure that we have a variety with each month of release.

In light of your recent blog entry (, could you share with us how integral it is for the translator and the editor to collaborate together so that the final product is accessible to English readers?

Certainly as integral as the editorial process is in a book published in an original language. A translation though, is a bit different because languages are conceptually different—English has much stricter rules as to what comprises a sentence for example—and tone can be a challenge. Natsuhiko Kyogoku, for example, uses a large number of very short sentences and sentence fragments in his work, creating haiku-like tonal effects over the course of hundreds of pages. In Japan, he even has a hand in the production of his own books, and tries to make sure that every page ends with a complete sentence, so that readers can stop if they wish to. Capturing all that in an utterly different language for readers with very different expectations as to pacing, characterization, the sorts and amount of information a narrator should give, etc. is very tricky.

And the translator, unlike the author, cannot simply do wholesale rewrites to make something work. We’re playing a hand that has already been dealt.  Then there’s the issue of translator skill; few have the ear of a novelist. That’s when I come in. I’ve managed to find some excellent creative translators, but can also nudge and pull and yank and tug at the work. So far I haven’t had to put in any footnotes to explain this or that untranslatable term or cultural reference, though part of my luck there has been the immense cultural exchange between Japan and the English-speaking world over the past two decades thanks to video games, manga, and anime.

Aside from the quantity of books being released, how is Haikasoru in 2010 different compared to 2009?

Most of our 2010 titles will be longer than those we released in 2009. At the very end of this year, of course, we issued a new edition of Battle Royale and the paperback of Miyabe’s Brave Story and their success let us know that English-language readers wants longer novels. Japanese writers often prize brevity and precision (though not everyone; Kyogoku is known for his long books) while in the US and UK, “bigger is better.” So we’ve found some longer books. The Next Continent, for example, was released in two volumes in Japan, but we have combined them into a single trade paperback for the Haikasoru release.

Moving on to Japanese science fiction in general, how did you initially get acquainted with the genre?

It was a crash course for me—I knew a bit about it as a few things have been published in the US: Japan Sinks, the J-horror titles put out by Vertical, a couple of SF and Lovecraftian anthologies. I consumed them quickly and immediately was thrown in the pool on my first day of work at VIZ Media. It’s a good thing too; a lot to learn, and I am still no expert, but nothing instructs like immersion. Of course, Japanese SF writers tended to have grown up on US/UK SF, so the references to Asimov, Tiptree, van Vogt, etc. were well known to me, and perhaps better known to me than they would have been to someone who came into the field via editing manga, for example.

What are your impressions of Japanese SF?

It’s great! Much of it lacks the Mannerism of current Western SF—that is, one doesn’t have to have read the last fifty years of science fiction to make sense of the contemporary material. There are also some interesting bits of politics (specifically meditations on Japan/US relations), a pacing that owes a lot of manga in the same way Western SF owes a lot of motion pictures, and a somewhat greater tendency for romance and sentiment than we see in Western material.

Are there any authors or works that’s personally striking?

One of the advantages of a small list—twelve books a year—is that we only do the books that we find personally striking. I love Sakurazaka’s wry take on the world, which will appear in spades in Slum Online, I was thrilled to add to the King in Yellow mythos by helping bring The Book of Heroes to a Western audience, when we first looked at Yukikaze a number of editors familiar with the anime were thrilled to bring this classic novel to the West and their enthusiasm was contagious.

Could you share with us how anime, manga, and light novels influence the genre?

Well, some of it is just obvious—in the same way any number of Western science fiction novels will feature characters who enjoy science fiction or that will essentially be about science fiction, characters in Japanese novels often consume anime and manga and make reference to their reading (of course the characters also read Fredric Brown and James Tiptree Jr.) or otherwise tangle with or even are characters or concepts from anime and manga.

More to the question of influence—in some Japanese SF, the manga influence is clear in the pacing. Thought and action from multiple characters often happen simultaneously, or there will be extended “cut-aways” to other scenes. In this, the pacing owes a lot to the manga panel, whereas in Western SF scenes and pacing are often more obviously influenced by the idea of the camera focusing on a single point-of-view character.

There are also some comical interludes and romance subplots that remind me a lot of manga and anime in Japanese SF that are missing in Western SF.

“Light novels” are essentially novels for young adults that are often illustrated, and of course many of them are SF or fantasy. Haikasoru is not a light novel line—some of our books, such as The Stories of Ibis were hardcover originals in Japan—though, on the other hand, some of our authors such as Otsuichi made his initial splash in light novels. All You Need Is KILL was published as a light novel in Japan, though its sensibility is mature enough (and really, dark enough) for an adult readership. Of course, plenty of current Western “YA fiction” is also consumed largely by adults.

What in your opinion are the challenges in convincing readers to try out Japanese SF?

The greatest challenges have little to do with provenance—there are simply a lot of books clamoring for attention, and we’re adding another dozen a year to the pile. We do have to be careful that the titles do not end up stocked in the manga section, though we haven’t had much problem with that, and some readers wonder if translations can really hold up, but the feedback we’ve received so far has been overwhelmingly positive.

Just wondering, why is being stocked in the manga section a bad thing? (I only ask because anime/manga tie-in novels and unfortunately your books do end up in the manga shelves of our bookstores here.)

It would be difficult for science fiction readers to find them in a section the readers we are aiming at may not spend a lot of time in, of course. For manga tie-ins, like the non-Haikasoru novel Death Note: L, Change the WorLd, of course we want them placed in the manga section where Death Note fans will find it, and not necessarily in the mystery/suspense section despite that novel being a thriller featuring the genius detective L. Placement is all about finding the audience where it stands.


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