We’ve been offering original content throughout this relaunch week: today, Charles Tan interviews Japanese author Sayuri Ueda, whose novel The Cage of Zeus is published by Haikasoru (translated by Takami Nieda).
The Rounds are humans with the sex organs of both genders. Artificially created to test the limits of the human body in space, they are now a minority, despised and hunted by the terrorist group Vessel of Life. Aboard Jupiter-I, a space station orbiting the gas giant that shares its name, the Rounds have created their own society with a radically different view of gender and of life itself. Security chief Shirosaki keeps the peace between the Rounds and the typically gendered “Monaurals,” but when a terrorist strike hits the station, the balance of power and tolerance is at risk…and an entire people is targeted for genocide.
Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview.
How did you first get acquainted with science fiction?
I first read Sakyo Komatsu’s 1973 classic Japan Sinks when I was ten and was jolted by the experience. I was struck by how scientifically Japan’s sinking was explained、and it was through that novel that I discovered the existence of stories told from a scientific perspective. That was the moment I realized that you could render worlds on a much larger scale in science fiction than in regular fiction.
Around the same time, I had also read Rod Serling’s The Midnight Sun in a juvenile magazine and learned that humanity wouldn’t necessarily continue to flourish and prosper as it has. Even a slight disturbance in the sun can wipe out all of humanity. As you can imagine, this realization was a huge shock to a child.
What are some of the works that have inspired your writing?
I learned a lot about writing novels from the works of Yasutaka Tsutsui. In terms of science, emotional impact, satirical wit and sheer vision, or from any other standpoint for that matter, few writers can write as perfectly as Tsutsui can.
There are also many foreign science fiction books translated and released by publishers in Japan. I read Arthur C. Clarke, James Tiptree, Jr., William Gibson—everything from the classics to the latest releases—anything that captured my attention. I believe all of these works have influenced my writing in some form.
How did you come up with the character Karina Majella?
I saw a documentary about child soldiers on television. These children, about ten years old, were being trained to shoot sniper rifles and being sent off to war as a matter of course; I was deeply struck by their blank, impenetrable faces that revealed nothing of what they might have been feeling.
I remember wondering what these children might hope for if they should survive war. No matter how brilliant the ideology or how magnificent the new society that grown-ups end up creating, these child soldiers would see it all as nothing more than an illusion built on the bloodied corpses of the weak. This is how I came upon the initial seed for Karina.
Do you think it’s possible for humanity to establish a utopia?
Whether we are capable of establishing a utopian society is dependent on how humanity’s imagination. As long as we cannot overcome the discrimination and violence rooted in fear, the only thing humanity will be able to create is distopia. The reality is that we have continued to spill the blood of countless victims and the path toward a utopia is a very long one. However, humanity is a race that has never forgotten the spirit of advancement and progress. That alone might be our last hope.
One recurring theme in Japanese fiction is perceiving space as the future of humanity. Do you share in this belief?
Space is such an alluring world. I doubt we’ll ever give up the journey toward space and will continue to set its sights on faraway planets, no matter what the challenge.
But the future of humanity doesn’t lie in space alone. It’s hard for me to believe that a people that haven’t been able to find a future on Earth could ever forge a future in space. In fact, those two missions are one and the same. You could say that our readiness to embark into space is being tested in our daily lives and in the values of contemporary society.
What was the most challenging aspect in writing this novel?
I was mindful about crafting a science fiction story that would hold up, even for readers that weren’t necessarily interested in gender and sexuality issues. If readers are left with a kind of bitter feeling that they can’t shake, even if they’re not exactly interested in the thematic concerns of the book, then I would have to say the novel was a success.
How did you settle on the book’s title?
Zeus is a god in Greek mythology, an alternate name for the planet Jupiter, and the walls that stand in the way of humanity’s progress in space. This novel is about the humans who are held captive inside Zeus’ cage but are also imprisoned by the walls and boundaries they’ve put up themselves. One intention of this novel was to honestly convey the pain and anguish of these people, so I thought The Cage of Zeus was a fitting title. Unless we’re able to break out of this cage, we will never be able to create a new society. This, of course, is very difficult to achieve.
Did you ever imagine that your novel would be translated into English?
Not at all. Although we’re seeing more Japanese science fiction being translated now, those opportunities weren’t available when I’d written Zeus in 2004. The only writers being translated at the time were veterans who’d been working at their craft for decades, so there was absolutely no chance for a writer like me to be translated only a year after her debut novel.
In your opinion, what is it about science fiction that sets it apart from other genres?
That you can create a future—both temporal and spatial—on such a grand scale through a scientific lens. That you can take the seemingly impossible and render that into a possibility that humanity has the potential to realize. That you are free to write with unfettered imagination. That there are many opportunities available to young writers. That you are able to play out universal and enduring “what if” scenarios in the world of science fiction, even while dealing with contemporary themes.
I believe these distinctions are what continue to captivate the minds of science fiction writers and readers.