Mariko Ōhara: ハイブリッド・チャイルド (Hybrid Child)
This is the second in the University of Minnesota Press’Parallel Futures series and every bit as fascinating as the first. As with Yoshio Aramaki, Mariko Ōhara is virtually unknown to English-speaking readers, though she has won many awards in Japan for her science fiction writing. This work is a feminist science fiction work, something that apparently is not as common in Japan as it should be, though it covers many themes found also in non-science fiction work, such as love, good vs evil, religion, immortality, and identity, all seen from a science fiction perspective.
The background to the story is an intergalactic war between the Empire of Machines and humans. To save the humans from annihilation by the Empire of Machines, the Military Priest, a quasi God-like being, has invented a biomechanical combat unit, known as Sample B. This unit has many advantages. It is virtually indestructible. If it is destroyed by a bomb or other means, it can quickly reconstruct itself. There is one way of destroying it, by a special bomb but this is not generally known nor is the bomb readily available. More importantly, if it has managed to absorb the DNA of any creature, real or manufactured, it can assume the form of this creature in seconds, thereby disguising itself. It is super-intelligent and super-destructive, being powered by a nuclear core, which can be used as a weapon. Relatively few were built and all are known by a number. Of course, as in any good science fiction book about humanoids, one of them, #3, has gone rogue and that, indeed, is to a great extent what this book is about. However, this is not Isaac Asimov but a feminist work. It also seems that there has been a nuclear winter though we are given very few details about it.
We start, somewhat deceptively, with an I-narrator. I say deceptively because she will soon die and though death is not necessarily an absolute term in this book, the I-narrator more or less disappears from the narrative, with only spasmodic post-mortem appearances. She lives in a house controlled by a mouthy artificial intelligence system, though the system seems to be linked to her late daughter, Jonah. Jonah, who was seven when she died, is buried deep beneath the house in a specially secured vault. Indeed, it is so secure that it can resist the special bomb that can destroy the Sample Bs. The mother is anorexic and it seems that she forcibly more or less starved her daughter, who died when out in the snow.
However, our focus is on Sample B #3. She – this will become clear very soon, though obviously, Sample Bs normally do have a sex – has escaped. No-one knows why as Sample Bs do not normally do this and none of the others has done so. Nevertheless, #3 is on the run, disguising herself in various ways, e.g. as a dadazim, a genetically engineered super household pet. The mother invites her in, thinking she is a dadazim.
Meanwhile, we meet D.H. If we have been sexist, we will have assumed that, as a military officer, D.H. was male but we later learn that D.H. is Donna Hess and is the Virgin Mary-equivalent in this book. She goes, as a major to meet Him. He is the Military Priest, the sort of Jesus-like figure, if you will and, though he is much older than Donna, she will give birth to him in the future, with the father being her subordinate, Lieutenant Shinohara. Meanwhile, however, she has to deal with the rogue #3 and, to do so, she is sent thirty hours into the future and takes command of the unit surrounding the house where #3 now is.
Inevitably, there is an attack, destruction and death. #3 ends up in the vaults with Jonah, is protected from the bomb in the specially secure vault and merges with Jonah. Henceforth, #3 will be, to a great extent, Jonah, therefore she will be a she. D.H. and Co look for the remains of #3 without success. #3 manages to escape- eventually – and she, as Jonah but also assuming other appropriate disguises, wanders the universe, before popping up on Aqua Planet, controlled by a previous benign but now less than benign female AI unit called Milagros. She apparently has a learning disorder.
Jonah/#3 gets involved in the local politics. However, back home, the Military Priest, has repaired Sample B #13 and sent him (he specifically has a male persona) after #3. Dreyfus, the somewhat evil gang leader on the Aqua Planet, has now massed his troops – many of them young boys recruited with bribes of food – and is preparing to take over from Milagros. Somewhere in-between are the various good guys.
Had this been written by a man we would no doubt have had an all-out bloody war with lots of death and destruction. Ohara does not eschew death and destruction but she definitely takes a much more nuanced (and intelligent) approach both to this and to the rest of the book. She is certainly concerned with science fiction tropes. Is there such a thing as immortality and does it matter where the boundaries between conventional biological beings and artificially created beings, which have as many if not more feelings than the conventional biological beings? Love is key. I Love You. These were the last words he heard in this universe, are the final words of this book but love and not necessarily sexual love is fairly key throughout this book.
Artificial intelligence, an intergalactic war between a human-based civilisation and machine-based one and indestructibility are some of the science fiction themes and Ohara handles them very intelligently, raising interesting questions. Will AI units be not only more intelligent, and stronger and tougher than us, more but also more sensitive and more concerned with their identity than we are? Will they be able to love?
Religion is also key. There is no doubt that Donna Hess and her child, the Military Priest, owe at least some of their make-up to the Virgin Mary/Jesus myth. However, the Military Leader could also perhaps be seen not only as a god on Earth but also something of a Darth Vader. He is not entirely immortal but certainly lives many hundreds of years.
However, what makes this book is clearly the character and nature of #3. While she is happy to eat people and creatures and assume their form and is happy to kill when necessary, she clearly has a complex character, taken from those she eats, particularly Jonah. She shows loves and sensitivity but also concern about her identity and who she is. Other forms of AI also appear and have their own issues . Indeed it is the AI units that seem far more interesting than the actual humans.
I do not have many science fiction books on my site, not least because if I did, there would be too many to give them proper attention, along with all the other worthwhile books out there. Nevertheless, I fully accept that there are lots of intelligently written science fiction books being written and published which do deserve attention and it is clear that the University of Minnesota Press’Parallel Futures series is going to be one series where such books will be found.
First published in 1990 by Hayakawa Shobō
First English translation by University of Minnesota Press in 2018
Translated by Jodie Beck