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Yoshio Aramaki: 神聖代 (The Sacred Era)

Yoshio Aramaki is known in Japan (but not elsewhere) for his speculative fiction and, more recently, for his virtual reality war novels. This novel falls into the first category and is considered his masterpiece. If science fiction is not your thing, do not worry. Though Aramaki was influenced by US science fiction writers such as Robert Heinlein, Philip K Dick, J G Ballard and Richard Calder, all of whom I have read, he was also influenced by Nietzsche, Salvador Dali and René Magritte.

This book reflects to some degree Arakai’s Christian background and, indeed, the themes of the novel include religion, church politics and doctrine as well as topics such as climate change, time travel and ghosts. The lead character is called simply K. and though the book is not particularly Kafkaesque, K. does go through life with a hidden presence seemingly after him (in this case the ghost of a heretic who was beheaded seven hundred years previously and now seems to strangle people he does not like).

The book is set on a planet in a solar system. The planet does certainly seem to resemble Earth in some details. For example, they specifically mention Darwinian evolution, there was a famous painter called Hieronymus Bosch who painted a painting called The Garden of Earthly Delights, though, on this planet, it seems to have disappeared, and in the year 1960 of the Christian era, the population was three billion, as it was on Earth. However, their Christianity is different from ours. Instead of being Trinitarian it is Quadritarian, with the fourth divinity being the Holy Igitur. It is not quite clear who the Holy Igitur was, though the capital city is named after him, but he seems to have been some sort of divine prophet, who some said was merely a prophet but others said was divine. This difference is key to the story as the ghostly heretic mentioned above, Darko Dachilko, claimed the Igitur was not divine, which led to his beheading. (Igitur, by the way, is Latin for therefore. I am not sure whether that is relevant.)

The planet has other differences from ours. Some time ago, someone managed to extract hydrogen from the sea to use as energy. While this worked, it has had dire consequences, with the sea levels dropping some two hundred meters. This has led to massive climate change and, as a result to a huge famine. Space travel was also invented, thanks to the discovery of the field theory of hyperspace. It is not know who discovered it but it is believed by some in this book that it was Darko Dachilko. The consequence has been space travel. One of their discoveries was the Planet Bosch (yes, named after the painter; this, as we shall see, is not accidental) which was first visited by one man, Tinguette, who spent three years on it and claimed it was a mass of vegetation. It had been more or less forgotten since but has recently taken on far more significance.

One area where there are some similarities include the Inquisition and the mysteries and politics of the Catholic Church and this is where the story comes from. K. has studied under a learned teacher. As a result, he has been selected to take the Sacred Service Examination. This exam, held every four years, is open to highly talented individuals (men only, of course; women’s role in this book is almost exclusively as sex objects and mothers) of any age. It lasts over seven days, with those successful on the exam on one day selected for the exam for the next day, till the large number of candidates is reduced to a small amount. Candidates can and often do take it several times. K. has to come to Igitur to take it, where he has never been before. He has no money so has to sleep outside and has little food. He finds a place under a banyan tree with many others, next to a young woman who is breast-feeding her baby. Eva, the woman, also breast-feeds K.! He does well in his exam, despite the fact (or perhaps because) the questions are different from the usual ones. We later learn that these were imposed by the higher authorities. Inevitably, he passes – the youngest to do so.

Those that pass have either selected a discipline or been given one and K. along with a much older man, Abir, is allocated Planet Bosch Research, a new discipline added to the list, the first time this has happened. He has to go to a monastery for six months as all the successful candidates have to be qualified clerics. It is here that strange things start to happen. He learns much from Abir and also from one or two other young men on the course. In particular, he learns about Darko Dachilko, space exploration and the history of the church. At the same time, strange things start happening, including ghosts, murders, sex, meetings with strange people and seemingly finding himself in a different era. Eva of the breast-feeding turns out to Lady Piponoclara, an important official, the city hall authorities claimed the Sacred Service Examination has not existed for many years and Darko is still strangling people.

But K. is inevitably going to be sent to Planet Bosch and the orders arrive, in a somewhat unconventional way. Both the actual journey and the other planets he visits before arriving at Planet Bosch show Aramaki’s imagination, not least because K. meets the devil (the Christian devil, i.e. Lucifer), Darko Dachilko and a host of other strange creatures, not to mention a city that is like an Escher print, where down is up and up is down, the Tree of Enlightenment, and a sex doll.

Aramaki is not simply doing a Star Trek, showing imaginative landscapes and people for mere entertainment. He has a serious intent, looking at what humans are, what they might be, where they are going and, of course, their relationship with the divine, all the while telling the story of a fairly ordinary, though very intelligent man, trying to find out who he is and where he is going. Of course, as in good literary tradition (and good science fiction tradition, cf. Star Wars) he is also the hero looking for his father. This is a thoroughly original work, even if grounded in conventional science fiction (specifically, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch) but goes well beyond conventional science fiction in its consideration of philosophical and religious issues.

Publishing history

First published in 1978 by Sairyu-sha
First English translation by University of Minnesota Press in 2017