Japanese novel review: “火星に住むつもりかい?” by 伊坂幸太郎 (Kotaro Isaka)

By | January 31, 2019

On my last trip to Japan, I couldn’t help but pick up a copy of Kotaro Isaka’s novel ”火星に住むつもりかい?”, published by Kobunsha as hardcover in 2015, and then as a paperback in 2018.

There were several factors that contributed to me choosing this novel. First, I really loved the cover image––an (apparently) CG-generated closeup of a giant wind turbine that just screams “technology”. Also, being a big fan of science fiction, a story involving mars was intriguing, especially because of the English subtitle on the cover, “Life on Mars?” Finally, the blurb on the back cover referred to a dystopia, which happens to be one of my favorite genres. (So much that I translated and published one of the first Japanese dystopian novels)

I hesitated somewhat to buy the book because of the relatively large page count (I’ll only give a vague range in case some people consider that a spoiler: 350-550). My Japanse reading speed is much slower than my English, and I didn’t want to get stuck reading a book for several months. But in the end, the above-mentioned factors won me over.

That was several months ago, and when I finally got around to reading this novel, my expectations were totally overturned in several respects (both positive and negative). But overall this was a fairly good book that I thoroughly enjoyed.

I’m not planning on revealing any of the major plot points in this review, however some of the things I’ll be talking about below could be considered minor spoilers. So if you are sensitive to such things you may want to stop here.

This book is set in modern-day Japan, except that government is extremely corrupt and sends teams of people around to various areas in order to uncover the so-called 危険人物 (literally “dangerous character(s)”), those who seem to have either committed some crime, or are liable to commit one. To make matters worse, in this dystopian society the definition of what makes a “dangerous character” is very flexible; people who seem completely innocent end up being labelled as “dangerous characters” and are eventually executed via a shiny, modern-looking guillotine in a public place, where many of the populace come to watch.

At heart this is a detective story, involving the government trying to uncover and catch the “dangerous characters”, and the few people who are trying to oppose the police’s morally dubious ways. One thing that sets this novel apart from similar books I have read in the past is the fact the story is told from the viewpoint of a few different characters, on both sides of the conflict. As I was reading the book, I felt this to be a weak point since I wasn’t able to strongly associate with any one character, and sometimes I have difficulty keeping tracking of novels with several main characters. But once I finished, I realized that the many plot twists were only possible because of this multi-perspective storytelling style.

This book gave me a strong sense of what I would call “popular fiction”, in the sense that it caters to a wide audience, keeps to relatively simple grammar and vocabulary, and utilizes thinly-veiled foreshadowing in a few places. It has been a few years since I’ve read any of his books, but perhaps the style is a bit similar to the best-selling author Keigo Higashino. In terms of well-known American writers, I would say Blake Crouch is roughly in the same genre (I reviewed one of his books here).

I mentioned my expectations being overturned earlier, and one of these was that the book would take me a long time to read. This novel was surprisingly easy to read, and the middle 80% went by very quickly, with only the beginning and end challenging to follow at times. In the beginning it took time to get accustomed to the set of characters before reaching the ‘core’ part of the story, and in the end there were enough twists to require careful reading in a few places.

Koutaru Isaka is a very prolific (and popular) writer, and it’s clear he has finely honed his skill to make not only readable prose, but to connect a series of characters events in a dramatic progression that keeps you wanting more. In recent years I’ve noticed a trend where I will get into a state of mind where I just want to blaze through a book to “get it done”, but with this book I was able to get into something like a meditative state where I no longer cared how many pages were left. Ironically, this was easier reading than some of the last few novels I read in English.

There’s probably another reason that this book felt so easy to me: my last translation project involved century-old Japanese with many difficult passages and uncommon words. Compared to that, this novel was a breeze. While I still had to look up words once in a while, it was pretty infrequent and didn’t affect my reading experience considerably. The fact I had read several Keigo Higashi novels years ago might have also helped, due to their similar styles.

While this novel went by pretty quick for me––I finished it in just over two weeks, perhaps a new record for me, given the page length and content––I hesitate to recommend it to Japanese learners because of its length and overall difficulty level. I think this is the first Japanese book I read that actually grouped several lines of dialogue (by more than one character) onto the same vertical line. While it’s a good way to save paper, it makes the text feel extra dense. There is also is a good amount of words related to government, police, or investigation that will require a lot of dictionary time unless you are familiar with these domains. On the other hand, dialogue––typically easier to read than descriptions or other types of passages––dominates a large portion of this book (and it seems this is common to his other books, too.)

If you do want to get your feet wet in the world of Koutaro Isaka, I would suggest one of his shorter works. “Long Range” seems a good choice, though I haven’t actually read it and the story sounds quite different from “火星に住むつもりかい?”. You can find a review of “Long Range” by fellow blogger Yeti san here.

The SF elements of this book also greatly missed my expectations. While some scientific-related “stuff” occupies a key part of the story (and the way it works is pretty neat), overall I wouldn’t call this an SF novel. The title and subtitle, which fooled me into thinking this was an SF book, do have a connection to the story, but I feel this connection is tenuous enough to call borderline deceptive. I was glad, however, that author does describe the logic behind them at the end of the book, and even apologies to people that expected a science fiction story.. The cover image, too, is very loosely connected to the plot. But again, if it weren’t for that cover I may never have bought the book.

Finally, my hopes of reading a great Dystopian novel were also dashed. Even though I think it’s fair to call the setting a “dystopia”, it paled in comparison to classics I’ve read (and loved) such as “Nineteen Eighty Four” and “Brave New World”. I guess if I had never read any of those books I would have felt more fearful about the government depicted.

On the bright side, this book tackles some interesting topics and makes you consider a handful of moral and philosophical issues––though perhaps not enough for me to call it an exemplary piece of “literature” (you know, the kind they make you read in high school).

While I don’t think I’m going to rush out and read another Koutaro Isaka book right now (partially because I need to start searching for my next translation project…), this book was good enough for me to put him high on my list of authors to read more of. When I get around to it, I may pick 砂漠, ranked as #1 on several lists of his best books. It is also available in audiobook form, a good way to practice your listening skills. Or I may pick this one, whose cover really intrigues me. The blurb on the back didn’t give me a concrete idea of what it is about, but the mystery of revealing that is part of the fun!

By the way, you may have noticed that, unlike my other reviews, I didn’t translate the title (火星に住むつもりかい?). Literally, the title can be rendered as, “So You Intend to Live on Mars?”, but deciding whether to maintain the deceptive nature of the Japanese title or go with something else altogether for the English version would be a tough call for the publisher. If it was up to me, for the English title I would consider this rephrasing, taking into account the dialogue lines in the book that relate to the original title:

“Then You Belong on Mars”

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