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Infinite Continuous Nows: The Liminal Zones Of Izumi Suzuki
Calum Barnes , April 24th, 2021 09:21

New translations of the pathbreaking SF stories of Izumi Suzuki feel like transmissions from a lost future that ended long ago, finds Calum Barnes

Photo credit: Nobuyoshi Araki

According to Franco 'Bifo' Berardi, the future ended in 1977. “This was the year when the punk movement exploded, whose cry – ‘No Future’ – was a self-fulfilled prophecy that slowly enveloped the world,” he argues in his 2011 book, After the Future, sketching a knotty complex of social, cultural, and economic trends that all reached their terminus that year. The oil crisis exposed the volatility of the post-war economic model and the mass movements of the sixties fragmented. What could be a hollow polemical flourish turns out to be an instructive juncture from which to consider how the twentieth-century belief in progress came to be replaced by the neoliberal malaise that persists to the present.

If the future is the province of science fiction, what happens to science fiction when it disappears? Writing science fiction from the early 70s until taking her own life in 1986, the work of Izumi Suzuki straddles this border, inhabiting a liminal zone. Terminal Boredom is the first publication of the Japanese countercultural icon’s fiction in English, her detached, steely prose rendered ably by a score of established translators providing a vital addition to the science fiction canon in the anglophone world.

Coming of age during the mass political movements of the sixties, Suzuki initially made her name as a model and actor in Japanese pink films before turning to writing. Across this collection, the utopian energies that animated the sixties counterculture peter out and give way to a punk-ish nihilism. It opens with ‘Women and Women’, a matriarchal utopia in which men are condemned to an exclusion zone, and ends with its proto-cyberpunk titular story set in a defamiliarised and degraded TV-addled present with politics reduced to people voting for celebrities through their remotes. This is the period which saw “the systematic reversal of utopia into dystopia,” as Berardi puts it.

These spiky narrative fractals marshal the generic tropes of science fiction to navigate the disorientating moment under this ideological penumbra. No longer are other planets spaces to spread the virtue of human civilisation but reflections of its moral torpor. As the sheer expanse of the cosmos opens up, it just gives ever more space to project imperialist fantasies and other insular human vanities. Largely, the mostly nameless narrators describe these extra-terrestrial environments in matter-of-fact rather than majestic terms, with the offhand manner of a cool worldweary twenty-something, propping up a run-down bar at the end of the world. In one story, a planet turns out to be merely an environment for people to live out their wish fulfilment dreams in order to therapeutically work through their issues on Earth. In another, some so-called monsters playact as humans in the desolate remains of an Earth colony in an attempt to understand their curious rituals, gleaned from their cultural detritus. The heavens that once offered humanity transcendence are now merely tawdry backdrops to the expansion of their amoral, existentially barren hells which have consumed themselves into annihilation.

In Suzuki’s entropically decaying universe, time itself has become warped. Observations of its remarkable elasticity recur throughout these stories, as if all the characters live in a state of ineluctable temporal dislocation and derangement. The very sense of history seems to have atrophied. Even in the utopian realm devoid of men “time passes, the planet has its many histories, and things decline. That’s all there is to it.” The march of history is no longer coterminous with progress and modernity. “Looking at the world through the lens of progress is how the rivers and oceans came to be polluted.” All that remains is the perpetual present, an epiphany that one narrator arrives at: “The past and future have vanished and countless nows continue infinitely.” Francis Fukuyama’s notorious announcement of the end of history is a footnote to a structure of feeling that was already pervasive.

It is the mapping of the flattened interior experience of this historical derangement that forms the central concern of Suzuki’s fiction. In these stories, emotions and the selves that experience them are free floating and reified. No-one really knows how they are feeling or if they even want to feel like that anyway. As one of her characters confesses, “Don’t get me wrong, I have all these emotions inside. I get angry all the time. But if I try to think about why I feel that way, there’s no real reason. I just get angry because I’m bored.” The dominant affect to these stories is one of numbness and nothingness, then the secondary anxiety as to why they feel that way, the same anguish that fuels the screams of ‘No Future!’ The only escape on offer is the narcotised reverie of medication. Lurking just beneath the surface is the particularly gendered nature of these experiences, one doubtlessly informed by Suzuki’s infamously tempestuous relationship with free jazz saxophonist Kaoru Abe, as chronicled in the 1995 biopic, Endless Waltz.

The title of the concluding story, ‘Terminal Boredom’, may sound like a fitting description of the last year. Its fears may sound familiar, too. “Unfettered spaces scare me. I’m not used to scenes that aren’t in a frame,” the narrator remarks, a feeling that might hit home for those anxious about re-socialisation after a year communicating largely through Zoom. The historical palimpsest does not end there. The world it depicts of chronic joblessness in a hypermediatised landscape speaks to our post-pandemic moment but remains one rooted in the time of writing as the social movements ebbed and the Japanese economic miracle started to fray. A new neural implant offers direct connection to television, promising a fuzzy inner life of “passive, ambiguous contentment.”

If there is any proof needed that the future has ended, it is that these stories can speak to us so directly across the four decades since their writing. The bleak visions of utopian exhaustion they contain still have a purchase on our collective imaginations with little need of modification. It is up to the reader to decide whether this condition need be terminal.

Terminal Boredom by Izumi Suzuki is published by Verso