In United States of Japan, Peter Tieryas created a smart, timely novel built on the structure of Philip K. Dick’s seminal work of alternate history The Man in the High Castle: the Axis powers have won the second world war, and the North American continent is divided between Imperial Japan and the Nazis. Dick’s alternate history takes place roughly 15 years from the end of World War II, and United States of Japan 15 years after that, a whole generation from the liberation by Imperial forces of the Japanese interment camps that were signed off by FDR and upheld by the highest court in the US of A. The novel makes the most of its situation in the early 1980s, blending the almost fanciful tech of the era’s cyberpunk with a spy novel and a video game. It’s a peripatetic work, jumping around in time and through the eponymous United States of Japan, following several characters in the their quest to run down the creators of a seditious video game that posits that the Allies won the war.
Tieryas returns to this rich canvas in Mecha Samurai Empire. It’s been about a decade since the events of United States of Japan, but while a number of characters from that novel cameo, it’s largely a standalone novel. The key difference is that Mecha Samurai Empire is a first person narrative, told from the personal and limited perspective of one Makoto Fujimoto (Mac to his friends), a war orphan of mecha techs killed in the battle of San Diego. After his parents die, he’s placed with an abusive family, one that eventually turns him out into a boarding school. We first meet Mac in his senior year. As an orphan, he doesn’t have the money or family connections to advance in USJ culture, and as an indifferent and average student, he’s not likely to make it on scholastic merit. He’s placed all of his hopes on passing an optional military portion of a national test; if he aces it, he can go to the Berkeley Military Academy and realize his dream of piloting a mecha.
In this way, Makoto’s is not dissimilar from a thousand stories of talented but beleaguered boys who aim to overcome by dint of pluck and wit. Mac is full up with his hopes and dreams. Despite his luckless childhood, he’s so sure he’s going to beat the test and show everyone. The difference between him and other literary orphans of his ilk is that he is allowed to fail, and fail hard. It’s hilariously adorable that he thinks playing thousands of hours of video games—one of which involves controlling a Nazi-fighting cat—is going to prepare him for either military school exams, military school, or the actual military. (To be fair, the maker of several popular video games is also a designer of the military school simulation. Still.)
The exams don’t just go wrong; they go spectacularly wrong. His best friend Hideki—who offers Mac the test answers days before the exam (Mac declines)—ends up inadvertently working for the National Revolutionaries of America (NARA), successors to the George Washingtons of the previous novel. Mac, meanwhile, basically flunks out of everything, in no small part because of the animus of the tester. But then, Mac is a war orphan nothing, and there is no overcoming a system allied against you in ways small and large. He ends up enlisting in the USJ equivalent of the merchant marines, the boats in question being giant fighting robots instead of boats. Here is where Mac really shines. There is a prodigious washout rate among the RAMDET (Rapid Mobile Defense Team) cadets, but Mac doggedly persists, running off his adolescent ramen weight and pushing through the sadistic basic training calisthenics.
In one outing as a RAMDET cadet, he runs into his other best friend from high school, Griselda, who is from mixed German and Japanese heritage, and an exchange student from Nazi Germany. It wasn’t such a big deal that Mac and Griselda were friends in high school, but now that they’ve matriculated into the larger world, their friendship is threatening and uncomfortable. Griselda is mixed race in a government that exults racial purity above all, and her placement in the USJ is precarious; she has no real home. The Nazis and the Empire are in a cold war, sniping at each other over what is called the Quiet Border in engagements predicated on plausible deniability. Each side is arming the American terrorists against the other. The actions of the Nazis are, of course, horrific, and the descriptions of the camps Mac transports past in Texas are sickening. The Nazi biomechs are even worse.
Mac ends up in several mecha engagements that test who he thinks he is, both as a citizen and a person. I found him particularly likable, precisely because he never quite becomes exceptional, yet remains doggedly determined. And even his determination wavers at points, as he finds himself in morally and ethically dubious situations, or ones that resonate with his parental abandonment and subsequent abuse. While the sins of the second world war occasionally intercede, this is a world half a century from those events, and the real fire of the characters’ motivations comes from more personal events.
The term lingua franca refers to the language used in diplomatic and trade situations. Clearly this term was coined when French was in ascendancy as a trade language; probably English performs this linguistic function more often than not. In this alternate history, however, the Japanese Empire has been a global power for decades, and Japanese language and culture has sunk indelibly and permanently into the culture of the USJ. There’s a running catalog of the food the characters eat, much of which ends up being the weirdest sort of Asian fusion you’ve ever heard of. (My favorite was “unagi kimchee fried rice with bacon curry poutine.”) Tieryas creates a brilliant cultural lingua franca in Mecha Samurai Empire, while still telling the intensely personal story of one small person, made larger by the carapace of history, and the giant mecha he pilots.