Peter Tieryas’ United States of Japan has been one of our most anticipated 2016 releases since we first heard whispers of the premise: it’s a “spiritual sequel” to Philip K’ Dick’s alt-history classic The Man in the High Castle, set some four decades after Japan occupied the U.S. during World War II. Plus, it has giant mechs. So, yeah.
We’ve still a few more weeks wait for the whole thing, but today, we’re pleased to have teamed up with Tor.com to offer you a pair of exclusive excerpts. Head over to Tor.com to read the prologue, and scroll down for the first chapter of the novel proper. United States of Japan is out March 1.
The excerpt begins after a few words of scene setting from Peter himself.
The original opening of United States of Japan began at this excerpted section, set in the alternate 1988. One of the two main characters, Beniko Ishimura, is an officer in the Japanese Empire enjoying a traveling circus from Beiping (the city wasn’t renamed to Beijing in history until after Japan’s defeat in WWII). I ended up adding a prologue following Ben’s parents, but this is where the story really begins.
Some of the ideas I wanted to explore in this sequence were how different morality would be with Christianity no longer the primary religion, as well as the nature of entertainment in a society where Asian and Western cultures are fused at the hip. Since Japan did not have to undergo a decade of reconstruction and also has access to many more resources, I leapfrogged their technology two decades. Silicon Valley was destroyed by an atomic bomb at the end of WWII in USJ, but Anaheim has taken its place in developing “porticals” which are their version of a smart phone.
At the same time, their technology isn’t just limited to the mechanical, but also biological. Human experimentation was a dark part of the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII and in this timeline, that never stopped. Bio-organic and genetic integration of technology with human biochemistry is an accepted part of life.
June 30, 1988
There was never a day Beniko Ishimura didn’t think about death. If mortality were a cocktail, it would be bitter, punctuated by hints of lime, imbuing oblivion in short draughts. Ben’s own cocktail was too sweet for his tastes because his date for the evening, Tiffany Kaneko, liked her drinks fruity. She was a striking redhead with freckles that mottled her cheeks. Her green eyes and thin lips could spark incendiaries – the way they’d done the first time their eyes locked. She wore a pink qipao because she appreciated traditional Chinese dresses and the way they emphasized the contrast of her Irish ancestry with her Asian periphery. Even though Ben’s father had been part Chinese and his mother Japanese, he looked full-blooded Japanese. He tried to match the prevailing fashions of the day and aligned his image with the latest trends projected from Tokyo. Like most of the officers in the room, his long hair was slicked back with oil. He wore the brown suit of a military officer, insignia ranking him as a captain in the Imperial Army. Vermilion lapels collided against his chubby cheeks, and, from the bulge in his belly that he refused to acknowledge, it was clear he was fighting both his cravings and gravity. He sucked on an ice cube in his cocktail, relishing the cold that numbed his tongue.
It was Tiffany who had wanted to see this circus act from China. She’d heard about it from her friends in the press corps and knew only military officers could gain access. “Freak show” was her actual description. A cornucopia of the bizarre, they were deviants who had strayed from the moment they were born. The woman on the center stage had a beard longer than any Ben had ever seen. She used her beard like a lasso, twirling it and doing fancy tricks. Her partner, a skinny male, contorted his body so he’d dance in conjunction with the various geometric compunctions enforced by her hair.
“What is it about the strange that piques your interest so much?” he whispered to Tiffany.
“Strange is coincidence, a random act. If all women had facial hair, I’d be the strangest one alive.”
“Strangest, yes, but still the most beautiful.”
“Beautiful is so generic. I wouldn’t pay money to see that.”
“Does elegantly dashing and intriguingly provocative sound better?”
“A little. If you were the only man in the world without a beard, I’d put you in a circus and sell views without any catchphrases,” she stated.
“How much would you charge?”
“A hundred yen.”
“That’s it?” Ben asked.
“You sound disappointed.”
“I was hoping at least a thousand a view.”
“I’m not that greedy,” she said, playfully pressing her finger against his arm.
They were in a circular room with tables arranged by rank. Their dinner was a mix of sashimi and steaks. A connoisseur from Kyoto made special rice and the tamago was boiled to dripping perfection. Most of the officers were smoking cigarettes and the lights were dim apart from the gaudily colored beams firing up the show. Pleasure smelled of tobacco, raw fish, whiskey, and perfume. Tiffany held Ben’s hand and said, “Are you excited about tonight?”
“Very,” Ben whispered back. “I should have been a major a long time ago. Most of the guys I graduated with from BEMAG,” the Berkeley Military Academy for Game Studies, “are already colonels.”
“Captain in the Office of the Censor isn’t a bad job,” Tiffany said. “It’s cushy and you can spend as much time with me as you want. But I guess it’s good for you to finally get to be Major Ishimura.”
“Which pretty much means I’ll be doing the exact same thing, just with a little pay raise.”
“And a better parking spot.”
He laughed. “I’d probably drive my car to work more that way.” He shook his cup, watching the ice roll around his drink. “Never thought it’d take this long.”
“Even if it took a while, you’re getting what you wanted.”
“I’m grateful. Did you know it’s become a point of scandal among my colleagues? ‘Ishimura, why are you still the oldest captain in the USJ at thirty-nine?’”
“You don’t like being the focus of attention?”
“Not like that,” Ben said.
“I guess you wouldn’t last long in a cage.”
“It’d depend on who was in there with me.”
He wondered what the bearded woman looked like without hair. From her hazel eyes, inured to the whimsies of emotion, he imagined her playing court for Imperial officers throughout the world from New Delhi to Beiping to Bangkok. Cigarette smoke was their olfactory leitmotif, bewildered officers hypnotized by the flocculence of her face. When she disappeared into the shadows, a sword dancer emerged, claiming he was descended from a famous Chinese warlord named Cao Cao. He juggled five broadswords and threw one up particularly high. It descended straight into his throat and belly. Blood spurted out. Several officers and their dates gasped in shock, thinking the swordsman had accidentally impaled himself. But the performer continued dancing in good cheer, not disturbed by the blood, which turned out to be strawberry jam. He pulled the sword out and asked the crowd if anyone could, “Help me cut my head off?”
Tiffany raised her hand and, just as Ben was about to object, a Japanese waitress whose face was doused in white paint approached and said, “Ishimura-san. Forgive the interruption, but you have a call.”
“I’m not taking any calls during the show,” Ben said, dismissing the woman.
“Sir. Respectfully, the speaker was very insistent.”
Ben looked to Tiffany. “You going to cut his head off?” he asked her.
“Only if you watch.”
“I’m squeamish about this kind of thing.”
“It’s a trick.”
“I’ll be back soon,” Ben said.
“It’ll be over by then.”
“You can tell me all about it.”
“You leave, you miss out.”
He kissed her cheek and followed the waitress down the steps. He bowed to several ranking officers and ignored the ones who were with their mistresses. After he’d exited the performance hall, he took out his portical in its square form and flipped open the flaps to turn it into its familiar triangular shape. Porticals had originally been devised as “portable calculators.” In the decades since the War, they had grown to encompass a phone with visual display, an electronic interface to search information on the kikkai (the digital space where all information was stored), and more. The triangular glass monitor interfaced with the processor, which he navigated via tactile contact. The silver borders accented the sleek design. “Patch the call through,” he told the woman.
No signal came.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
It was hard to interpret her expression with her white face and her crimson painted lips. She looked like a mask, an inscrutable assembly of paints staring with pupils of incoherence. “Can you follow me, sir?”
“A private room.”
“I thought I had a call,” Ben snapped.
“I wanted to talk with you.”
“Could we speak in private?”
“You can speak here.”
“It would be better in private as will be made abundantly clear.”
The performance center had newly painted walls that were richly saturated in red and dark blues, bleeding decadent opulence. There were statues of heroic officers from the United States of Japan in almost every corner, bravery allegorized in sculpted form. Ben noticed the plaque on one, describing how Colonel Ando died of typhoid in the San Diego uprisings while fighting the rebels and drowned himself in their water supply to make the Americans sick; Sergeant Okada was a notoriously clumsy chef who poisoned a thousand chestnuts and killed a thousand Americans in the process; and Lieutenant Takahashi was a pilot who sacrificed her life to take down one of the enemy aircrafts by crashing into their otherwise impregnable aircraft carrier bridge. They all died with honor. Living soldiers rarely got statues, Ben thought to himself.
He was led into a large room filled with hundreds of cages. Birds were inside each, chirping chaotically, virulent squawks in an aviary cacophony. Most of the birds criticized the cramped space, the dry air, and the stale food. A nervous few fretted about their upcoming act, wanting to dazzle the humans who reciprocated their songs with thunderous claps.
“Why are we here?” Ben asked.
The waitress slipped out of her kimono, her peachy flesh juxtaposing eerily against the white of her kami-like face.
“What are you doing?” Ben demanded to know.
She had taped her breasts together and it became apparent from her lean chest and the bulge in her breeches that she was actually a he.
“I’m flattered, but I’m here with someone,” Ben said. “So unless this is more than a strip show–”
The man removed a flap of the skin on his belly, which made Ben wince until he saw a leathery strip with tiny circuits embedded into his flesh and bone. He took out a wire from his kimono and plugged it directly into a circuit in his belly. The flap of his skin was fake, but the wiring had dried blood and fat on it, a telephone soufflé built into his guts. Ben had heard of private messengers making phones powered by the biochemistry of their body, electric pulses from the heart, additional radio connectors integrated into their intestines. But he’d never seen a “flesh phone” directly. Utilizing them cost a fortune and he couldn’t imagine anyone would have anything that important to say to him. These calls were impossible to trace, undetectable to metal scans, and the messengers themselves were merely relays, having no information in case they were caught. They were the only guaranteed way to guard against detection by the two groups of secret police, Kempeitai and Tokko.
“Your call, sir,” the man said through his female mask of ermine. “Can you give me your portical?”
Ben complied and connected the wire directly into his portical, curious who had gone through all this effort just to speak with him. He attached it to a microphone he placed in his ear.
“Did you know?” a voice asked.
“Know what? Who’s this?” Ben demanded.
“Did you know?” the voice repeated.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Did you know about Claire?”
“Claire’s dead,” the voice on the other side said.
The voice seemed familiar. “General?” Ben probed.
“Claire’s dead,” the voice repeated, though this time with measured pain.
“What do you mean, Claire’s dead?”
“I’ll slice those cursed sloths into a million pieces and fry them up through a hundred hells and feed them to guinea pigs for what they did to her.”
“Is this you, General?” he asked, even though based on his baritone voice, he was certain it was.
“She didn’t know anything. She had to die for my mistakes.”
“Is there something I can do to help?”
The other voice snorted. “You can’t even help yourself, Ishimura.”
“Then why did you call me?”
“Because she trusted you and because I can’t arrange her funeral rites from where I am. See to it that she gets a proper burial. Not a Shinto ceremony. An American, Christian one, the way she wanted.”
“Are you sure she’s dead?”
There was a long pause.
“General?” Ben called, wondering if the communication had dropped.
It hadn’t and the general said, “It is my greatest shame and regret that I could not protect the two people who were dearest to me… Will you do it?”
“Of course. Where are–”
The phone disconnected. The messenger unhooked Ben’s portical, closed his belly flap, and began dressing in his kimono. The birds were still squawking.
“If you talk about this communication to anyone tonight, I have orders to kill you,” the messenger warned.
“What about tomorrow?”
The courier ignored him and left.
Ben followed, wanting to ask questions. But the man was nowhere in sight. It took all of his discipline and restraint not to dial Central Communications right away. He went to the bathroom and washed his face. It had been years since he’d last seen Claire. Their parting had been on less than pleasant terms. Once he’d calmed his nerves, he stepped out and called the CC through his portical. “Can I help you, sir?” an operator asked.
“Is there any information on the death of a Claire Mutsuraga?”
“I’ll be happy to check that for you Ishimura-san. How is your day today?”
“Couldn’t be better. And yourself?”
“It is always a beautiful day in service of the Emperor,” the operator pleasantly noted. “There is no information on the death of a Claire Mutsuraga, though there are five with the same name in Los Angeles who are alive. Are you looking for a specific one?”
“The daughter of General Kazuhiro Mutsuraga.”
“I see her address and working status, but there is no obituary or termination notice.”
“What if it was recent?”
“Our information is updated hourly and I’m not seeing anything, sir.”
“Can you connect me with her?”
“Is this a matter of milit–”
“Yes,” Ben cut her off impatiently.
“I’ll need your clearance code for–”
“Forget it,” Ben said, on second thought. “Do you know where her father currently is?”
“General Mutsuraga’s whereabouts are currently unknown.”
“Thank you,” Ben said and disconnected.
He thought of Claire again and knew he needed another drink. He rushed back in to join Tiffany. The sword man had finished his act. Eight short performers were doing acrobatics with panda bears. A woman burned her whole body, making it resemble a charcoal painting with chaff knuckles and veins like broken pipe works mired in corpuscles. Ben downed a shot.
“What happened?” Tiffany asked. “You were gone half an hour.”
“The waitress tried to have sex with me,” he lied, thinking it was outrageous enough that she would believe it.
“Did you accept?”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes, I’m serious. I don’t mind that sort of thing. It’s flattering actually,” Tiffany said.
“How’s it flattering?”
“A woman tries to steal you from me directly under my nose. It’s bold.”
“You know I’m not going home with you tonight, right?”
“Yeah. My late night business ritual,” he said. “What about afterwards?”
“Find yourself another date.”
“You have another date lined up already?”
“Do you mind?”
She put her hand on his arm. “Then what’s bugging you?”
“Ghosts,” Ben answered.
A man allowed himself to drown to death on the stage, gasping for oxygen, dying from lack of breath, only to be resuscitated a few moments later. Ben empathized.
Pre-order United States of Japan, available March 1.