United States of Japan Is a Sobering Alt-History Spun from the Dark Threads of the Past

tieryasPeter Tieryas’s United States of Japan opens with the liberation of an internment camp. It’s a cousin to dozens of scenes made familiar by movies: the Allies crack open the gates to Nazi concentration camps and discover the thin, haunted prisoners within. But this time, it’s the invading Imperial Japanese military rescuing prisoners from American camps, where tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans, most of them citizens, were interred under Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt. There’s an odd frisson of disquiet in seeing a scene that has become almost required in a certain kind of WWII fiction turned toward what is perhaps America’s greatest national disgrace.

The novel has been described as spiritual sequel to The Man in the High Castle, Philip K Dick’s seminal alternate history exploring a timeline in which the Axis powers emerged from WWII in triumph and divided the American continent between them. This incurs another sense of oddness, the way Tieryas twists Dick’s setup into something both familiar and strange. Dick calls his Japanese half of the American continent the Pacific States of America, and the plot revolves around a seditious novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which posits an alternate history in which the Allies won the war (though not in the same way they did in our reality).

In United States of Japan, government censors are instead concerned with a seditious video game portraying an Allied victory—but its setting is the same tract of land, from the Pacific ocean to the Rockies, with the same ruling empire, albeit another 15 years down the timeline from Dick’s novel (which is itself set 15 years after the end of the real-world war.)

Beniko Ishimura is the son of two of the prisoners liberated in that opening sequence: a mild drunk and a coward, he’s an Imperial censor who has been falling upwards his whole career. No one trusts him because he turned in both of his parents as traitors as a young man, resulting in their suicides. It’s the old conundrum of the betrayer, even for a cause: do it once, and he may do it again.

Beniko is tasked with finding the source of the video game, and ends up partnering with Akiko, a member of the secret police, who is guarding secrets of her own. They tumble around the USJ, running into all manner of gangsters, spies, cyborgs, and who knows what else. They reckon with their pasts, their alternate pasts, which feel like history.

Much of Tieryas’ alternate history deals in shadows and echoes. The United States is eventually brought low by Japanese nuclear weapons, and the USJ lies in the shadow of nuclear contamination. There’s a burgeoning cold war between former allies Japan and Germany. There are frequent call-outs to Dick’s novel: the resistance is called the “George Washingtons,” a riff on a plot point in Dick’s fictional novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy that sees Roosevelt sticking to George Washington’s two-term limit (though the name also has more overt connotations.)

But Tieryas doesn’t overly fuss about how exactly we got from the liberation of those camps to this alternate 1980s. Or, to be precise, you can tell he has mapped exactly how the history went—and, indeed, there is a bibliography at the end, always a good sign with an alt-history—but he doesn’t belabor the point. Like a lot of Americans, my knowledge of the Pacific theater in WWII is somewhat dodgy, though my grandfather served in important battles in the South Pacific. (He, of course, never spoke much about them, trauma being what it is.) A little more hand-holding might be nice when it comes to the sections that hinge on pan-Asian politics; that Tieryas doesn’t feel the need to do so speaks to his trust in his readers, that we will infer what is needful to understand the world. Instead, he immerses you in characters, who are, of course, molded by their environment, but who live and breathe as people do. Nobody is going to regurgitate facts from the past for you (“As you know, Bob…”), because people don’t do that.

United States of Japan mixes alt-history with pulp-history, the plausible with the fantastical, in a vision of the 1980s with the glossy sheen and rain-slick neon of vintage cyberpunk. The giant robots that adorn the cover are shout-outs to the mecha and kaiju who battle it out in Japanese pulp fiction; the seditious video game and the advanced tech a nod to the ascendency of the Japanese video games played so fervently by so many Americans in our version of the ’80s (and beyond.) This is an alternate world informed by our current one, and by the alternate worlds we’ve spun since.

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