Title: United States of Japan
Author: Peter Tieryas
Publisher: Angry Robot Books
Type: ARC ebook (Netgalley)
Keywords: alternate history, mecha, WWII, videogames, anime
Possible trigger warnings: torture
This weekend marked the Day of Rememberance for the Japanese and Japanese descent that were forced to internment camps during WWII. It was a crazy coincidence I finished this book around this time. This book is a what-if: what if Japan won the war? What if there was no American fleet at Pearl Harbor and the U.S. were attacked from both Germans and Japanese, receiving a blow that they couldn’t recover from? What if it was the U.S. that was bombed? These questions are the backdrop of Tieryas’ United States of Japan. I’ve been seeing the cover for this book floating around the webs for a while now: it’s a huge mecha in the middle of a Japan-ruled America! Of course I was in! I was expecting huge mecha battles that would give Pacific Rim a run for its money. I was expecting a simple ‘what-if’ plot and America fighting back with mechs and a happy ending. What I got was something different. To be honest I still can’t describe how I feel about this book. It’s definitely not what I expected. But I liked it just the same.
It’s 1988 and it’s a different America. The Emperor of Japan rules its conquered land from afar via the Imperial Army. Secret police groups known as the Kempeitai and Tokko ensure that everyone, both Japanese and non-Japanese descent think and show that the Emperor is a god and rules above all. Civilian youth and officers in training play immersive games to either distract themselves from the world or train. Captain Beniko “Ben” Ishimura is in charge of overseeing and reporting disloyal communications in the Office of the Censure. He is also the oldest captain in the United States of Japan (USJ) due to his lazy, kickback nature. After the suicide of the famous General Mutsuruga’s daughter and Ben’s close friend Claire, Ben gets caught up in a hunt for the General with Agent Akiko Tsukino, an officer of Tokko. It is discovered that the General created a game called The United States of America and may have possibly defected to the rebel group the George Washingtons (the GWs). The investigation is not so straight forward and what started as a hunt becomes a question of the consequences of building an empire.
“There’s honor in resistance.”
“Was there any honor in that woman you executed – that was yesterday, wasn’t it?” Ben asked.
“There is never honor for traitors.”
“You think you could have resisted?”
“Of course. I would rather die than betray the Empire.”
“You aren’t much good to the Empire dead.”
“You aren’t much good to the Empire alive,” Akiko said.
“I’m the most loyal servant the Empire has.”
“I don’t need my loyalty questioned by you.”
“You think just because you turned in your parents, you’re beyond question? Do you know how many children turned their parents in last year alone?”
“I’m glad you value my sacrifice.”
The two main protagonists really make the book work. Both are officers of the Japanese empire, but have very different views on it. Ben is seen as lazy and unmotivated whereas Akiko is the epitome definition of what a loyal soldier should be. As the story unfolds they get immersed in the society they help rule over and what they discover changes their view of what their empire really is, particularly Akiko’s view. I really enjoyed seeing their individual growth unfold and the mutual…respect? Mutual agreement to stop bickering so much at each other? Anyway they get along much better near the end of the book, but their bickering is amusing regardless.
Anyone familiar with Japanese pop culture, especially in mecha and anime can see where the inspiration comes from. Although there is a mecha on the cover, the mechs are not a huge part of the story. The battles that do happen are pretty damn epic though. Ben mentions that games are used as a way to placate society and make them compliant, to distract and vent off steam, an idea I find very intriguing. Both Ben and Akiko discover however, there are other ways people vent off steam much to their horror. My gosh, this book can be brutal. The imagery of the “war hero” Koushou’s museum is creepy and disturbing as all hell and the descriptions of torture in this book are horrifying. There were definitely times I had to stop reading and take a breath. Tieryas mentioned he did a lot of research on the Japanese’s part in the war. If his research brought up any of these methods of brutality that are shown in The United States of Japan then I would be truly horrified because what I read isn’t just fiction, the action is based on violence human beings did to other human beings.
Even now I’m not sure how the book ends. I’m not sure if what Ben and Akiko did changed society, or even made a dent. It’s not hopeful, but it’s not despairing either. If anything, don’t expect a summer read of America rising up and mecha beating the crap out of each other. Don’t expect an equation of Japan + America = awesome alternate pop culture references. The United States of Japan is a surreal, weird, and brutal what-if aftermath of a brutal war. Prepare to be horrifying awed.
Gem Rating: 💎💎💎💎
Aside: I’m not sure I understood the GWs angle of religion during their rebellion. Perhaps because the Emperor was deemed a god to the Japanese the Americans, or who was left of it, used Christianity as their rebellious warcry of that belief. I would think that the GWs had more reason to rebel the Japanese than just religious differences.