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Death Sentences

2012
Author:

Kawamata Chiaki
Translated by Thomas Lamarre and Kazuko Y. Behrens

Death Sentences

Japanese science fiction meets the European avant-garde—available for the first time in English

Death Sentences is the first novel by the popular and critically acclaimed science fiction author Kawamata Chiaki to be published in English. With echoes of such classic sci-fi works as George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip, Death Sentences is a fascinating mind-bender with a style all its own.

A hard-boiled, sharply surreal fable about the power of the written word.

William Gibson

Japan, 1980s: A special police squad is tracking down one of the “afflicted” to recover the “stuff.” Although the operation seems like a drug bust, the “stuff” is actually some kind of text. Death Sentences—a work of science fiction that shares its conceit with the major motion picture The Ring—tells the story of a mysterious surrealist poem, penned in the 1940s, which, through low-tech circulation across time, kills its readers, including Arshile Gorky and Antonin Artaud, before sparking a wave of suicides after its publication in 1980s Japan. Mixing elements of Japanese hard-boiled detective story, horror, and science fiction, the novel ranges across time and space, from the Left Bank of Paris to the planet Mars.

Paris, 1948: André Breton anxiously awaits a young poet, Who May. He recalls their earlier encounter in New York City and the mysterious effects of reading Who May’s poem “Other World.” Upon meeting, Who May gives Breton another poem, “Mirror,” an even more unsettling work. Breton shares it with his fellow surrealists. Before Breton can discuss the poem with him, Who May vanishes. Who May contacts Breton about a third poem, “The Gold of Time,” and then slips into a coma and dies (or enters another dimension). Copies of the poem are mailed to all of Who May’s friends—Breton, Gorky, Paul Éluard, Marcel Duchamp, and other famous surrealists and dadaists. Thus begins the “magic poem plague.”

Death Sentences is the first novel by the popular and critically acclaimed science fiction author Kawamata Chiaki to be published in English. Released in Japan in 1984 as Genshi-gari (Hunting the magic poems), Death Sentences was a best seller and won the Japan Science Fiction Grand Prize. With echoes of such classic sci-fi works as George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip, Death Sentences is a fascinating mind-bender with a style all its own.

Death Sentences

Kawamata Chiaki has written many critically and popularly acclaimed science fiction novels, including Hanzaishi no kagami (Mirror of an antiexistent soldier); Kaseijin senshi (A prehistory of Martians); and Kasei kôkakudan (Martian armored-suit army) and its sequel Wairudo mashin (Wild machine). Death Sentences, originally published in Japanese as Genshi-gari, received the Japanese SF Grand Prize in 1985.

Thomas Lamarre is professor of East Asian studies and communication studies at McGill University.

Kazuko Y. Behrens is assistant professor of development psychology at Texas Tech University.

Takayuki Tatsumi is professor of English at Keio University.

Death Sentences

A hard-boiled, sharply surreal fable about the power of the written word.

William Gibson

Deeply rich in atmosphere and idea, Kawamata's first novel to be translated into English was a bestseller in its native Japan upon its publication in 1984. It deftly establishes the power of the central poems by showing their effects on the emotions, minds, bodies, and very consciousnesses of their readers; and proceeds to build living characters, central and minor, for their dangerous potential to impact.

Publishers Weekly

A fresh and powerful story.

Denver Post

A thriller with a strong literary bent, with dashes of literary and actual romance and wonderfully suggesting and demonstrating the power of the written word, Death Sentences is thoroughly enjoyable and a clever piece of work.

The Complete Review

Death Sentences is the sort of book that makes you wish you knew more about everything.

1904

Read Death Sentences because more of Chiaki’s works ought to be available in English, and because he is a fantastic author who has written a book that can go from hard-boiled detective noir to a colony on Mars and still delight.

Vol. 1 Brooklyn

Death Sentences — and Kawamata's work in general — has been a well-kept secret in the English-speaking world, and it will undoubtedly generate interest among the community of SF readers and critics.

Los Angeles Review of Books

Death Sentences is a noteworthy amalgam of hard-boiled science fiction and experimental literature, which makes it essential reading for followers of both.

ForeWord Reviews

Fans of well-known SF writers like Dick, Gibson, and Bradbury—the author’s poetic prose style is especially reminiscent of Bradbury—should definitely be steered in this book’s direction.

Booklist Online

It is a novel of complex, almost inexpressible ideas, and yet the language it uses to expound them is never anything less than crystal clear. Kawamata demonstrates a fluency with genre conventions—time slip, dystopia, robocops, Martian colonies—that enables him to use the tropes convincingly whilst blowing them sky high.

Strange Horizons

The characters, science fictional ideas, and pop-culture references make it one of the smartest, quirkiest, funniest, and most psychologically twisted PoMo riffs on pulp sf that I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. . . Any Philip K. Dick fan — or, really, anyone interested in surrealism, new wave fiction, cyberpunk, or Japanese sf — ought to read this book.

Fantasy & Science Fiction

This is as close to a masterpiece as one can hope to find. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough – one of the single most exciting novels I read this year, and I recommend it without reservations.

The World SF Blog

Death Sentences offers an enthralling read that leaves lingering reflections about the power of words to affect the reality of readers.

World Literature Today

Death Sentences

Contents


Foreword: From Surrealism to Postmodernism
Takayuki Tatsumi


Death Sentences
Prologue: The Tracker
1. Another World
2. The Gold of Time
3. Undiscovered Century
4. The Shade of the Shadow of Light
5. Voyagers
The Final Chapter: Oblivion

Afterword: Vortex Time
Thomas Lamarre

Notes


Death Sentences

UMP blog - Another long and winding road: Translating Japanese speculative fiction, by Takayuki Tatsumi

In the 2010s you might consider Cool Japan to be self-evident as a revival of fin de siècle Japonisme. Certainly, if you like to read the hippest works of Japanese science fiction, you have only to search for charming titles published by Vertical, Haikasoru, Kurodahan Press, and Kodansha International. Nonetheless, to us who came of age absorbing Anglo-American culture in the 1970s, the very boom of Japanese culture seems another science fiction we could not have imagined back in the High Growth Period.

Read the full article.