Author: Izumi Suzuki
Title: Terminal Boredom
Other: Short Story Collection
Don’t let the publication date fool you: Izumi Suzuki committed suicide in 1986, at the age of 36, and her SF dystopian short stories were all written in the period between mid- 1970s and mid-1980s. Her works were both highly controversial and influential, diametrically different from mainstream, and the publication of Terminal Boredom, a collection of seven of her most famous stories, is a good opportunity for the English-speaking readers to get acquainted with Suzuki’s world. A nice introduction has been recently published in ArtReview – Daniel Joseph, one of the stories’ translators, succinctly but informatively presents both the author and her career here.
Suzuki creates a very intriguing world, indeed. Deeply dystopian, populated by unhappy people bound in equal measures by the societal norms, their own fantasies and their fears, it features green-skinned aliens, potent drugs, elaborate medical procedures designed to deal with very mundane relationship and psychological problems, and even a post-apocalyptic matriarchal society where men are held in prison-like structures, kept alive only for procreation purposes, like drones in a beehive. No one is truly happy; some have forgotten what happiness even means. The suffocating mood of ennui seems to arise from a number of moods and feelings: social constraints, regrets, inability to feel empathy, bad life choices haunting the present and the future, and the overwhelming boredom all conspire to create a nauseating lack of will to live. The mood, the feeling of these stories is prescient: four decades on, we deal with the very issues so clearly intuited by Suzuki – from the crippling emotional numbness among individuals to the aggressive, grasping behaviour of societies.
While Suzuki introduced many typical SF tropes into her works, from humanlike aliens and interplanetary travel to nearly miraculous technological advancement, she didn’t pay them much attention: they are there as props in the everyday, banal yet tragic drama of the protagonists. Indeed, the main strength of her stories lies in this intimate focus on the characters: their flaws and vices, their dreams and fears, their unhappy relationships marked by lack of understanding. The main theme of her stories is alienation; and while she didn’t say break any new ground in this area, what she did say is still important, and profound – maybe even more so today. Some of her stories seem indeed prescient: the problems already arising in the 70’s, noticed by the sensitive, non-normative few like Suzuki, in our times became widespread societal maladies.
I must say the stories’ mood affected me a little: the pervasive ennui, unhappiness, despair hidden beneath a very thin surface of the bustle of everyday life are depicted in a thoroughly realistic way. There is a disconnect between Suzuki’s characters and their life; there is a feeling of desolation that contradicts John Donne’s optimism: in Suzuki’s world every man is an island, separate and isolated, and hopelessly alone.
As usual, below is a short rundown of each story with their separate scores.
Women and Women 8/10
A post-apocalyptic matriarchal society where men are delegated to the role of drones. Subversive, ironic, painful – Suzuki pulls no punches here, deftly striking all sides of the conflict. The constrictive nature of gender stereotypes and socio-biological roles is examined with more whimsy than logic, but the pain feels genuine.
You May Dream 7/10
This one was weird, with an extremely unlikable and talkative protagonist helplessly entangled in a toxic relationship. It’s short and seemingly underdeveloped, and yet it has moments of uncanny moodiness and venom. I wish it was a bit more fleshed out, but the main idea of this story is at once creepy and poignant, and hard to forget.
The Night Picnic 5/10
The weakest story of the collection, albeit the most overtly satirical one, focused on various stereotypes associated with living in a modern society. It hinges on a twist that’s no longer surprising, and it gives off strong Bradbury vibes. Unfortunately, I have recently read Bradbury’s short story collection and his are much better.
That Old Seaside Club 8.5/10
As Joseph writes, this story is a precursor (actually, he writes of prefiguration, but to me this term has definite religious undertones, so I’ll stick with mine) of a popular Black Mirror episode, San Junipero. Can new, wondrous technology solve age-old problems?
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes 6/10
A drug whose side-effects include extremely accelerated ageing; a junkie and her partner caught in the loop of egotism and self-disgust, addiction, and loneliness.
A subversive love story in which the protagonists seem to love only themselves. A commentary on colonialism and memory, and on the acute alienation stemming from inability to fully comprehend and commune with another – even a telepathic, nearly immortal alien.
Terminal Boredom 9/10
In a future society of overabundance people have everything but want nothing. An opioid crisis renders the younger generations completely inane; bereft of any values and emotions they are unable to ascribe meaning to anything and even forget to eat. The society is held together only by this addiction: the governing institutions keep in power precisely through the constant sedation of the masses, devising new, improved ways of rendering people apathetic and directionless. I won’t spoil the gloriously creepy ending, but I have a feeling that this story influenced, directly or indirectly, a few controversial pop-cultural works.
While the average score for the stories is just over 7.2, in the case of Suzuki’s anthology the whole becomes something more than sum of its parts; the collection in its entirety gives off a unique vibe, and it doesn’t hurt that it ends on a strong note: the titular story, Terminal Boredom, was for me the best of them all.
That said, however, I must end my review with two caveats: these stories are old, and their age is noticeable. What was unique and ground-breaking in the 70’s now, four decades on, has turned into something more obvious and at times tropey. Secondly, Suzuki’s stories are focused predominantly on creating a certain mood and exploring mostly psychological ideas of alienation, addiction, exhaustion; there is barely any action, worldbuilding, or even character development. In short, they are vignettes, not full histories – psychological portraits frozen in time. I read them with interest and appreciation, if not exactly enjoyment: they do tend to dampen one’s mood.
I have received a copy of this book from the publisher Verso through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.