A second collection of Suzuki’s stories, following on from last year’s Terminal Boredom, this book contains her breakthrough SF story “Trial Witch” — a title which wrongfooted me, because those words inevitably conjure the phrase “witch trials”, whereas in this case it means “apprentice witch on her trial period”. It’s the comical story of a woman who, out of the blue, is told she’s been selected by the League of Witches to become one of their number. She’s granted magical powers for a limited period, but finds her main ability is to transform her husband into a variety of new forms, which she either can’t, or doesn’t want to (he’s unfaithful), undo by the time the trial ends. It’s fun to imagine this story as the image of Suzuki herself, self-trialling herself as a writer in the fantastical vein. Only, unlike with the story’s protagonist, Suzuki turned out to have, with this story, won herself a place as a writer of SF in Japan (though not, it turns out, to have been allowed into the all-male SF Writers Club of Japan).
The main feeling I came away from in my review of Terminal Boredom was of emotional disconnection in human relationships, edging its way into emotional disconnection from oneself. With some of the stories of Hit Parade of Tears, that aspect is ramped up, with sometimes quite extreme self-alienation being a predominant theme in the longer, more serious tales.
That feeling of distanced relationships is still there, as in this, from the opening story, “My Guy”, about a young woman who finds herself picking up a man who says he’s an alien from another world:
“I guess I’d never really been in love, or even learned what was involved in ‘liking’ someone. This could be why I always seemed to wind up in relationships defined by mutual distaste and an inability to walk away.”
The alien man tells her things are the same on his world:
“Back home, everyone starts making love, so to speak, once they reach adulthood, except only with the partner that the government assigns them. Then they spend the rest of their lives as a happy couple who never fight. But that isn’t what you’d call ‘love’ now, is it…”
But elsewhere in the book — in what I feel is probably a later tale — Suzuki seems to have hit on something of a solution, only a messily human one, when in the story “I’ll Never Forget” she presents us with an ever-squabbling-and-making-it-up couple, who keep their relationship fuelled by the failures of previous ones:
“They were a strange pair, these two. They each prodded at some past infidelity, real or not, and that’s what formed the basis of their relationship.”
Which leads to the realisation:
“…love isn’t like a house you can just kick back and live in once it’s completed. No, it gets more worn and tattered day by day. So unless you keep on making it up, day by day, it disappears in all but name.”
But it’s the alienation from oneself that dominates Hit Parade of Tears. In what may be the longest tale, “Hey, It’s a Love Psychedelic”, a woman, initially called Reico, then Reyko, then Reiko, finds herself transplanted to what seem to be alternative versions of her own life. In each, she’s aware that things are wrong, usually through her knowledge of popular culture — an album that should have been out, or a brand of cigarettes that shouldn’t be available yet. The time-stream of her life is being manipulated by someone, taking her further away from the life she knew: whereas in the first section of this tale, she’s actively involved in the 1960s/70s rock music scene, by the last section she’s merely reading about it in a trashy novel called Groupie.
“The Covenant” starts with a somewhat useless-seeming husband figure who claims to be telepathic and in contact with aliens from another world, who he somehow helps with his mental powers. Then we meet a girl whose self-alienation starts out as an emotional self-disconnection similar to other Suzuki characters:
“Akiko had been alone ever since she was a child. She’d never had friends. She’d been a taciturn, expressionless, polite child. Her good grades had made her something of a teacher’s pet, but she never cared about any of that. After many long years of resenting the fact that no one loved her, she had conceived a vague hatred for this world.”
But she comes to realise these feelings are because she is (or so she believes), an alien from another world, here on Earth to fulfil the covenant of the story’s title. She forms a friendship with another similarly outsiderish girl, and things get a bit Charles Manson-ish.
The starkest image of self-alienation, though, is in “Memory of Water”. Here, the main character is a woman whose agoraphobia has led to her being mostly cut off from the world, and barely leaving her flat. But there are inexplicable (and, to her, alarming) intrusions into even that safe space, such as phone calls from a man who seems to know her, and items of clothing she’d never wear suddenly appearing in her wardrobe. Unknown to herself, she has a second self, one who is not anxious, depressed and sick, but whose idea of a free, adventurous life is one she’s so afraid of, she has cut that whole self off to the point that it has managed to break away and live an independent life. But instead of embracing this new self, the anxious woman only retreats further.
This feeling of being linked to another person, one whose mental and physical ill-health is dragging you down, also pops up in a tale I’ve already mentioned, “I’ll Never Forget”, which is actually a sequel to the story “Forgotten” from Terminal Boredom. “Forgotten” presented us with an alien but humanlike race, the Meelians, who never forget, which is why they don’t have war on their planet. In “I’ll Never Forget”, though, we learn there’s a downside to this never forgetting, as Meelians’ emotional experiences never fade; as a result, when “their heart has exceeded its capacity”, they tend to take their own life. (Human beings, on the other hand, merely descend into “a sort of hellish torment”. Thanks.) The main character, a Meelian woman who’s on Earth to do some modelling work, finds herself unconsciously targeted by the telepathic emanations of the human woman from “Forgotten”, who loved a Meelian man, Sol, who’s now dead. Alongside this feeling of being burdened by a stream of negativity that mixes physical ill-health, depression, and a feeling of life-failure, there’s the helplessness of not being able to do anything about it. In this sense, both “I’ll Never Forget” and “Memory of Water” are quite despairing tales.
As with Terminal Boredom, there’s no indication of when the Japanese originals from Hit Parade of Tears were first published, but I’m willing to bet that “The Memory of Water” and “I’ll Never Forget” date from the end of Suzuki’s career. That feeling of being burdened by longstanding physical ill-health, as well as mental ill-health and a feeling of the failure of human relationships chimes too much with Suzuki’s biography to ignore. (And I realised I should have taken my own advice from my review of Terminal Boredom: “I’d like to read some more stories by Suzuki, though perhaps I wouldn’t read them back-to-back, as that malaise of disaffection can be hard to read too much of.”)
There are some tales in Hit Parade of Tears that escape this negativity, though. Perhaps my favourite is one of the most explicitly genre-science-fictional, “Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise”, about the human crew of a spaceship exploring other planets, not for the purposes of scientific advancement — there are just too many planets out there for every one of them to be treated with such care and attention — but as part of “a get-rich-quick scheme to collect unusual animals for Earth’s leisure class”. This mismatched, flawed, and very un-military-SF crew, collect a bunch of animals from various planets, half of which die, some of which injure or poison the crew. On this planet, they find what seems to be a human baby, and their disagreements about what to do with it lead to a near mutiny. But the captain, who is equally fed-up with their mission, decides to take a new, and very un-Captain Kirk-ish solution: she says maybe they should give up and just live on this planet as they are.
It would be interesting to know when this story was written. The idea of a crew setting down on an alien planet and collecting specimens has been done in SF before, but the crew’s mismatchedness, and the detail that, back on Earth, there’s a “nerve centre linking the computers used by the various government ministries” called “MOTHER”, recalls the fact that the Nostromo’s computer is also called “Mother”, which makes me wonder if this isn’t a jokey take on Alien.
I think I like Suzuki most when she’s engaging explicitly with the sort of big ideas you find in genre SF — she inevitably has a fresh and meaningful take on them, alongside a carefree sense of humour and a wide acceptance of human foibles. But elsewhere there’s that overpowering emotional malaise and feelings of despair that just can’t be channelled into the sort of punky kicking back at society that would give this collection the life it needs. I really didn’t enjoy that aspect this time around.