Sunday, December 5, 2021

Review of Terminal Boredom by Suzuki Izumi

I get a glint in my eye seeing that a book, a book with several years under its belt, will be translated into English. It means many people believe it still has value. It’s passed the test: Worthy of Time. This is why Suzuki Izumi’s collection of short stories Terminal Boredom, originally published in 1980 and revived in English in 2021, brought a glint. Having finished the collection, the glint should have been a lightning storm.

Terminal Boredom kicks off with a story that ironically feels more at home in 2021 than when it was originally published decades ago. “Women and Women” describes one young teen’s experiences in a matriarchal utopia. Reproduction controlled at specific locations, men are born but kept in lockdown, and as a result only women form society. Very much a precursor to Lauren Beukes’ Motherland and other such contemporary stories, Suzuki explores the idea of a world without men. Though a large topic, the story manages to feel greater than the number of its pages, and gets the collection moving forward in meaty, down-to-Earth fashion: I’m not afraid to address major issues but will keep both feet on the ground.

You May Dream” is one of the most delicately sad stories I’ve ever read—not for the drama, rather the truth it highlights. The premise important only for setup, it begins with an overpopulated world in which a lottery is used to put people into cryo-stasis, thus ensuring there are enough resources for those who remain. People in cryo are able to select a dream partner to vicariously live through, and the story tells of one such pair. Beyond the setting, their inter-relationship forms the real story. Suzuki’s portrayal of their psyches cuts to the heart of not only individuality, but also the multiple levels we communicate at, as well as the distance between the message delivered and its understanding. Excellent story.

Another delicately dark story is “Night Picnic”. About the only surviving Earthlings on a distant planet, they decide to live together as a “family”. Their actions and words a combination of natural and unnatural, what results is a camouflaged parody commenting on reality, the social realities we create, and the social realities we think ought to be. “The Old Seaside Club” tells of a pair of women who are ostensibly at a leisure planet to relax. One of the women openly stating she’s there for therapeutic reasons, the other says she won the lottery. But as time moves on, it becomes clear there is more than meets the eye to their tales. I will not spoil the ultimate reality, except to say it complements what is fundamentally an effective character portrayal, regardless of genre alignment.

Playing nicely off the song title, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” tells of a woman who is never comfortable in her own skin. Going through relationship after relationship, her poor self-esteem ultimately pushes her to places her forebrain knows is not good but her hind brain just won’t lead her away. Another great story. “Forgotten” is about a couple where the man is an alien and the woman human. Manipulation occurring, the woman is the forgotten person of the title in an affective story examining responsibility and victimhood in relationships. The collection closes on the titular story, “Terminal Boredom”. A double entendre, the story looks at an idle young person caught up in television in an affluent future with extraordinary unemployment. The young person’s lack of work leads her to make a poor but contextual choice, resulting in a very dark story about isolation and the influence of media.

As with much internet chatter these days, there are reviews which would seek to highlight “feminism” and “gender” in Terminal Boredom, pointing at its “gender fluid” moments and its matriarchal “utopia” in an attempt to make it relevant to contemporary culture wars. Such commentary makes me wonder whether I read the same collection. Certainly those elements exist, but they are waypoints, only. Spoiler alert: the story “Women and Women” ends with the clear message a female-only society is undesirable; balance is needed. The collection’s gender-fluid moments are part of a character’s dreams, nothing disruptive which would give strong voice to identity politics. And there are other examples.

More accurate would be to praise Suzuki for the psychological realism of her characters. The verisimilitude of “real humanity” is the actual achievement of the collection, and crowing on about “gender” and “feminism” is to lose sight of the deeper aspects of existence the collection actually addresses. The loneliness, the despair, the pain, the indolence, the “unnatural” decisions wrought by social and technological change—these are the focuses of the collection, and something men, women, and otherwise face.

In the end, Terminal Boredom is a phenomenal collection. Through psychological realism and subtle imagination it represents the best of what science fiction can be. And yet it is not an easy collection to read. Content exposing the darker, painful side of being a human, Suzuki demonstrates the effects of change on humanity through an intimate knowledge of emotions and psyche. The characters are not heroes or altruists or mindfulness instructors. They are ordinary people from ordinary walks of life. They live and breathe beside you, all with some hidden despair or displeasure teased out through superb storytelling. And while this may be difficult for some readers to confront, Suzuki (and the translators) pave the way with concise, accurate portrayals that transcend the collection’s publishing date. It’s clear why, after so many decades, the decision was made to translate these stories and make them available to the English-speaking world. It is transcendent.

The following are the seven stories collected in Terminal Boredom:

Women and Women

You May Dream

Night Picnic

The Old Seaside Club

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes


Terminal Boredom

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