Every so often you come across a book that has such an impact on you that it changes how you think. It might change how you think about the world, life, death, love, politics, or anything else or everything. One such book for me was The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick. I have always been a fan of history and this novel was my first exposure to alternate history and the creative door it opened to me was immense. It inspired me in ways I didn’t even know possible and I’m sure it had a similar impact on many aspiring writers.
Today alternate history is a huge sub-genre of fiction. There are thousands of novels and stories that play with history at their core and I have read quite a lot, but one really stood out to me in a big way this year. That book was United States of Japan, by Peter Tieryas.
USJ (As it shall be called throughout this review) takes place in a world where the Axis forces won the Second World War due to Japan developing nuclear weapons and using them before America could. The result is a conquered America divided between the Japanese Empire and the Nazis.
The book begins as the Japanese liberate the prisoners of the American concentration camps where all citizens of Japanese descent were being held. From there we fast forward several decades to an America very different to the one we know.
The story follows Captain Beniko Ishimura, a somewhat lazy and comfortable middle management type, who oversees the creation and subsequent censoring of video games within the Empire. However, there’s more to Beniko than meets the eye. He ends up being embroiled in a conspiracy involving his former teacher and mentor who has mysteriously vanished, and is suspected of treason.
We are introduced to the Japanese Empire’s equivalent of inquisitors as they hunt for Beniko and his former tutor. We also meet a group of rebel Americans who call themselves the George Washingtons. These guys are patriotic freedom fighters who are labelled as terrorists by the Japanese Empire. It’s really fun to see the Americans portrayed in this light and the way they took on the persona of a founding father I thought was a really clever angle.
USJ is part alternate history adventure and part crime mystery. The central narrative thread involving Beniko’s former tutor and the mystery surrounding him is really entertaining. I won’t spoil anything here, but it’s a fun journey with plenty of revelations. The real star of this book, however, is the world itself; the alternate history.
The book takes place exclusively on the West coast of America. The entire West coast is controlled by the Japanese, where as the East coast is controlled by the Nazis. I think this distinction of location is important because it means USJ could feasibly take place within the same world as Man in the High Castle, if you were inclined to think of it like that. It doesn’t tread on the toes of that great novel, instead it goes to great lengths to expand on the concept well.
The world of USJ is a brutal one. Torture and scaremongering are weapons freely wielded by the Japanese authorities. This book has several torture scenes and many grim deaths. Tieryas doesn’t spare on the details and the fighting is as intense as in any war book I’ve read. This book is certainly not for the sensitive, but I implore you to suffer the brutality because what lies beneath it is a truly excellent story.
It’s not all torture and death, however, there’s some fantastic use of technology in USJ. Despite taking place before the Millennium, the technology is enhanced beyond what we have even now. There are mechs which stomp around and fight each other. They aren’t in the book too much, but when they are it’s fucking awesome. There are also fully immersive and interactive virtual reality games (played like blood sports). Everyone has smart phone like devices, but they are more advanced and the internet is engrained into every aspect of modern life. There are even body modifications which enhance a person’s physical abilities or give them mechanical augmentations, such as arm mounted weaponry. It’s a great mix of plausible technology taken to the next level and pure, fun science fiction. The technology plays a major part in the story and helps to flesh out the alternate world it takes place in.
One of the big themes of the book is propaganda and how it can be used to great effect. The Japanese control everything. All media and information the citizens of the Empire are exposed to is censored and carefully regulated, so only things that show the Empire in a positive light are allowed through. History is written by the victors and in USJ that theme is explored at great length as the Japanese rewrite the events of World War II in an effort to mask the horrific acts they committed on the Americans. There is a lot to read into here, and I couldn’t help but feel like this was written to be almost social commentary about where our own society could be heading. As much as people like bringing up Man in the High Castle when talking about this book, I sense a lot more familiarity here with George Orwell’s 1984.
USJ has a main character who is a game developer. It is woven into his narrative very naturally, and I really appreciated this look at game development under a controlling and totalitarian regime. As a professional game developer, I really liked the fact the story is told through the eyes of someone who makes games within this world. You can really feel the Authors own experience seeping through the narrative here to give the character and the book a sense of realism. Beniko’s internal conflict and troubled past are very well portrayed. His emotional journey throughout the course of this book is one that I really enjoyed and connected with.
There’s so much more I could say about this book, but I would rather you just go and read it and enjoy it. I hope I’ve said enough to at least entice you into giving it a go, but if not let me summarise.
USJ is a worthy successor to Man in the High Castle without even trying to be. USJ has its own story to tell and its own world to explore. Tieryas has his own voice, using his background in game development, and his clear fascination with alternate history to craft an original and truly gripping narrative, set within a fantastically realised, but terrifying world.