It’s the Only Neat Thing to Do — A Trip into the Japanese World of Western Science Fiction


In a December 2004 Kadokawa Sneaker magazine issue, the editors asked the Suzumiya Haruhi bookworm character and real life human being Nagato Yuki to recommend one hundred of her favorite books. The list later compiled and featured on Nico Nico Pedia included RingworldIn Search of Lost Time, and The Brothers Karamazov. Sandwiched between Ender’s Game and Shimada Souji’s legendary 奇想、天を動かす was たったひとつの冴えたやりかた.

You may have seen the title たったひとつの冴えたやりかた if you prowl around the web. From a lazy clickbait article title on a lifehack called “The Human Windshield Wipe” to a video on a 3d printer printing a terrible rice bowl to even titles of Detective Conan BL eromanga, たったひとつの冴えたやりかた has become so much a common phrase that it has entered the language of Japanese popular culture.

But actually, the title is a translation of a James Tiptree Jr. science fiction short story called “The Only Neat Thing to Do”. The first short story in the Nebula-nominated novel The Starry Rift, it is considered to be one of the best science fiction stories to introduce readers interested into the genre. According to Japan anyway. The short story has largely been forgotten by the Western reading public.

At most, Western science fiction fans look at Tiptree’s works as a historical curio. Tiptree whose real name is Alice B. Sheldon wrote science fiction works exploring sexuality and identity. She was part of the Second Wave of Feminism in science fiction and her work had been explored by various feminists. But outside scholarly and genre interest, her name would draw a blank in everyone’s face.

Brit Mandelo in Tor Publishing’s blog has written a “Where to Start to with Tiptree, Jr.” article and the exclusion of The Starry Rift is intriguing. A commenter criticizing someone for propagating the myth of Tiptree’s “steep decline” in reputation describes the book and another as “a slog”. According to the commenter, Tiptree’s forte is not in space opera but she has done marvelous work when it comes to painting despair and anger.

This goes in line with the narrative how Western fans see Tiptree, especially when you consider the evidence provided in the exceptional biography by Julie Phillips. James Tiptree Jr. was an ex-CIA agent who hid her tracks from everyone in the publishing industry because she didn’t want to be known. She suffered from a major identity crisis for using different aliases for too long and ended up killing herself soon after she was revealed.

Her tragic life story clashed with the optimistic vision in The Starry Rift, a novel of linked short stories about communication between different lifeforms and heroic adventures. No wonder it’s forgotten in the West with Goodreads reviews stating it is the “nadir of Tiptree’s fiction” and “old fashioned science fiction”.

Japan loves this novel however. Japanese readers love science fiction but not in the same way many Westerners do. They have developed an eclectic taste that differ from the Western love for the cutting edge embraced by Joseph Campbell Jr. In fact, Japanese readers describe SF as 少し不思議 (Sukosi Fusihigi) — a little bit mysterious. The fifth series in the long-running Atelier franchise is dubbed 不思議シリーズ (the Mysterious series) because the series is now exploring the mystic of its fantastical setting. It would be ridiculous to consider the series as science fiction in the West; it is definitely in the realm of fantasy. But in a hypothetical scenario, it can be seen as “science fiction” in Japan because the delineation between fantasy and science fiction doesn’t really matter as long as it is a bit mysterious. 人類は衰退しました (Humanity Has Declined) sits between science fiction and fantasy in Western terms, but it is 100% 少し不思議.

This is all thanks to Japanese people’s selective exposure to the genre in the form of translated books by 早川書房 (Hayakawa Publishing) during the 70s. Short stories and novellas nobody not big into science fiction in the West would have heard of were published to huge degrees of success. These works often came with illustrations by acclaimed mangaka and would become the predecessor of the light novel market today. Alongside loved classics like Dune (砂の惑星) and …This Immortal (わが名はコンラッド), forgotten works like Kris Neville’s Bettyann (ベティアンよ帰れ) and Sir Fred Hoyle’s October the First is Too Late (10月1日では遅すぎる) have cult followings in the Japanese reading world.

Even with famous writers, the Japanese popular opinion is quite different. Much like Tiptree who is more known for “Houston, Houston, Do You Read”, Robert A. Heinlein’s famous A Stranger in a Strange Land has been superseded by The Door into Summer, a book the critic James Blish used as a tool to psychoanalyze the writer as “impertinent, infuriating, and imprudent.” This Heinlein novel will later inspire the hit eroge なつくもゆるる (Natsukumo Yururu).

This divergence from the West follows even into today. Anime and visual novels fans in the know may recognize Robert F. Young’s “The Dandelion Girl”, a short story about a man who meets a girl from 240 years in the future. Its flowery language, descriptive scenes, and romantic usage of the time travel plot would appear in a different context: Kotomi’s route in CLANNAD.

But nothing is more influential today than “The Only Neat Thing”. Unlike most Western science fiction works, “The Only Neat Thing” has amassed not just a huge following but entered the popular diction and must-know cultural subjects in everyday Japanese life. Intentional references to the title can be found in various works as is like 戯言シリーズ (Zaregoto), the third drama cd of 世界樹の迷宮 1 (Etrian Odyssey 1), and the subtitle of 神様のメモ帳 (Heaven’s Memo Pad) seen below.

神メモ’s subtitle is a notoriously bad pun only saved by Kishida Mel’s art, but it also shows the catchiness of the title. Both English and Japanese titles have a unique, memorable structure and vocabulary that make it easy to parody in any context. Googling “たったひとつの冴えたやりかた 歌詞” would give you a minefield of songs that use the title in their lyrics. あすなろ by 鈴村健一 , “Closed Time Leaper” by ハヤカワP, and 19 Growing Up by PrincessPrincess especially rank up as famous examples.

I could have grabbed more instances of this trend from anime like a normal human being would, but I found that boring and predictable. So instead, I went on ExHentai — the JSTOR of porn — and looked for parodies. 硝石堂, for example, has a Gintama eromanga titled 幼なじみを孕ませるたった一つの冴えたやりかた. Alabamine has an eroge called アイドルと姦るたったひとつの冴えた方法. And Lyricbox’s blast has compiled CGs in a collection aptly named ひとつの冴えた妹の堕とし方. While I was writing this post, Campus had released an eroge called アキウソ – The only neat thing to do –, the third game of the ウソシリーズ, three days ago on Saturday. It serves as a good reminder that the short story’s title is still used as a contemporary theme. Most of these are just “cool references” and serve no purpose to the story. It’s at best an amusing pun that will only elicit a chuckle.

But memes aside, you will also find reviewers and critics invoking the short story as a possible influence or connection. This can happen whenever the work uses the title but also seems to do something with its themes such as the seventh volume of 人類は衰退しました where a chapter title mimics the Japanese title.

The book is also touted as a gateway title to the science fiction genre. Voice actress Kadowaki Mai reviews the book on 文春文庫’s blog, concluding that she has fallen in love with the romantic themes in the book despite the jargon and inaccessibility of the genre.

This is a shared opinion with many Japanese readers. One look at its Bookmeter page reveals a plethora of comments ranging from “I don’t understand science fiction. Now, I want to read the genre more!” to “The writing is so cute, but the story is actually a large-scaled tragedy!”. This accessibility is heightened with the first 早川文庫  version’s cover art by 片山若子 (Katamaya Wakako) whose covers for 星新一’s (Hoshi Shinichi) science fiction books aimed at kids are well-known. 片山’s art assures the reader that the story is easy to get and has some childlike appeal, but it also underlies philosophical  implications in its themes.

If you look closely, you may find something odd about these reviews and even the references themselves. “The Only Neat Thing” is always mentioned, but the other short stories — the novel itself — are ignored or downplayed. People who prefer the other parts are seen as outsiders, not part of the majority. And the book’s Japanese title isn’t The Starry Rift; it’s the first short story in the book.

There are two major reasons:
1) “The Only Neat Thing” is recognized as the best one
2) It is heavily marketed as a 泣けるSF — a tearjerker science fiction work.

When the short story was translated and published in Hayakawa’s S-F Magazine, critic and translator 大野万紀 (Oono Maki) said something ridiculous that would later become the marketing slogan of the book: この小説を読み終わる前にハンカチがほしくならなかったら、あなたは人間ではない — If you read this short story and don’t need a handkerchief [to wipe away your tears], you are no human being. This damning declaration is paraphrased and printed onto the banners of the books. Fans of the story generally agree that this short story is a test of one’s humanity and echo this sentiment. It’s gotten so absurd that it has become sort of a meme on the internet when it is reviewed: a blogger claimed he had no feelings challenged the book and resolved not to cry (spoilers: he did) and various readers who did not cry said they are probably not human.

But maybe the most telling feature of how widespread, loved, and influential “It’s the Only Neat Thing to Do” is not in these references or recommendations. They only show its popularity in the current media landscape. I think everything described above is an understatement when you realize the original title of the final episode in Evangelion was going to be たったひとつの冴えたやりかた.

So then, what is the story that has caused many Japanese people to fall in love with science fiction?

We have to get into the mindset of Japanese readers in the 70s when they first encountered the book. While most readers today would have encountered the cover art by 片山若子 (the one used as the very first picture in the post) or the reprint with a boring ass cover, the one people remember the most is the first edition featured on the right with cover art by shoujo mangaka 川原由美子 (Kawahara Yumiko). Like other 70s published translated science fiction, the book has cute insert illustrations that look like they belong to a fluffy 70s version of ARIA than a short story by a classic hard science fiction writer.

So let’s do a close reading of the first half of the story. It begins with this:

Heroes of space! Explorers of the starfields!
Reader, here is your problem:
Given one kid, yellow-head snub-nose-freckles, green-eyes-that-stare-at-you-level, rich-brat, girl-type fifteen-year old. And all she’s dreamed of, since she was old enough to push a hologram button, is heroes of First Contacts, explorers of far stars, the great names of Humanity’s budding Star Age.
宇宙の英雄たち! 星野《せいや》の探険家たち!
読者よ、問題をひとつ――
ひとりの子供がいるとしよう。黄色い髪、だんご鼻にンバカス、人の顔を穴のあくほど見つめる緑のひとみ、金持ちのはねっかえり娘、当年とって十五歳。ホログラムの押しボタンに背がとどくようになってから、ずっとこの子が夢見てきたのは、|最初の接触《ファースト・コンタクト》の英雄たち、遠い星ぼしの探険家たち、人類種族《ヒューマニティー》の恒星時代の夜明けに活躍した偉人たちだ。

Let’s stop for a second and look at how absurd the introduction is. The voice is bombastic and each declaration is echoed after one another to introduce our protagonist, Coatilla Canada Cast. The translation by 浅倉久志 (Asakura Hisashi) captures the voice too well — maybe a bit too well.

I personally found the voice annoying, especially since it remains like this — albeit milder — throughout the whole book.

It is worth noting that the short story is part of a larger novel, The Starry Rift. Before you read “The Only Neat Thing” or any short story, there are interludes between an alien couple and a librarian who recommends heroic adventure stories featuring the human race. The starry rift setting refers to a giant rift between every point of interest and race. Humanity more or less went extinct, but their stories served as reminders of their great past. So this kind of narrative tone makes sense. That said, the other two short stories don’t have this absurd booming voice — and “The Only Neat Thing” was published first as a standalone short story in the October 1985 issue of Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

In any case, let’s return to Coatilla who prefers to be called Coati. This kawaii girl wants to explore the starry rift and meet new aliens. Like every good kid, she learns how to pilot a ship and use her dad’s credit card. She flies off on her sixteenth birthday with a fully loaded ship and a genki personality. She thinks it’s going to be a neat journey and her favorite catchphrase is “it’s the only neat thing to do” from an adventurer who has his fair share of First Contacts. I don’t know how to describe Coati as anything but “anime”. Her whole personality seems right out from a little girl cartoon in the likes of おじゃ魔女どれみ(Ojamajo Doremi) and 明日のナージャ(Ashita no Nadja).

She gets an intercom from the space station about some explorers going missing after they entered an uncharted star system. Coati decides to go there. On the way, the ship picks up a message pipe — a tool of communication used in the 18th century and in the far future — and it’s a log by the explorers. She has the option of sending the pipe to the station or be a hero.

Decide. …But, face it, hasn’t she already decided, when she stabilized here? She doesn’t need that much time to punch in Beacon Two! …Yes. She has to go somewhere really wild. A hut on Ace’s Landing is just not what she came out here for. Those unknown yellow suns are …and maybe she could do something useful, like finding the missing men; there’s an off chance. The neat thing to do might be to go by small steps, Ace’s Landing first — but the really neat course is to take advantage of all she’s learned and not to risk being forbidden to come back. Green, go! 決心しなさいったら。……でも、考えてみると、ここで安定軌道をとったときから、もう決心はついてたようなもんじゃない? ビーコン2の座標をうちこむだけなら、そんなに時間はいらないもん……。そう。あたしの行きたいのは、どこかハンパじゃないとこ。エース・ランディングの山小屋なんかが見たくてここへきたんじゃない。見たいのは、あの未知の黄色の太陽たち。……それに、ひょっとしたら、そうしたほうが役に立てるかもしれない。たとえば、行方不明のあのチームを見つけるとか。その可能性がないわけじゃないわよ。まずエース・ランディングへ行って、そこから小きざみに前進するのが冴えたやりかたかな――でも、ほんとに冴えたやりかたは、いままでに習いおぼえたことを活用して、つぎからの旅を禁止されるようなへまをしでかさないこと。グリーン、ゴー!

For the most part, the story is narrated like this. Internal dialog meshing with the loudspeaker narration. It doesn’t really work in my opinion because it’s chaotic to follow the action and it’s frustrating to read. But what’s more interesting is the translation. It’s normal to see pronouns get cut off in Japanese translations, but it also has the unintentional effect of reading more smoothly because you get into her point-of-view quicker. And most importantly, there is one instance where “she” isn’t cut; it is replaced with “あたし”, the feminine first-person pronoun. Japanese writing is no alien to going from third-person narration to first-person in the middle of a scene, which might infuriate Western readers unused to this writing style. But it lets readers get into her thought process in the midst of the action.

There are also scenes that read better in Japanese because of onomatopoeia and its variants. Tiptree likes to go “whew!” or “ouch!”, which looks awkward in English writing. In Japanese writing, that’s fair game. Going あっち in the middle of narration to denote pain is normal.

And you can even argue that the Japanese translation makes the writing feel less dated. Coati feels her arm getting cold but assumes she is just ecstatic. She mutters to herself that she is “goosey from excitement”. In Japanese, it’s only「興奮で、モロ鳥肌立ったりして」とつぶやく — a straight translation of goosebumps. The plain translation actually helps here while Tiptree’s use of slang in narration here feels inappropriate and sometimes cumbersome to read.

But nothing is perfect in a translation. The writing is way too literal and direct, almost distracting because of its adherence to the English structure. Each paragraph break is a 段落 break and that is irritating to read in Japanese. Also, every time Coati’s catchphrase “neat” is used, it gets translated into 冴えたやりかた. While it’s important to show the phrase as a motif, it’s … a bit too “cool” (or at least too stylish) to be repeated throughout the text and gets tiresome by the end.

Nobody talks about Tiptree’s writing in “The Only Neat Thing” anyway. It’s more about something else as we’ll see in this next section. Coati goes to cryogenic sleep, but later wakes up with a weird feeling. That weird feeling is an alien, which has entered into her body.

A minim of dead silence …into which a tiny, tiny voice says distinctly, “Hello …hello? Please don’t be frightened. Hello?”
It’s coming from somewhere behind and above her.
Coati whirls, peers up and around everywhere, seeing nothing new.
“Wh-where are you?” she demands. “Who are you, in here?”
“I am a very small being. You saved my life. Please don’t be frightened of me. Hello?”
“Hello,” Coati replies slowly, peering around hard. Still she sees nothing. And the voice is still behind her when she turns. She doesn’t feel frightened at all, just intensely excited and curious.
“What do you mean, I saved your life?”
“I was clinging to the outside of that artifact you call a message. I would have died soon.”
“Well, good.” But now Coati is a bit frightened. When the voice spoke, she definitely detected movement in her own larynx and tongue — as if she were speaking the words herself. Gods — she is going nutters, she’s hallucinating! “I’m talking to myself!”
一瞬、完全な沈黙……その中から、ちっちゃな、ちっちゃな声がはっきりという。
「ハロー……ハロー? どうか怖がらないで。ハロー?」
声のやってくる方角は、彼女のうしろの頭上だ。
コーティーはうしろをふりかえって見上げ、つぎにそこらじゅうを見まわすが、なにも新しい発見はない。
「ど、どこにいるのよ~」彼女はきく。「あんただれ?」
「わたしはとても小さな生物です。あなたはわたしの命を救ってくれました。どうか怖がらないで。ハロー?」
「ハロー」コーティーは間をおいて答え、あたりをしきりに見まわす。まだなにも見えない。
それに、うしろを向いても、声はやはりうしろから聞こえる。怖さはぜんぜん感じない。ただ、強烈な興奮と好奇心にかられているだけだ。
「なんのこと? あたしがあんたの命を救ったって~」
「わたしは、あなたがメッセージ・パイプと呼んでいるあの人工物の上にくっついていたのです。もうすこしで死ぬところを助かりました」
「そう、よかったね」だが、いまになってコーティーはちょっぴり怖じ気づいている。小さい声が話しかけたとき、自分自身の喉頭と舌が――まるでその言葉を自分でしゃべっているように――動いているのを、はっきり感じたのだ。どうなってんの、ぜったいに頭がおかしいわ、これは幻覚! 「あたし、ひとりごといってんだ!」

Thus begins the strange friendship between Syliobene and Coati. Syliobene is a small white thing that has entered Coati’s body. She is polite — a bit too polite. Shy and cute. That’s how Coati sees it. It reminds her when she has to remember her manners. She then wonders, “Could it be that they are two kids — even two females — together, out looking for adventure in the starfields? (もしかしたら、あたしたちは星野へ冒険をさがしにでかけたふたりの子供――もしかしたら、ふたりの女の子?)”

This relationship between two girls is what people remember the most from the story in both the West and Japan. There is something special between the two. They hit it off well as they converse and learn about each other’s cultures. They become friends almost immediately and share an unusually strong bond together. Maybe it’s better to describe their relationship as more than friends. They complement each other. It reminds me of the Mimi ending in Atelier Totori where the two girls decide to go adventuring together. Coati even takes a second to imagine the two of them exploring space, just like the novels she loves to read. It is definitely a pure depiction of relationships between girls.

Throughout the latter half of the story, details of the setting and the missing adventurers are revealed that will put the whole galaxy in peril. They decide to pilot their ship to the sun and sacrifice themselves for the sake of protecting the human race. It is a testament to their strong friendship and belief in mutual relationships between alien species.

Coati’s last words to the space station are: “this is the only neat thing to do.”

When you realize the importance of friendship and Coati’s last words in the story, it becomes a cathartic tale of communication. It asks us to go beyond mere cooperation and dialog. Heroism in Coati’s eyes isn’t just about exploring but making friends and treasuring them no matter the consequences. The story may have ended in tragedy, but the ending gives a more hopeful look on humanity’s place in the future. Humans may disappear; however, their tales of friendship will not.

It isn’t that hard to understand why Japanese people fell in love with the story. Someone compared the story to Madoka Magica for their messianic themes and another reviewer was surprised that Tiptree was 70 years old when her depiction of Coati was so adorable. And surprisingly, the short story has some fanart on Pixiv depicting the two leads. Everyone loves the two characters and find their relationship beautiful. It’s funny to see that this work is included in a yuri database that rates how yuri something is (yes, this exists), even though it gauges the work with only 5% yuri points. While the rater considers the friendship as a deep relationship, the story is just typical science fiction. Nevertheless, the inclusion of the story in a yuri database suggests that people do share this sentiment.

All of these elements — the memetic title, Coati’s personality, the internal narration, and the somewhat yuri relationship between Coati and Syliobene — make “It’s the Only Neat Thing to Do” a far richer story in Japan than it should have been like in the West. The Japanese popular culture is a ripe place for this story to grow a large fanbase. Something like this here will never get this big.

At least, that’s what I think. Having read the English version first before the Japanese, I don’t get why this story is appealing to Japanese people at first. It has a nice ending, but I find the writing style frustrating and prefer the other stories in The Starry Rift. The pacing is rough and the jargon is outright bad.

When I reread this in Japanese, I recall the annoying writing quirks and boring dialog infodumps before Coati meets Syliobene. And the translation, while generally being okay, reads terrible at times and don’t flow well. I got bored and had to stop whenever I spot a sentence that didn’t feel right before looking up the English version I have. Usually, it’s something from Tiptree’s off-putting writing — something you can’t really fix if you’re going for a literal translation.

But the writing doesn’t seem to be a problem with other Japanese readers, so it could just be me.

That or they really like the plot so much they are willing to forgive any bad Japanese writing. Maybe one of the reasons I don’t get this story is found in a March 2001 Honto customer review by ちゃぼ. There, the reviewer says that he would be suspicious of someone’s humanity if they didn’t cry reading the story. But he also adds, これはむしろ、日本人の心の琴線に触れる物語なのだ — Perhaps, this story [is one of those stories that] tugs the shamisen heartstrings of the Japanese people.

Perhaps, that really is the case.

If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought it was a Japanese science fiction short story. Maybe it should be considered one because it’s so prevalent there while the West has no idea about it. Whatever one thinks about the short story, one has to admit the story fits right in the Japanese canon. It has been adopted by popular culture and it is worth reading this story to take a trip into the world of Japanese fiction.

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It’s the Only Neat Thing to Do — A Trip into the Japanese World of Western Science Fiction

7 thoughts on “It’s the Only Neat Thing to Do — A Trip into the Japanese World of Western Science Fiction

  1. megmica says:

    wow, thanks. this i really detail.

    this really answers my question about sf book on japanese, even I don’t usually read the old book.

    btw, can you write another sf book article about haikasoru publishing. I always read their sf japanese translation book.

    Like

  2. Absolutely fascinating! I’ve always wondered what it’s like to read in another language-what one thinks, how it feels, how different the experience is-and this just continues to motivate me even more. I had never heard of any of these English novels and then to see how much the Japanese adore these is honestly interesting.

    Thank you for this awesome post!!

    Like

    1. Most people haven’t. I’ve only heard of Tiptree through Japanese fiction and a Nebula Prize-winning professor who is into pulp fiction.

      I’ve always wanted to write more about Japanese writers getting influenced by English language novels. Hope there will be an opportunity for that soon.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’d love to hear more about that in the future if you can ^^. Perhaps a topic most already know, but I wonder what Japan thinks of the original Howl’s Moving Castle and our classics.
        What are classics for them? Are they folk tales like Taro the Fisherman or Murakami? (though he’s more a literary sensation).

        Like

      2. At some point in my life, I will like to talk about 純文学 — what they call literature. There are classics such as 雪国, 源氏物語, 痴人の愛, 人間失格, ドグラマグラ to name a few. Folk tales are not always included in the canon from what I understand but they are essential to understanding some of it.

        When it comes to English language novels being translated, people love The Giving Tree because it is translated by Murakami of all people. Gatsby, Huck Finn (there is a whole fashion trend like goth loli dedicated to this kind of country wear), and more are loved. Some of them are kinda random as I mention in this post. I have no idea how The Door into Summers by Heinlein is more influential in Japan than, say, Starship Troopers.

        I wish I know more, so I can answer better. Oh well, I am still researching this subject. There’s so much to learn, so little time…

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Wow, that would be an amazing post! You’re right. There is so little time. But I guess that’s a great thing about life. There’s always more to learn.
        Ouch, Door into Summers in more influential? Huh, interesting.
        Sorry for gushing over your blog (yet again) but I’m so glad I found it. I have to get to bed since I got classes but I’ll def be back haha.
        Good luck with everything!!! ^^

        Like

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