Private Keiji Kiriya lives in a nightmare. Literally. Every day he wakes up, works out, dons his suit of powered super-armor, dives into combat to defend Earth from invasion by the alien “Mimics”, gets killed — and wakes up back in his bunk to do it all over again. By his own count he has been doing this over one hundred and fifty times. Some days he manages to live another few minutes longer on the battlefield. Some days he never makes it out of his barracks. And occasionally, very occasionally, he discovers another permutation — another wrinkle in the fabric of his temporal pocket, another way to not just push the envelope but make it bend to his will.
This probably makes All You Need Is Kill sound like a mixture of Starship Troopers and Groundhog Day. Yes, I do mean the Bill Murray movie, which has over time stood up as a quiet little classic. Kill has something of the same premise — you only truly move into the future by learning to change — but applies it in ways that make it leapfrog over its source material and turn into something genuinely different. It starts as a war story, introduces time travel and causality, then touches on determinism and free will, planetary ecology, exobiology, terraforming, the intra-species barrier, and then finally shoots for the moon and ends up in love-story territory. This should not all work, but it does.
The opening chapters are designed to be deceptive. They’re bolted together from the usual spare-parts bucket of gung-ho war clichés, gleaned from everything from the aforementioned Troopers to John Steakley’s underrated Armor. Then the author, Hiroshi Sakurazaka (this is his first novel translated into English) springs the time-loop gimmick on us, and spends about the first fourth of the book getting us used to its mechanisms. Kiriya is a fast learner, and before the tenth iteration is out he’s got his Loop Transcendence Protocol down to an art — he’s got the number of the iteration he’s stuck in written on his hand, and learns at each step along the way what he might be able to do to prolong his odds.
But Kiriya’s interesting for other reasons, and that’s a big part of what will make Kill appealing for people who normally don’t pick up “future war” stories. He’s a greenhorn and he knows it, and that means he has to be that much cleverer, that much less sentimental, that much smarter and sharper than all of his buddies in his platoon — including his commander — if he wants to come out the other side of this mess. The protagonist of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Mandella, had the same state of mind. In that book, he was stuck in a war that was taking tens of thousands of years of objective time to fight; there was a good chance he would come home to an Earth where everyone he had known was long dead and the society he was defending simply didn’t exist. Kiriya’s isolation is even greater: he’s part of this world and it can kill him quite capriciously, but he cannot have any of it or savor it, and with each repeat of the loop his despair grows all the deeper.
Slowly, the loop begins to change. One day on the battlefield he’s visited by a legendary super-soldier who’s dropped in to even the odds. Her name is Rita Vratski, the “Full Metal Bitch”, and the first thing out of her mouth for Kiriya is so bizarrely out of left field that it’s all he can do to sputter and blink and look stupid. But then he begins to encounter her again and again — such as on the field where he’s doing PT with his other platoon-mates — and with each repetition he notices she’s making more and more of an effort to get his attention. And then it clicks: She is experiencing the same time loop. Small wonder she keeps dropping in to change the odds, and he’s able to use that incrementally more each time. She’s an angel that’s dropped in to pull him out of hell — but he has to make an effort to be rescued, too.
Where all of this goes and how it develops is one of the biggest reasons to read Kill, so I will do my best to ruin as little of it as possible. At one point the author switches to a third-person POV to take us out of Kiriya’s loop entirely, to provide us with Vratski’s own backstory and an explanation for the origins of the alien species ravaging the planet. She blundered across a secret of the alien’s near-invincibility, and found out it was best to simply put such knowledge into action on the battlefield rather than explain it to unsympathetic ears. Her best comrades-in-arms are those who have actually been there as well — but reaching them and making them understand what they’re really up against is another story. And then there is much more beyond that, all fitted together in a way that is quite satisfying, both conceptually and emotionally.
Buddhism espouses the twin concepts of samsara and nirvana. The former is the endless cycle of death and rebirth, during which the odds of being reborn as a sentient being and thus improving one’s cosmic lot are vanishingly small. The latter is the escape from death and rebirth, a re-merging with the cosmos from which all things originally emerged, like bubbles bursting on the surface of a pond. One could make an argument for Kill as an allegorical treatment of the same journey, and in this case it doesn’t even seem all that pretentious. That it manages to accomplish all of this in only 200 pages without ever seeming rushed or skimpy is another little miracle.
Translation: The instant my eye ran across the line Translated by Alexander O. Smith on the cover, on the cover, I was certain Kill’s translation wasn’t going to be an issue. Smith is none other than the fellow who gave us those impeccable translations of Kaoru Kurimoto’s Guin Saga, and from what I’ve seen of the original texts of those books he took massive chances and got away with them. The Guin novels were written in a highly stylized, almost Tolkienesque manner, and rather than try to present that word-for-word and turn-of-phrase-for-turn-of-phrase (which would have been bewildering and cloying to most readers), he dismantled that style and reassembled it in a way that would click for Western readers.
I haven’t seen the original text for Kill, but I’m willing to bet it did not require that kind of inside-out surgery to be readable to English speakers. The translation’s effortless and seamless — it’s the sort of job I can point to as an example for how to do this sort of thing without leaving any rough edges sticking out. If you walked in not knowing this was a translation, you’d walk out none the wiser.
The Bottom Line: When VIZ announced their Haikasoru imprint earlier this year at Comic-Con, I had to fight hard to keep from bouncing in my seat with glee. Japanese SF and fantasy has remained consistently under-translated for far too long. That particular wheel has started to budge slightly: the Dirty Pair / Vampire Hunter D books, Kurodahan Press’s offerings. But the field still remains, by and large, dominated by material derived from properties familiar to English-speaking audiences. All You Need Is Kill is an original in every sense of the word, and I hope the other planned Haikasoru releases follow suit.