Something inexplicable is happening on the surface of the planet Mercury. At first it looks like nothing more than a spire growing outwards into space, a mere hair on the lens of high-school student and amateur astronomer Aki Shiraishi’s telescope. But soon the spire has become a filament encircling the sun, and soon that thread in space becomes a wall that threatens to completely block out the sun and exterminate all life.
Studying the ring becomes Aki’s purpose in the world, even as global cooling takes its toll and civilization begins to implode. Her hard work pays off: she’s selected to become part of a mission to venture out there, study the ring, and if possible stop its relentless growth. What they don’t expect is to discover the ring’s real purpose, and that destroying the ring may well mean condemning another intelligent species somewhere else in the universe to death. What’s more, Aki realizes she feels a great and painful empathy for the aliens — even before she’s ever met them — something which compels her to reach out to them, to rebuild the Ring in a way that will allow mankind and this as-yet-unknown other to live.
It’s been a long time since I read what gets classified as “hard SF”, mostly because such stories always seemed to get bogged down in technical trivia that’s only slightly less interesting than fantasy baseball statistics. Housuke Nojiri’s Usurper of the Sun doesn’t make that mistake. It splits its storytelling between its hard-science speculations and Aki’s feelings, and Aki’s feelings win out as the real story driver. Granted, most of the story is about the nuts-and-bolts of the alien presence in our solar system — are they bad guys, or just trying to survive like we are? — but Aki’s whole quest for answers has an emotional underpinning that isn’t usually present in a story like this.
Usurper is a mini-anthology of classic SF concepts: the logistics and physics of a Dyson structure and nanomachinery; the insignificance of life’s place in the universe, which science only makes more profound as time goes by; and the way a giant external threat could theoretically serve as a unifier for a divided mankind. The latter’s been explored in everything from Watchmen to Theodore Sturgeon’s short story “Unite and Conquer”. Arthur C. Clarke gets a nod on the cover blurb, and Nojiri’s spare, direct writing style brings to mind Clarke’s work (and Asimov’s) as much as the high-science subject matter does. Most Clarke fans will probably see nods to both Rendezvous with Rama and Childhood’s End in Usurper, but Usurper stands on its own and is memorable for reasons apart from just hearkening back to other authors.
The real engine of the story, again, is Aki and her passion. She’s of the belief that the aliens’ intentions cannot be determined without at least some degree of putting herself in their shoes. Speculation about their intentions only goes so far without attempting to understand from the inside out what would compel an alien race to fling themselves through the void at our solar system, with only the slimmest hope of arriving at all. One of her few human friends in this venture is Raul, a genius in the field of artificial intelligence despite the fact that he keeps trying to get into Aki’s pants (or maybe better to say her spacesuit). He becomes invaluable when the aliens finally do arrive, since they don’t resemble us in the slightest — they are a collective consciousness, and have no concept of others — and Aki has to find a way to communicate with them or condemn them to death all over again. Or, conversely, condemn humanity to death as well.
I sometimes wonder if hard SF is a tougher translation job than literary fiction, but Usurper thankfully doesn’t read like a “translation” even when Nojiri goes heavy on the science. The only stumbling block is Nojiri’s dialogue, which is occasionally a bit stilted — although I’m not positive if that’s Nojiri being tin-eared or just translator John Wunderley’s choices of words. Come to think of it, there’s a curious issue at work here: the vast majority of the characters are not Japanese, but sometimes Nojiri gives them tropes of speech and turns of phrase that have a decidedly Japanese flavor to them. I doubt these issues will throw off the target audience for the book, though: they came looking for something that’ll stretch their minds and show them a piece of the infinite, and they’ll definitely get it here.