Books: All You Need Is Kill

Private Keiji Kiriya lives in a nightmare. Literally. Every day hewakes up, works out, dons his suit of powered super-armor, dives intocombat to defend Earth from invasion by the alien “Mimics”, getskilled—and wakes up back in his bunk to do it all over again. By hisown count he has been doing this over one hundred and fifty times. Somedays he manages to live another few minutes longer on the battlefield.Some days he never makes it out of his barracks. And occasionally, veryoccasionally, he discovers another permutation—another wrinkle in thefabric of his temporal pocket, another way to not just push theenvelope 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 hassomething of the same premise—you only truly move into the future bylearning to change—but applies it in ways that make it leapfrog overits source material and turn into something genuinely different. Itstarts as a war story, introduces time travel and causality, thentouches on determinism and free will, planetary ecology, exobiology,terraforming, the intra-species barrier, and then finally shoots forthe 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 boltedtogether 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 intoEnglish) springs the time-loop gimmick on us, and spends about thefirst fourth of the book getting us used to its mechanisms. Kiriya is afast learner, and before the tenth iteration is out he’s got his LoopTranscendence Protocol down to an art—he’s got the number of theiteration he’s stuck in written on his hand, and learns at each stepalong 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 Killappealing 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 muchcleverer, that much less sentimental, that much smarter and sharperthan all of his buddies in his platoon—including his commander—if hewants to come out the other side of this mess. The protagonist of JoeHaldeman’s The Forever War, Mandella, had the same state ofmind. In that book, he was stuck in a war that was taking tens ofthousands of years of objective time to fight; there was a good chancehe would come home to an Earth where everyone he had known was longdead and the society he was defending simply didn’t exist. Kiriya’sisolation is even greater: he’s part of this world and it can kill himquite capriciously, but he cannot have any of it or savor it, and witheach 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 alegendary super-soldier who’s dropped in to even the odds. Her name isRita Vratski, the “Full Metal Bitch”, and the first thing out of hermouth for Kiriya is so bizarrely out of left field that it’s all he cando to sputter and blink and look stupid. But then he begins toencounter her again and again—such as on the field where he’s doing PTwith his other platoon-mates—and with each repetition he notices she’smaking more and more of an effort to get his attention. And then itclicks: She is experiencing the same time loop. Small wondershe keeps dropping in to change the odds, and he’s able to use thatincrementally more each time. She’s an angel that’s dropped in to pullhim 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 pointthe author switches to a third-person POV to take us out of Kiriya’sloop entirely, to provide us with Vratski’s own backstory and anexplanation for the origins of the alien species ravaging the planet.She blundered across a secret of the alien’s near-invincibility, andfound out it was best to simply put such knowledge into action on thebattlefield rather than explain it to unsympathetic ears. Her bestcomrades-in-arms are those who have actually been there as well—butreaching them and making them understand what they’re really upagainst is another story. And then there is much more beyond that, allfitted together in a way that is quite satisfying, both conceptuallyand emotionally.

Buddhism espouses the twin concepts of samsara and nirvana.The former is the endless cycle of death and rebirth, during which theodds of being reborn as a sentient being and thus improving one’scosmic lot are vanishingly small. The latter is the escape from deathand rebirth, a re-merging with the cosmos from which all thingsoriginally emerged, like bubbles bursting on the surface of a pond. Onecould make an argument for Kill as an allegorical treatment ofthe same journey, and in this case it doesn’t even seem all thatpretentious. That it manages to accomplish all of this in only 200pages 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’stranslation wasn’t going to be an issue. Smith is none other than thefellow 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 Guinnovels were written in a highly stylized, almost Tolkienesque manner,and rather than try to present that word-for-word andturn-of-phrase-for-turn-of-phrase (which would have been bewilderingand cloying to most readers), he dismantled that style and reassembledit 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-outsurgery to be readable to English speakers. The translation’seffortless and seamless—it’s the sort of job I can point to as anexample for how to do this sort of thing without leaving any roughedges sticking out. If you walked in not knowing this was atranslation, you’d walk out none the wiser.

The Bottom Line: When VIZ announced their Haikasoruimprint earlier this year at Comic-Con, I had to fight hard to keepfrom bouncing in my seat with glee. Japanese SF and fantasy hasremained consistently under-translated for far too long. Thatparticular wheel has started to budge slightly: the Dirty Pair / Vampire Hunter Dbooks, Kurodahan Press’s offerings. But the field still remains, by andlarge, dominated by material derived from properties familiar toEnglish-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.

Tags: Alexander O. Smith Haikasoru Hiroshi Sakurazaka Japan fiction review

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the categories Books, External Book Reviews, published on 2009/06/21 23:58.

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