Ironically, constraining myself with categories and challenges will encourage me to read more. I’ve long been a fan of Russian literature and a couple forthcoming books for my International Science Fiction quest are from this part of the world.
A Wind Named Amnesia
Author: Hideyuki Kikuchi
Illustrator: Yoshitaka Amano
Translator: Joe & Yuko Swift
Dark Horse Books, 2005
Paperback, 230 pages
Nota Bene: A Wind Named Amnesia was originally written in 1983, but was published in 2005 as a double novel with Invader Summer. Originally, these books were published in Japan under the title Invader Street. As I do not speak or read Japanese, I do not feel qualified to critique specific language use or turns of phrase; everything I am reading from Kikuchi’s original story is filtered through Joe and Yuko Swift’s interpretation. This is the first in my series about speculative fiction and fantasy books from places other than the United States or UK.
A Wind Named Amnesia was an odd choice for me to pick up. Normally, I’m not a huge fan of stories set in a post-apocalyptic world, though I make an exception for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Yet even this science-fiction classic written by one of the major names of the genre left me at best, lukewarm. However, the particular apocalypse as described in Amnesia felt different–it wasn’t an all out war or an obvious alien invasion. Something stole the memories of humankind, specifically their memories of civilization. Therefore, our intrepid duo of Sophia* and Wataru not only had to survive their cross-country odyssey, but they also had to learn just why America (and the rest of the world) has reverted to a primitive state.
In a postscript to the book, Kikuchi wrote about how this story was inspired by his own trip to Grand Canyon and the surrounding areas, and how he was blown away by the vast American landscape. That awe does come through. As odd as it is to say considering this book is set after America is destroyed by loss of memories, but it really is a love letter to the United States. The story goes from Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco to the ruins of Hollywood and Las Vegas to a mysterious national park in New Mexico built around a meteor impact and home to giant mutant animals, to a New Orleans that somehow has remembered its jazz roots, if not the dangers of the levees breaking.** In between escaping giant robots and cannibalistic serial killers are moments where Wataru takes in the splendor of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, or the characters marvel at the scenery while speeding down the Pacific Coast Highway.
Yes, giant mutant animals in New Mexico. In fact, the New Mexico interlude illustrates quite nicely the two aspects of this book I find most troublesome. First is that the characters are less fully realized people and more vehicles for which Kikuchi uses to take us to the various bits of post-apocalyptic scenery. Sophia knows more than Wataru for reasons that are explained later in the book, but Wataru due to some sort of experiments in Montana at least has the knowledge of human speech, using a gun, and driving a car (all thing that were forgotten with the amnesic wind). Often he just stands there, hand on his gun waiting to be attacked while waiting for Sophia to explain the customs of the latest tribe of primitive humans that they come across in the desert. Wataru loves to travel. Sophia is curious and strangely powerful. But neither one really seems to have any sort of reaction to the chaos around them. Perhaps you could argue that they have become numb in the ensuing three years, but that doesn’t feel quite right either, especially since the other humans they meet clearly have not lost the ability to have an inner life and emotions amidst the chaos. When Wataru and Sophia meet Tonto and Rita, the latest group of people banding together trying to survive while trying to stay away from some sort of predator (the aforementioned giant mutant animals, among other things), there is no sense that this group’s plight affects them, even in a grizzled “only the strong survive” sense. The characters are hollow not because life has hollowed them out, but because the author put nothing in them to begin with. It makes it hard to really care about anyone’s fate.
The giant mutant animals are indicative of another problem: way too much of the good stuff is prologue. Not only is this world three years into its amnesia, but apparently there are also space colonies, giant metal walkers that behave like malfunctioning Robocops, experiments reminiscent of Weapon X on Wataru and his dead friend Johnny, and genetically engineered giant animals. Now, I’m a huge fan of little details that give the setting texture and make the story feel like it’s set in a real place, even if the “real place” is in some imagined future of America. However, there comes a point when all these details overwhelm the back story and instead of feeling situated, you become unmoored. For me, that happens when we learn that the park in New Mexico was created by a meteor that crashed into the Earth some years back, dropping the temperature 4 degrees centigrade and killing off the tropics.
At that point, I started wondering why we started this story when we did. A meteor drops the world’s temperature four degrees centigrade and kills off the tropics, but ever resourceful humans use their technology to turn the site of the impact into a national park. A national park with genetically engineered giant bears and owls. This same technological savvy allowed humans to create space colonies, turn other humans into X-men in the wilds of Montana, create Imperial walker type street patrollers that can vaporize “criminals,” and regular sized sedans that can drive 700 miles on one tank of gas.*** It feels like there were several far more interesting stories about far more interesting people that occurred before the book started. Every stop along the way seemed like it could have been a story on its own.
As it’s written, A Wind Named Amnesia feels like a video game. The hero and some Black Magician Girl stop in several cities, meet some townsfolk who may be friendly or hostile. Wataru fights some of the lower mooks off before they face the Boss (which could be anything from a giant tentacled monster to rogue construction equipment) before moving on to the next city/level. The quest is to get the meaningfully named Sophia from San Francisco to New Orleans (which in part is a sewer level)**** to….well, if you read the book, you’ll know. Not giving away that spoiler.
Because for all my complaining, the book is worth reading. Kikuchi may use flat characters, but there is suspense in finding out why the world lost its memories and whether they can ever come back. The individual scenes he sets are wonderfully detailed and really situate you in these imagined parts of America. The ending, while not a truly satisfying resolution for the characters, somehow fits the video game aesthetic this book seems to portray. This book builds a world with multitudes of history only hinted at. Now we just need some enterprising fanfic writers to not only develop this history, but actually populate the world with characters in their own right.
* That the female lead is named after the Greek word for “knowledge” is no coincidence.
** To be fair, this story was first written in 1983, long before Hurricane Katrina. However, it was bizarre to read about how the Superdome held 80,000 people and hosted Super Bowls, but have no mention of what that place became in the wake of the storm.
*** The need for gas varies as the plot demands. Though it is odd that in this world, they still used cars with internal combustion engines before the Wind Named Amnesia struck.
**** Should the Sewer Level really be the one just before the fight with the final boss?