United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas

usjUnited States of Japan is one of those books that took me by surprise.  To be honest I went into this with a little bit of concern because it has a military/sci fi look and description which made me worry slightly about whether it might be out of my comfort zone.  As it happens that wasn’t the case at all.  This book is a fast paced read that undoubtedly got it’s hooks into me from page 1.

The story starts in America in the year 1948 where we are introduced to a number of survivors being released from a relocation camp.  WWII has ended and the Japanese are the victors.  We then move forward approximately 40 years where the son of one of the couples that survived their early interment at the hands of the US now works as a censor of video games.  Beniko Ishimura is a man who seems to lack purpose.  He is constantly overlooked for promotion, he worries about saying or doing something untoward that might bring him the wrong sort of attention and at the start of the story he’s about to take a phone call that will turn his world upside down.

This is basically a book of ‘what ifs’.  What if Pearl Harbour never happened.  What if the Japanese had held off until they were in a better position in terms of military and technological capability?  Would America have still joined in with WWII and if not would the Japanese have been in a better position to conquer with all their new military gadgets?  Now assuming those ‘what ifs’ all lined up to give us an alternate history and a 1988 in which the United States of Japan was a different landscape to the one we now know, a USJ with greatly advanced technology and a dystopian society ruled by a cruel and brutal system where extreme fear and paranoia are the order of the day and a person can be taken at the drop of a hat and tortured with very little reason or justification.

Let’s just be honest, the USJ is a scary place to live.  A big brother society as its most extreme: people’s habits, even their gaming techniques and choices are monitored.  The people are under constant scrutiny and the smallest utterance can be taken as a traitorous remark that brings down the wrath of the secret police (the Tokko).  Agent Akiko Tsukino (an officer with the Tokko) has been sent to investigate Beniko (Ben).  She has very little to go on at the start, other than the phone call that Ben received the evening before, but even so she doesn’t let that interfere with her intimidation and she manages to involve Ben in her investigations into the underground movement known as the George Washingtons – rebels fighting for freedom.

So, the hunt is on and we’re about to be led on a journey of violence, torture, dark and seedy underworlds and secret hideouts with a couple of characters who whilst at first seem to be uncompromising have hidden depths.

This is a difficult book to review.  Firstly, I don’t want to give anything away, secondly I’m still thinking about the ending and thirdly I confess that it’s a fairly grim read.  And, I don’t say that as a criticism because I think it’s fairly intrinsic to what the author is trying to achieve here and he achieves it very well – this isn’t a nice place and there is never any doubt about that. There are no laugh out loud moments to lighten the feel, this is a dark story set in an unkind world.  In imagining this story the author has used the very worst human traits and intensified them.  He’s also used a lot of creativity in imagining this alternative world and the inventions it has spawned.

The two main characters are Ben and Akiko.  Now, neither of these characters are straight up good or bad.  They’re both layered and over the course of the book the author will, almost without you realising, manage to impart things about them that will shed a different light on their personalities.  Ben comes across a bit lackadaisical which isn’t strictly speaking true.  I would say he’s almost paralysed with fear.  He certainly isn’t quite as laid back as he likes to make out and considering the first impression I had of him as a womanising loner he manages to conjure quite a few friends and acquaintances who seem to respect him.  Akiko is ruthless and ambitious.  She has carried out atrocities all in the name of the Emperor and yet scratch the surface and a few doubts leak out.  I can’t say that I really liked either of them but what I can say is that the author made me care about what happened.  That almost sounds like a contradiction in terms doesn’t it?  Basically, throughout the book I was looking for some sort of turnaround moment for both of them. and in one particular aspect I think the author does manage to bring a different light to bear.  Mostly, however, and actually I have to say that I have great respect for this, he didn’t go down the route of miraculous transformation.  His characters, mostly, pretty much stayed true to themselves.

I didn’t really have any criticisms of the book.  It’s not necessarily an easy read and I don’t doubt that some will find certain aspects not really for them but I thought it was quite fascinating and it definitely gave me plenty to think about.  Did I end this with that giddy feeling that some books seem to achieve – no, quite honestly, I didn’t.  But for a book that I finished over a week ago I’m still mulling it over.  There are many ways in which a book can succeed for the reader, we can simply fall in love, it can hypnotise us with it’s beautiful prose or stun us with it’s scope and creativity or it can take us on a journey that we didn’t expect and whilst maybe not a journey with singing and picnics nonetheless one with plenty of food for thought. I’m still digesting USJ and frankly I might just go in for seconds and give this another read at some point in the future.

Dark, dystopian, alternate history with a setting that makes you glad that you’re not living in one of the many possible parallel universes that could be out there.

I received a copy of this courtesy of the publishers through Netgalley for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.



10 Responses to “United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas”

  1. Lisa (@TenaciousReader)

    I do love books that make me ponder possibilities and what ifs 🙂

    • @lynnsbooks

      there’s no shortage of ‘what ifs’ going on here. It really does make you think!
      Lynn 😀

  2. Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum

    I just finished this one myself! TOTALLY took me by surprise. When I saw the cover, I was like, this looks cool, but it’s probably not for me. Boy, was I wrong about that. What a great blend of deeper themes and conflict, and I couldn’t believe the author even managed to throw giant robots and video games into the mix. I loved the characters too, and how both Ben and Akiko were hiding secrets beneath the surface.

    • @lynnsbooks

      I really went into this with that ‘ooh what have I done’ feel and yet it practically had me at ‘hello’, I was in this for the whole ride from chapter 1. It’s brutal and really dark, the characters are not the loveliest but I was pretty much hooked. I don’t suppose it’s the most unique concept but that being said I haven’t read it’s like before. I thought the scene with the big robots was ace. And, even now I’m thinking of it again. In fact the more I think about it the more I like it! I really need to read it again to be perfectly honest just to see what I missed. Or just to read it more comfortably and not at that breakneck pace where you’re trying to reach the end.
      Lynn 😀

  3. Maryam (@thecurioussffreader)

    Great book isn’t it ? 😀
    I am so glad that you enjoyed it, I want this book to be read by everyone haha!
    I actually really liked how Tieryas ended the story, I think that I really suited the tone of the story.

    • @lynnsbooks

      I really liked it. In fact I like it more and more as the days pass by – which sounds really odd doesn’t it but it’s just so thought provoking.
      Lynn 😀

  4. maddalena@spaceandsorcery

    Until I read your review I was totally misled by the cover: I thought it was something to do with big war robots (Pacific Rim comes to mind…) and I would never have imagined that this story would contain so many elements I enjoy. One of the most important messages you convey is that while the characters are not exactly likable, the author makes you *care* about what happens: I could not ask more from a book.
    Sold – hook, line and sinker… 🙂

    • @lynnsbooks

      There are big robots in here – fairly briefly and in particular one very cool scene that is a little reminiscent of Pacific Rim. This book is chock full of thought provoking goodness. I can’t stop thinking about it – there’s loads going on. It’s really dark and brutal but there’s so much going on. And, yes, what a great trick the author’s pulled off with these characters..
      I hope you read it – I can’t wait to see what you make of it.
      Lynn 😀

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    […] US of Japan by Peter Tieryas […]

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