Narrator: Adam Sims
Published by Audible Studios on March 3rd 2016
Genres: Science Fiction
Length: 9 hrs and 53 mins
I’ll admit, as cool as its cover looked, Peter Tieryas’ United States of Japan did not initially grab my interest. Mind you, it’s not that I’m averse to the prospect of a 150-foot-tall Mecha wreaking havoc in my science fiction, but at the time I just wasn’t sure if I was in the mood for that sort of bombast and action. Thing is though, it turned out I was completely wrong, both on the nature of this book and on my early skepticism that the story might not be for me – because, as you’ll see, it absolutely was. There’s a depth to USJ that I did not expect, and it was this mix of profundity and thrilling suspense that made the book such a great read and audio listen.
Described as a spiritual successor to The Man in the High Castle, even if you have not read the Philip K. Dick classic, one can immediately surmise a certain set of expectations from United States of Japan. Yes, it is an alternate history novel, and it takes place approximately four decades after World War II in a world where Japan won the conflict and conquered America. History has been rewritten to praise Japan’s exemplary conduct in the war and most Americans now also worship the Emperor as a god. Anyone who disagrees or does otherwise is looked upon with suspicion, or disappeared altogether. Resistance has been reduced to a small group of rebels called the “George Washingtons”, freedom fighters who are continuing to find new ways to subvert the Japanese rule. Their latest tactic is a video game called “USA” that depicts what the world might be like if the Allied forces had won the war instead.
Eventually, the illegal game reaches to the attention of Captain Beniko Ishimura, the son of two refugees who were freed from the Japanese American internment camps at the end of the war. Ben’s role to censor video games ultimately leads him on a journey to investigate USA’s origins, putting him on a path of secrets, dangers and lies. Together with Agent Akiko Tsukino of the secret police, Ben goes looking for the rebels and discovers a whole lot more than he bargained for.
What I found most interesting about this book is its protagonist, a 39-year-old underachiever who has hit a dead end in his military career. He’s also indolent, cowardly, the worst kind of womanizer, and not even those closest to him will trust Ben as far as they can throw him. After all, this is a man who turned in his own parents for being traitors to the Japanese Empire. What kind of heartless monster does that?
But of course, there’s always more to the story. As events unfold, and we get to know Ben better, it becomes clear he is not the cold-blooded and deceitful snake his actions paint him out to be. In fact, he feels downright human, living an unambitious life and preferring to stay under the radar. In this world where the secret police can come knocking at your door anytime, when even the slightest or non-existent hint of dissension is suspected, Ben’s approach might in truth be the safest, smartest way to live. And after a while, our protagonist doesn’t actually seem like such a bad guy. Sure, Ben might be apathetic and faint-hearted, but he doesn’t seem capable of directly harming anyone. In time though, his character will develop further and make great strides, especially after he starts teaming up with Akiko. I was impressed at how both of them felt genuinely fleshed-out with complex, believable personalities. What’s on the surface is not always indicative of what’s on the inside.
At its heart, United States of Japan is also a political mystery-thriller. I enjoyed how the world was gradually revealed to us in all its horror and unpleasantness. It’s a dark tale, but fast-paced because of the perfect balance of action and suspense. The story holds an incredibly ambitious blend of concepts and themes, but never once did I feel that it was too much, or that any one element overshadowed another. I liked how the towering robots came into play and how video games had a significant role. Simply put, the plot came together like a well-oiled machine. Once you’re drawn into the intrigue, it’s hard to pull yourself out again.
My experience with the audiobook was interesting as well. This is the first time I’ve listened to a book read by Adam Sims, and I admit my first impression was not very favorable. However, either I got used to the narration or the performance eventually improved, because by the end, Sims’ reading didn’t feel as flat and there were more variations in the rhythm and inflection of his voices. It’s not the best performance I’ve ever heard in an audiobook, but it was more than satisfactory and I also thought Sims also did a good job with his accents and acting.
All told, United States of Japan is a fascinating venture into alternate history, and it is not to be underestimated. Highly recommended.