Marika Ōhara, Hybrid Child (University of Minnesota Press, 2018, 304pp, £15.99)
Reviewed by Ciarán Kavanagh (University College Cork)
Mariko Ōhara’s Hybrid Child is the first major work of Japanese speculative fiction by a female author to be translated into English. Originally published in 1991, Hybrid Child was established as a classic of Japanese sf after being awarded the prestigious Seiun Award.
The story is centred around the shape-shifting cyborg Sample B #3, a military weapon who mysteriously receives free will and flees the army. The plot is largely driven by B #3’s need to hide from the army and, thereby, protect and explore her new existence as a sentient being. In the background is an eternal war between the Allied Forces of Humanity and the Adiaptron Immortal Empire of Machines, a race of robots driven by a frenetic need to expand. Observing, and at times intervening, is the Military Priest, a waning deity which exists, haphazardly, at all points of time over an 800-year span. Running the planet Caritas, on which much of the novel takes place, is Milagros, a godlike, female AI suffering from a type of PTSD. The novel is split into three sections, ‘Hybrid Child’, ‘Farewell’ and ‘Aquaplanet’, the last of which forms the greater portion of the novel.
Hybrid Child has the intimate feel of a fairy-tale, told through tropes that, while broadly familiar, are rendered strange in the details. The first and second sections, wherein the narrative space and characters are far more contained, are the most achieved in this regard. The opening section has the feel of a gothic ‘stranger at the door’ horror, the aroused expectations of which are immediately subverted by doubts as to which character is the monster. It is likewise here that the Hybrid Child opens its larger meditation: mothers, the dangers of their love, and their necessary deaths. Early images of the alternatingly binging and purging Mama character, picking claggy food from the sink, haunt the novel, not least through the fact that this trauma continuously returns to the narrative. A later image of a character physically ripping off her own breasts exposes the same nerve. Through these meditations, Hybrid Child explores the fascistic aspects of the maternal, an idea central to Ōhara’s oeuvre. The core story of the monstrous mother and her need to control and ultimately devour her children repeats throughout, though always with interesting variation. The narrative space, however, changes rapidly in the first quarter of the book, before settling on the Milagros-controlled Caritas in ‘Aquaplanet’. These initial jumps, generic as much as spatial and temporal, keep the reader unsettled and on their interpretive toes.
Structurally, the settling of the action on Caritas may come as a surprise, and the reader may be expecting more of the initial jumps, whose resulting pace and strangeness are perhaps more interesting than the somewhat bloated final section. The style of the much shorter, earlier sections is likewise noticeably different, so much so that the transition to ‘Aquaplanet’ verges on jarring. This may be due to the fact that the three sections were first written as separate novellas which appeared in magazine form before Ōhara combined and adapted them for the novel. While the collage of styles and narrative experiments are interesting, specifically when focalised through the temporally anomalous Military Priest, the much larger Aquaplanet section jars due to the partial loss of surrealism that results from the story’s grounding on Caritas, a surrealism which made it easier to incorporate the outrageous shapeshifting capabilities of Sample B #3.
Thematically, Hybrid Child orbits a core of connected binaries – motherhood and adolescence, fluidity and form, the individual and the community, love and control – the exploration of which is physically embodied in the chimaeric B #3, but by no means therein limited. There is then, reminiscent of cyberpunk, a constant and radical estrangement of identity and form, with both body and soul (or personhood) having a resilience and reality beyond even sf’s customarily lenient ontologies. While the dream-like quality of certain sequences might suggest a somewhat ephemeral engagement, the narrative is continuously and violently yanked back to an experiencing body through Ōhara’s deployment of intensely visceral embodied language.
The estranging of the body, and the resulting visceral reading experience, is the meat of Hybrid Child. This is partly down to the fact that the novel lacks a central, developed personality with which we can truly empathise, largely due to the assured indestructibility of its primary characters, their radical alienness, and B #3’s ability to consume genetic material and thereby immortalise the mortals she encounters. B #3’s near-deific indestructibility also works to flatten any emotional investment in her as a character. Her body is, for example, ripped apart, blown up, crushed or incinerated every few pages, a lark which seems largely painless and almost entirely without consequence. While this deflates emotional and dramatic possibilities, it shifts our attention back to the thematic concerns, principally the body itself, which is more than interesting enough to justify the rerouting.
Hybrid Child must owe some of its success, specifically the bodily estrangement which is its principal achievement, to Jodie Beck’s translation. These successes are, however, accompanied by some cumbersome phrasing and overdrawn descriptions, although it is difficult to know to whom we should pin these. Beck has described translating Ōhara as a particular challenge, specifically pointing to the linguistic challenges presented by the use of neologisms, her presentation of dialogue, and the ambiguous gender pronouns of the original Japanese. Perhaps as a consequence, although there are some points of ambiguity in voice, and moments wherein non-biological or non-human characters question their gender, this ambiguity is not replicated on the linguistic level of the novel, and gender pronouns, when they are unsettled, do not remain so for long. Without the ability to compare the original Japanese with Beck’s translation, it is difficult to gauge Beck’s performance fairly. There was clearly a decision made to avoid the now somewhat familiar sight of the gender-neutral neologisms (xe, xir and so on).
Generically, Hybrid Child assumes a reader comfortable with sf, as few explanations are provided for the primary fabulations (technology level, psychic abilities, Military Priest, etc.). The novel’s engagement with such tropes may strike readers as unusual; there is a sense, at times, that their deployment is for their own sake. The endless war, for example, is so far from the action as to be practically out of view. While we get some more robust glimpses as the novel draws to a close, the conflict is generally so tangential to the novel’s focus that a reader may wonder whether it was necessary to the story. The shapeshifting of the titular Hybrid Children might likewise seem excessive; at one point, B #3 transforms from her customary human female form into an attack helicopter with fully functioning weapons in the span of seconds. Ōhara’s engagement with sf may then appear to border on an excess that feels immature.
The danger of this excess and its attendant concerns are largely dissolved, however, by a respect Ōhara earns through the intensely creative and controlled opening chapters, which reassure us that we are in the hands of an expert. The strangeness of Hybrid Child is one that therefore begs to be explored rather than reigned in. This is not, however, to say that Ōhara earns a free pass, as there is certainly fat that could have been trimmed in the ‘Aquaplanet’ section. Likewise, Ōhara’s use of so wide a gamut of – at times – quite tired sf tropes may yet baffle some readers, especially in comparison to her adjacent innovations (though readers with experience in Japanese sf or Anime may find these juxtapositions familiar rather than jarring). Nevertheless, Hybrid Child is a distinct accomplishment in sf, which should reliably unsettle its readers’ conception of the genre. Furthermore, its exploration of the maternal through so many strange bodies strikes as one of the most accomplished figurings of the monstrous mother in contemporary sf.