Can a Robot Learn the Meaning of Boredom: Yukikaze

Chohei Kambayashi’s Yukikaze opens with a formation of fighter-bomber jets carrying out a pounding airstrike on an outpost of their mysterious extraterrestrial foes. The strike appears to be a success, until, seemingly out of nowhere, enemy interceptors ambush the squadron, badly decimating the fighter-bombers in the chaotic dogfight that ensues. The squadron leader can only grit his teeth behind his flight mask, as he watches most of his planes go down in flames.

None of the aforementioned events or characters actually matter to the narrative of this novel. Yukikaze is really about the reconnaissance plane and its pilot, who slowly circles over the carnage, dispassionately observing the destruction of his comrades before declaring the mission complete and returning to base, leaving the survivors for dead. In a book so slap-happily eager to churn out allegory and extended metaphors, this piece at the very beginning is the most ingenious. Kambayashi perfectly evokes the state to be experienced by the reader for the remainder of the book: numbly watching events from a distance as a passive, indifferent observer, without a shred of care about anyone who comes into view, let alone whether they live or die.


In the world of Yukikaze, humanity has been at war with an enigmatic alien race known as the JAM for several decades. The events described in the novel take place in a timeframe where the conflict has entirely shifted from Earth to a bizarre planet named Faery. Serving as some sort of intermediary realm between Earth and wherever the aliens came from, Faery is accessible only by a soaring vortex-like portal on the Antarctic ice shelf.

Yukikaze’s primary theme is the relationship between human beings and machines. Here, Kambayashi defines “machines” as nuts, bolts and software, with robots and artificial intelligence merely an advanced subset of the machine phylum. A recurring question throughout the novel is whether the JAM are targeting the humans proper or the war planes they pilot and other military hardware. The distinction is further blurred by the way in which members of the Earth’s Faery Air Force seem to have themselves become emotionless machines over time.

You can’t really begrudge science-fiction revisiting the relationship between human beings and machines so earnestly and so often. The subject is rich and compelling enough to permit more than enough elbow room for a multitude of different approaches. One of the best sections of Yukikaze features members of the Faery Air Force briefly returning to Earth for a special mission. After an emergency landing on an aircraft carrier to refuel, both the pilots and the vessel’s crew are surprised to discover that they can hardly communicate with each other. Years of isolation on Faery had warped the airmen’s language itself into a state more akin to the terse information modules of a computer program than human speech (thankfully, the reader is spared from having to read literal transcriptions of said dialect).

There’s no telling what sort of literary influences Kambayashi professes (unless someone would be so kind as to transcribe an interview or essay on the subject), but Yukikaze reads like its author had read a great deal of Stanislaw Lem, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, and Joseph Heller. The comparisons are highly flattering; really, the best parts of the novel come off as retreads of territory regularly treated by the writers listed above.

Like Lem, Kambayashi invests much in the idea that hypothetical extraterrestrials would not be smiling, blue-skinned homo sapiens-alikes with whom a human can shake hands. Rather, aliens would most likely be completely inscrutable to human comprehension, so far outside terrestrial frames of thought and logic that we would not know how to even begin to attempt to communicate with them, if we can even perceive them in the first place. Similarly, Faery itself bears resemblance to “the Zone” in the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic. Like the Zone, Faery at times seems to have a life of its own, reacting to human presence in ways that defy categorization. Yet, whenever Kambayashi breaches this veneer of mystery, the results are always terrible.

Yukikaze’s main character Lieutenant Rei Fukai is Yossarian-in-reverse. Whereas Catch-22’s protagonist fought madly to extricate himself from the air corps and war in general by any means necessary, Fukai stubbornly fights to remain in the Faery Air Force, lest he be parted from his beloved Yukikaze. Fukai does love his inanimate reconnaissance aircraft a fair bit, almost uncomfortably so. It’s a pity that this attachment is the only characterization he receives for the entire novel.

Just what is it with the postmodernist storytellers’ trend of having the main character be the least-interesting part of the story? This might simply be a manifestation of the old belief that every fictional character is a partial reflection of the creator’s own personality. Perhaps, it’s a setup for making it easier for the reader to self-insert his own passions, viewpoints and feelings into an indifferent, emotionless husk. Whatever the case might be, this does not make for very compelling reading. Kambayashi occasionally inserts scenarios in which Fukai begins to develop impulses resembling human decency and sincerity – these parts are quite often very good. However, in the context of the novel’s episodic (some might say it even resembles a TV miniseries, go figure) structure, these parts are largely irrelevant to the larger scheme of things, with Fukai reverting to his old monotone, expressionless ways once the next “episode” rolls around. Am I supposed to sympathize with this man? Revile him? Pity him? Hell if I know.

Does Kambayashi ever provide an explanation for why Fukai has become an advanced version of that little boy on Star Trek: The Next Generation who comes to idolize the android Data and takes it upon himself to act just like him? Are you kidding me? The lack of any sort of real backstory for Fukai, and to a lesser extent, the secondary characters, is likely intended to be an evocation of the nihilistic nature of war and the corequisite fatalism needed to survive it, or any other scenario that is fundamentally irrational to human understanding. The only problem is that nihilism has never been a particularly interesting or endearing theme for literature. This reviewer is in the camp that believes literature to be at its best when describing human relationships and human thoughts in ways that leave the reader thinking, “Yes, this is what life is really like” (yes, this includes “genre” writing like science fiction). At no point in Yukikaze did I come close to feeling this way.

Don’t get me wrong, Kambayashi is a proficient, well-researched writer, especially when it comes to the physics and nitty details of military technology. Neil Nadelman’s polished translation chops do him much justice as well. Neither factor managed to get much of a real sentiment out of me, though, other than “well, at least I didn’t completely waste my time.” The only sensation I was left with at the end was disaffected indifference.

Wait — my God — I am now just like Rei Fukai! This novel is genius! Show me your finest Super Sylph Battle Faery model kits, HobbyLinkJapan.

3 Comments

  1. To Mark: Sorry that you got that feeling from the book. I did not–I liked it a lot, as it was also very different from most SF that I’ve read. Also, I did like the anime adaptation…that might have colored my view of the book as well.

    At least you read it. A stark contrast to the usual “I don’t have to read it because I know it will suck!” mentality.

    Still, a very solid critique/review.

  2. “This reviewer is in the camp that believes literature to be at its best when describing human relationships and human thoughts in ways that leave the reader thinking, “Yes, this is what life is really like” (yes, this includes “genre” writing like science fiction).”

    This is something which I wish to see more often not only in literature but in actual scripts so that, maybe, people could sound and act somewhat like human beings.

  3. To Jack: True enough. That said, I guess one could count an SF writer like Jack McDevitt as one who does pull this off. Read any of his books (like INFINITY BEACH or DEEP SIX)–even though they may be set in the far future, his characters still ACT like human beings. Another is Harlan Ellison, who writes in all genres, not just SF.

    The same can be said of Elmore Leonard–in his crime fiction such as OUT OF SIGHT, STICK, or 52 PICKUP, his characters sound like real people. Stephen King and Richard Matheson are both very good at fleshing out their characters so that they feel and act “real”.

    (Hell, Quentin Tarantino was inspired by EL)

    As for scripts…well, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are screenwriters like Lawrence Kasdan who can pull this off. It’s just that science fiction, by its very nature, does lean towards the fantastic (or the extraordinary), and at times can get caught up in the science minutia–a common failing of “hard” science fiction. That means characters will get short shrift.

    Take 2001:A SPACE ODYSSEY or STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE for instance. Both are filled with the majesty of space exploration and both spend a lot of time getting the science details right. But the characters in both films come across as cardboard cutouts.

    Contrast that with the 2009 STAR TREK film or, heck, ALIENS–both of these films are more about the characters and making them as real as possible. Yes the science and the tech is there, but it’s in the background.

    Now, YUKIKAZE may not seem that way to either you or Mark (although if you haven’t read the novel yet, I apologize), but perhaps that can be chalked up to Kambayashi’s writing style. Of course, my enjoyment of the book was colored by the fact that 1) I had seen the anime adaptation and 2) I’m a nut for aircraft and aeronautical technology.

    However, you made very valid points, and as someone who is hoping to create my own stories and characters, I will definitely have to keep them in mind!

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