Bien, Fuu. “The Rainy Season” (雨期). Uchuujin 156-157 (July-August, 1971).
—–. “The Jewels of the Virgin Mary” (聖母マリアの宝石たち). Uchuujin 173 (December, 1973).
I’ve been struggling with what to say in this post for much of this week, but by god, we’re trying to set Good Habits, so I’m going to start writing anyway. In my last post, I touched upon an author writing under the pen name Bien Fuu (or, to use the more standard Romanization of the inspiration, Bien Phu). I was struck that this author, a former aristocrat writing for an SF fanzine, would choose as one of her pen names a reference to the last battle of the First Indochina War, which saw the French suffer a crushing defeat against the Viet Minh. What sorts of notions of regional identity might be at work here, I wondered, and what sort of consciousness about postcolonial issues of race and ethnicity? With those thoughts in the back of my mind, I dug into two short stories published by Bien. Read on to find out together what I thought of them!
As you can see in the citations at the top of this post, both of these stories were published in Uchuujin (宇宙塵, Space Dust) magazine, which I’ve mentioned before as one of the biggest SF fanzines of the time. From what I can tell, Bien Fuu (real name Suzuki Fukuko) never went on to a professional writing career, but wrote a fair number of amateur pieces in a few different magazines under a few different pen names. In between the two stories covered here, she was featured in Uchuujin‘s frequent column “Fan Journal,” in which contributing authors to the magazine talk about their own identities, activities, and desires as fans and consumers of SF. The line between author and reader in this magazine appears to have been kept intentionally fluid, with the idea being that all fans could be authors, and all authors ought to be fans. By featuring Bien in the July ’72 iteration of this column, the editors are giving her the mark of an ideal, hardcore fan, backed up by her “cred” as an author.
So what are her stories like? Honestly, kind of vanilla SF, so far as I can tell. I’ll start with “The Rainy Season,” her earlier work. In the story, we’re placed on an Earth going through another Biblical flood. Torrential, unending rains have forced all of surviving humanity to gather in Core City, where engineers and AIs work to maintain flood dikes and keep the last of the species from drowning. Our protagonist is a stoic engineer returned from the Martian colonies to try to help out the situation on Earth (before you ask, all the flight equipment and launch sites were lost in the sudden disaster that began the flooding, so space evacuation of the human race wasn’t an option). He and his partner find a mysterious concrete boulder being carried down the flood currents, inside of which is encased a plastic coffin holding a woman.
The woman is broken out of the boulder, and proves to be alive, albeit un-talkative to the point of being nearly mute the entire story. The protagonist’s partner (curiously named Salmon Maki?) is soon murdered by some manner of shadow creature under mysterious circumstances, and meanwhile Sada – another engineer constantly described as a neanderthal or a gorilla – recognizes the woman as his beloved Mariyata. A few more murders and a corrupt municipal government conspiracy later, we learn that Mariyata is actually a telekinetic mutant genetically engineered as part of an effort to consolidate power in the hands of the governor. She had been in love with Sada’s friend, but Sada wanted her for himself, so he framed his friend for a crime and had him “cyborgized” and sent off to Pluto as a manual laborer. Harsh. Mariyata was so overcome with grief that her telekinetic powers went berserk, she started flooding the planet, and intended to hunt down the people that had engineered her until she was encased in concrete and tossed into the rising floodwaters. Upon finding out Sada had orchestrated her lover’s exile, she kills him, is killed by the protagonist, and we’re left in ambiguity over whether the protagonist’s plan to use the nuclear reactor powering the city to turn the city into a spacefaring Ark will succeed or not.
This brings us to “The Jewels of the Virgin Mary,” where religious themes step out of the wings and on to center stage. This time, we follow a woodblock artist as he travels to Nagasaki Prefecture, specifically to the Shimabara region where the famed Shimabara Rebellion of Jesuits protesting Tokugawa religious oppression rose up under Amakusa Shirou until they were finally defeated and executed. Jesuit Christianity persists in the small town where our narrator finds himself, a town that gives of lots of Weird Fiction vibes in its general dilapidation and extreme segregation between regular townsfolk and residents of the upper-class, extravagant villas just on the edge of town. The protagonist befriends a gargantuan Spanish priest, and the two of them investigate the mysteries surrounding Maestro Ron, a resident of the villa community. The priest tells the protagonist that God has chosen him to assist on this holy quest, that he has some manner of supernatural power gifted from the heavens. After a village girl dies mysteriously while the narrator is attacked by shadow beasts (seeing a pattern?), the game is afoot.
Eventually, we find that Maestro Ron is apparently a being from an Otherworld, mirrored to our own, and that he has brought with him the titular Jewels of the Virgin Mary, wasp-like insects seen around town and so named for their sapphire brilliance. If these insects sting you, you are infected with the essence of Maestro Ron’s netherworld, and you fade from this one, never to be seen again. While creatures coming from the other side are normally invisible to people from our world, the protagonist is gifted with the sight necessary to perceive them. After a really wonky pseudoscience explanation that analogizes anti-matter and anti-energy with concepts of Yin and Yang, the protagonist and the priest find the portal to Maestro Ron’s world and seal it with a similar otherworldly object the priest keeps in his bag (think the galaxy-in-a-bell from Men in Black). Cut to an epilogue of the now elderly artist telling this story for the thousandth time to a bunch of skeptical artist friends and an alien making a secret recording of a progress report on the Earth Invasion plans, and the story concludes.
I realize that was a LOT of plot dumping, I just don’t have a very well-developed argument surrounding these pieces yet, so I’m not sure what’s salient and what’s not. One thing I found interesting in both stories was the consistent emphasis on bodily appearance, specifically non-normative bodily appearance. Both the priest Padre Camilo and the engineer Sada are described as hulking men, built like fridges, and this is an element that sets them apart. In Camilo’s case, this is reinforced by his national otherness, though despite being a transplant from Spain, he speaks utterly fluent Japanese. In “The Rainy Season,” especially, we get one-note descriptions of other supporting characters that are constantly repeated when those characters come up. Salmon Maki is super bony with sunken eyes, Mariyata is clad only in a flowing, sheer white dress through which her golden skin (?) is visible, and so on. The protagonists of each story are also outsiders, but given that they aren’t described in great physical detail, their otherness comes from simple physical transplantation to the narratives’ settings (originally hailing from Tokyo and Mars).
Christianity also obviously figures large in each case. I can’t find any indication of whether Bien Fuu was Christian or not, but she seems to have enjoyed using occult understandings of Christianity in “The Jewels of the Virgin Mary” to provide the weirdness to her narrative. Perhaps more interesting is the way this is a Christianity ISN’T a sign of absolute otherness. As the connection to the Shimabara Rebellion makes clear, this version of Christianity has been intimately connected to Japanese history, perhaps serving as a parallel to Maestro Ron’s Yin-Yang-ish connection to Earth. Christianity here is nevertheless coded as white, despite the fact that all of the Jesuit rebels in the uprising were ethnically Japanese, as far as I can tell. The effect of this, however, is that the legacy of that history is visibly marked on the bodies of the villagers. The narrator often notes a subtle sense that many of the villagers here are mixed-race, allowing that history to remain visible through its descendants. Given that the narrator seems perfectly fine with the villagers, and given that he spends some time after Maestro Ron’s defeat in a moral-relativist meditation on Ron’s simple desire to survive in an unfamiliar and hostile environment, we might be able to read Bien’s story as advocating the acceptance of Japanese society as racially, ethnically, and spiritually heterogeneous, contra the rising tide of Nihonjin-ron claims to Japanese homogeneity and essential uniqueness in the ’70s. The alien invader at the end of the story even suggests that Maestro Ron was never the real enemy with whom we needed to concern ourselves.
As an aside, I also found it interesting to compare “The Rainy Season” to Komatsu Sakyo’s works of apocalyptica Nippon Chinbotsu (日本沈没 Japan Sinks, 1973) and Fukkatsu no Hi (復活の日 The Day of Resurrection, 1964). For one, I just think it’s intriguing that the disasters in these stories are (largely) natural. The world has gone wrong in some fundamental way, and it’s destroying the very conditions of possibility for human life. Not to harp too much on Weird Fiction, but for me it recalls that genre’s idea that humans are, at the end of the day, insignificant in the face of the movements of the larger universe. If we’re not careful, the world could extinguish us without a second thought. In the case of Fukkatsu no Hi and “The Rainy Season,” too, the “natural” disaster turns out to have been human-made, a product of human jealousy, division, and will to power. I don’t think this environmental humanism is at all uncommon at this time, but given the above discussion of heterogeneity that’s also latent in Bien’s work, I think there’s more nuance to be gleaned here than in Komatsu’s carefully curated “Star Trek diversity.”