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Things Scarcely to Be Believed : THE BEST JAPANESE SCIENCE FICTION STORIES <i> edited by John L. Apostolou and Martin Greenberg (W. W. Norton: $16.95; 176 pp; 0-942637-06-2) </i>

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Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock would have loved this book. These are not cartoonlike “Godzilla” or “Star Wars” tales; the stories rely instead on understatement and irony. As stated in the introduction, most of these Japanese writers “use the genre to examine the past and the present, attempting to understand their rapidly changing society.”

These are first-rate works, ingenious and well told. The 13 stories included, copyrighted or published between 1963 and 1989, represent 10 writers and 13 translators, whose contribution is noteworthy for its felicitous language.

Although Japanese science-fiction writing began to appear in print around the turn of the century, according to the editors , it was exposure to the magazines and paperbacks brought in by the GIs during the Occupation that set off a revival and growth in popularity of the genre.

I believe that science fiction found a ready-made audience in Japan. Its ancient folk tales include monsters, spirits and transformations, and its most highly regarded authors have dabbled in stories of speculation, unreality and the grotesque. These include writings by Akutagawa, Tanizaki, Kawabata, Mishima and Abe, all available in English.

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The stories in this volume are a good mix of fancy, fear, and horror, but humor is also present. One story cleverly tells of the life and death of a cardboard box. The editors call it an allegory about the fate of ordinary working people, but the reader is free to form his own conclusions.

One quite fanciful story deals with a mad harlot who runs naked through the bamboo, her apparently deaf son who reads minds, and paper airplanes that fly on and on. But perhaps these things are only natural in a village that “slept in the cradle of its terraced fields, an island in the stream of history, divorced from the world.” This author also comments: “They say that time weathers memory away: In truth the weight of years bears down on memory, compressing it into hard, jewel-like clarity.”

There is fear in a story about time-space travel where one chooses among the dazzling future, the comfortable past, or the present with its dread of nuclear annihilation. Fear also figures prominently in another story about life in a totalitarian society where complaints by its citizens about low wages or high prices lead to the punishment of being planted as a tree. “Manpillars” actually become leafy and grow branches.

To supply even a one-line description of the most effective horror story in the collection would be to give away too much, so I will simply note that the inspector investigating an especially grisly incident believes that madness is at the root of human experience. Existential liberation and do your own thing express that madness and will lead to “the end of human civilization.”

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In other stories , we encounter an obsession that spreads through a family about sitting on an old wooden chest, one about an apparently bottomless pit that is handy for disposing of nuclear waste, two episodes that touch on space travel, and an eerie battle to the death between groups of Triceratops and Tyrannosauruses in a strangely unaware modern suburban setting.

Several of these authors have appeared in translation before, most notably Kobo Abe (“Woman in the Dunes,” “Inter Ice Age 4,” etc.), whose story about the liquefaction of humankind is first in the book. One sentence near the end prepares the reader for the stories that follow: “These men like things scarcely to be believed, but they all happened.”


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