Spencer Wall

The Many Worlds of MM9

Yamamoto, Hiroshi. MM9. (Haikasoru 2012) 251 p. $14.49.

Hiroshi Yamamoto’s novel MM9 is an exploration of why people need stories, of how old stories survive in new forms, of why people make science fiction. That’s one way to describe the book. Here’s another: MM9 is a collection of linked stories about a branch of Japan’s Meteorological Agency, the branch charged with monitoring Godzilla-like monsters. In Japanese–and in the English translation of Yamamoto’s book–this genus or genre of monsters is called kaiju. Our heroes at the MMD (the Monsterological Measures Department) not only monitor these monsters but provide research and descriptions of the kaiju for the Japanese military and the public. They assign a measure or level of danger to imminent kaiju (Monster Magnitude 9 being the highest level on the scale). Not least important, the MMD assigns a name to each monster, not unlike the way meteorologists name tropical storms. The premise of the novel is cagey and fun. The concerns of the novel are aesthetic and meta-fictional. Yamamoto delivers a heterogenous confluence of reading pleasures.

MM9’s cagey premise puts readers at ease but also invites them to think about the fiction as fiction, inviting them into the novel’s self-conscious meta-fiction about why people tell stories generally and kaiju stories in particular. And the book explores not just why people tell these stories but why people like them, the pleasures stories afford. By accidents in the plot and design in the narrative, the novel’s final burst of entertaining peril takes place in an abandoned amusement park. In the rich tradition of playfully self-conscious literature, Yamamoto’s story is serious about amusement.

There is always something both fun and borderline meta-fictional about combining genres and generic worlds, about seeing one kind of story or fictional world through the lens of another. In MM9, it is fun to read about ordinary people treating the advent of otherworldly monsters like a regular job, another kind of weather forecast. But Yamamoto does more than blend the world of science-fictional monsters with the world of recognizable, everyday experience. He also blends both these worlds with a third world or genre of fiction, the world of myth and folklore. As near as the MMD’s best scientific minds can figure out, the monsters they study hail from the “mythic universe,” a sort of alternate cosmos to the “Big Bang universe” humans currently inhabit. Kaiju and a handful of other supernatural creatures persist in the “Big Bang universe” like remnants of the “mythic universe,” a universe that once included the Greek gods, the dragon from the book of Revelation and a whole pantheon of monsters and creatures from world folklore. Consequently, in order to understand the monsters they study, the MMD scientists must familiarize themselves with the legends and stories of world literature. Thus, Yamamoto’s novel becomes overtly meta-fictional as it plays with the relationship between older fictions and the reality represented in its own story.

Everyday meteorology. Science fiction. Myth. Not content with this level of generic complexity, Yamamoto weaves a fourth heterogenous genre or discourse into the web of his fiction: Physics. Why do versions of mythic monsters persist in a scientifically rational “Big Bang universe”? Readers of MM9 might appeal to psychology or narrative magic to explain the persistence of these monsters. The scientists at the MMD appeal to a fascinating, contested premise of contemporary Physics: the Anthropic Principle. In the real world (the world outside the novel MM9), some physicists embrace versions of the Anthropic Principle. This complex concept is difficult to fairly summarize, but the Anthropic Principle is, so to speak, a recognition that humans inhabit the universe they perceive and that human observers perceive only the kind of universe they can inhabit. Other universes or parts of the universe, uninhabitable for human life, may exist, but they exist outside the direct scope of human observation and measurement. This seemingly straightforward, commonsensical principle has many complicated, practical applications to cosmological Physics. Yamamoto whimsically applies the principle to fictional cosmology, to different kinds of generic universes. The fictional physicists in Yamamoto’s novel have developed a new branch of the Anthropic Principle to explain the existence of kaiju and similar creatures: the “parallel anthropic principle.” So the playful logic of MM9 goes, if humans perceive the world in which they live and live in the world which they perceive, older human perceptions and world views correspond to different worlds habitable to humans that operate by different sorts of rules than the present, scientific world. Those older worlds persist both in stories and in the present perceptions of many humans. MM9 thus playfully blends literary considerations of how stories work with scientific theories of how measurement works. The result is “science fiction” in the truest, best sense of the term. Sometimes we call a book “science fiction” merely because its characters and situations are recognizable conventions of the genre, the appropriate generic furniture. MM9 is “science fiction” because it experiments with the mixing of heterogenous discourses, because it brings the conceptual language of science into conversation with the language of imaginative literature.

I cannot summarize the novel’s closing problems and suggestions about the relationship between different kinds of fictional worlds without spoiling the entertaining and conceptually rewarding ending of the book. However, I think I can say that near the close of the book, one of the characters caught up in the problems insists, “This world needs kaiju,” referring to his world. In a different way, Yamamoto uses his novel to argue, “This world needs kaiju stories,” referring to our world.

The kaiju stories he gives us are as well-crafted as they are thought provoking. Yamamoto uses the novel’s format of linked stories to show off his narratory virtuosity. In one story, readers get a tense countdown plot as a kaiju journeys across the world, moving ever closer to the spot on which our heroes also converge. The next narrative is an experiment in formatting, presenting the story as the pieced-together screenplay of a news special. And somehow, in this relatively short novel, with its meta-fictional complications and narrative risks, Yamamoto thoroughly develops a large cast of quirky, likable human characters. Our heroes are a band of ordinary young people trying to balance their social and family lives with jobs that require perhaps too much improvised expertise. Their leader, the chief of the MMD, fills his days with nervous tics and stomach medications as he tries to protect both the public and the public image of the MMD. This main cast is supported by equally colorful minor characters (my favorite of these is a pedantic professor-consultant who can’t help explaining the finer points of radiation, to the exasperation of the MMD’s chief, even as a radioactive kaiju bears down on Tokyo).

A few years ago, Haikasoru publishing released an English translation of Yamamoto’s Stories of Ibis, a collection of framed short stories about artificial intelligence, a loving celebration of the pleasures of stories. MM9 is a different kind of story and a similar kind of book. It too celebrates the pleasure of fiction. My hope is that Haikasoru will deliver English-speaking readers further pleasures from Hiroshi Yamamoto.