Mecha Samurai Empire follows on from the United States of Japan, an alternative history novel which continues the story of Philip K Dicks seminal novel The Man in the High Castle (now an established TV series). For those who are aren't aware, the idea is that the "Allies" lost World War two and as a result a large part of the planet is shared out amongst the victors. America is split with the west coast becoming the United States of Japan, while the east-side is occupied by the Nazi's. There is a strip in the middle which is considered neutral territory. Mecha Samurai Empire is set a decade after the events of the United States of Japan and while it does feature some of the same characters, it's a self-contained story and can be read as such.
I love how the author describes the cultural and technological blending of American society with that of the Japanese. In the world of Mecha Samurai Empire, 50 years have passed since the second World War and America is a vastly different place. Where The Man in the High Castle imagined subversive literature, here the subversion is shown through underground video games and the resulting sub-culture. Makoto Fujimoto is a young gamer; an orphan who dreams of commanding a Mecha (giant robot). These towering machines feature more heavily and the fights are just outstanding; dynamic and with boundless energy, there is a wonderful anime/kaiju feel that works perfectly. There are also loads of pop-culture references to the 80's and 90's scattered through-out, something that helps to ground the book and prevent all these technological improvements feeling outlandish or out of place. It's easy to imagine the progress that could be made with American big sky thinking combined with a strict Japanese culture and technological ingenuity.
Life on the other side of America isn't quite so acrimonious though. Those who aren't Aryan are treated as second or third class citizens, or worse. There is an uneasy, fragile truce between the two superpowers, with a real danger of another war brewing - there have already been skirmishes in the past. The result of most fights see the Japanese coming out on top with their Mecha. The Germans favouring bio-mechanical engineering - providing some strange and often horrific machines.
The story is well thought-out; following Makoto as he tries to realise his ambition of becoming a Mecha pilot, only to discover it's not quite what he imagined it to be. Essentially a coming-of-age story set against this rich, unique background. There is a tremendous amount of thought and energy put into each of the characters. Complex and colourful, the paths they take are relate-able and realistic. Again this helps to re-enforce the normalisation of huge, hulking, Kaijuesque monstrosities. This is what Pacific Rim should have been, a richer story that's crying out to be turned into a film / series.
Mecha Samurai Empire is a triumph, from the wonderful background through the complex characters and the imagination and talent of the author, all combined into an accomplished and rewarding novel.
Written on 28th December 2018 by Ant.
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