In the midst of an intergalactic war between Earth and an empire of cyborg machines, a mother desperately uploads the consciousness of her dead daughter into the mainframe of their “smart” house. Simultaneously, a female supercomputer once programmed to “care” for an entire planet has begun to lethally malfunction. These futuristic speculations on the shifting categories of female, woman, mother, and the maternal animate Mariko Ōhara’s Seiun Award–winning novel, Hybrid Child (ハイブリッド・チャイルド).
The science fiction genre has long been dominated by white Euro-American writers, but the canon has lately expanded to include more international writers of color, notably Asian authors such as Liu Cixin (The Three-Body Problem), Ken Liu (The Dandelion Dynasty trilogy), and Haruki Murakami (IQ84). Most recently, the University of Minnesota Press published Yoshio Aramaki’s The Sacred Era (神聖代, 1978) as the debut novel in the Parallel Futures series, a line of translations of understudied, visionary works from what Takayuki Tatsumi has called the second, third, and fourth generations of Japanese science fiction, spanning roughly the 1970s through the 1990s.1 While many of the writers in this prolific, golden era of kagaku shōsetsu (科学小説), or “scientific novel,” are men, female writers like Mariko Ōhara contributed substantially to the development of the genre by speculating on the effects of rapid modernization and westernization on gender identity, which defines so much of Japanese social custom and hierarchy.
Ōhara is best known for Hybrid Child, which is the second title published in Parallel Futures and the first English translation of a major work of science fiction by a female Japanese author. Turning to experimental, feminist works of science fiction like Ōhara’s novel in light of the recent public debates about female autonomy, consent, and power raises serious questions about the utopia promised in the 1970s lesbian separatist slogan “the future is female,” recently revived in the Clinton campaign. In the same period, Ōhara imagined a dystopic female future in which misogyny and patriarchy are reproduced by women through what she calls “maternal fascism,” or a destructive maternalism, whereby acts of control and possession are disguised as benevolent care.
Ōhara and the other young writers responding to the growing popularity of science fiction introduced through the US occupation needed to find an aesthetic that distinguished them from their Western counterparts. What emerged was a literary form that refuses teleological, linear storytelling in favor of disjointed and juxtaposed representations of dystopian, even absurd, technological futures.
The “wide-screen baroque,” what Ōhara describes as a “kind of B-movie/space-opera in which highly metaphysical issues are discussed—a hodgepodge of the pop and the avant-garde … a reappropriation of the short-story technique into novel writing,” reads like a surreal picaresque that depends less on logical plot progression than on associative, affective relations created among settings, characters, and dialogue.2 Hybrid Child is itself a hybrid of genres—film, short story, melodrama, novel—meant to disorient the reader through sensory overload in scene after hyperbolic scene, often of graphic violence and action. This glitchy mode of speculative fiction that blends “high” and “low” forms embodies the unique experience of living within postwar Japan’s culture of hyper-efficiency, consumerism, and self-regulation during a period colloquially referred to as the “Japanese Miracle.” For Ōhara, this “miracle” was hardly progressive, especially for women.
Hybrid Child is a novel composed of three loosely connected novella sections (“Hybrid Child,” “Farewell,” and “Aquaplanet”) set during an ongoing conflict between the Adiaptron Immortal Empire of Machines and the Allied Forces of Humanity. To combat the threat of this growing empire, the Military Priest, a quasi-divine dictator of mankind, orders the manufacturing of 14 biomechanical cyborg weapons known as the “Sample B Group.” These units are built with mutable skeletons and nuclear fusion engines, which enable them to be entirely self-sustaining and capable of regeneration when damaged. Such regeneration is tied to their uniquely adaptive ability to take the form of any substance they “sample,” which also gives them access to the sampled subject’s memories and experiences. Over time, members of the Sample B Group acquire a versatile array of intercorporeal forms that are stored within their cellular structures.
Ōhara’s novel follows the experiences of Sample B #3, a fugitive of this group who manages to break out of the production facility and fuses with other beings it encounters in order to escape capture. The “hybrid child” in the novel’s title refers to both the cyborgs of Sample B and Sample B #3’s numerous becomings into “hybrid” beings that exist between species, forms, and identities. The three novellas follow Sample B #3’s transformations from an escaped daughter to a bionic spaceship that arrives at a planet governed by a maternal “city computer” that is quite literally “loving” the population to extinction.
A through line in Ōhara’s novel is the perversity of Japanese technocapitalism, particularly how it manages populations by claiming to “care” for them. As Ōhara makes clear in each maternal relationship that appears in the novellas, this “care” is coded as monstrously feminine: in the nefarious ways that it purports to support individual and collective well-being but really seeks to surveil and limit those bodies instead. Translator Jodie Beck frames Ōhara’s speculative figures of femininity in terms of a concept popularized during 1980s Japan: kanri shakai, or “managed society,” in which citizens’ bodies are understood to be managed not through domination but rather through rhetorics and “practices of care [that] are at once a form of freedom and a form of entrapment.”3 The violence of kanri is its paradoxical cruelty of care or cruelty as care.
We see these perverse maternal logics from the first novella, “Hybrid Child,” which follows Sample B #3’s flight into a home that is revealed to be imbued with the consciousness of a young girl, Jonah. As Sample B #3 stays with Jonah and her “Mama,” it discovers that Jonah is repeatedly abused by her mother and accidentally dies running errands during a winter day. Mama’s parenting involves both starving Jonah and force-feeding her food that she struggles to consume: such deprivation allows her to “care for her” by keeping her “little forever”—a kind of perpetual infantilization that enables this ongoing dynamic of “caring” domination.
A through line in the novel is the perversity of Japanese technocapitalism, particularly how it manages populations by claiming to “care” for them.
Jonah’s physical death, rather than freeing her, becomes perpetual imprisonment when her mother places her body in a coffin that operates as the mainframe of Mama’s smart home. Kanri, Beck suggests, is enabled by its companion, shohi (consumption): Mama’s “love” for Jonah is “expressed in terms of physical containment (in a virtually indestructible coffin) and commercial consumption ([the coffin’s material is] more expensive than diamond).”4 The contained thus becomes a container that then attempts to contain Mama, who herself struggles with consumption in the form of alternating anorexia and bulimia, which she then tries to force upon Jonah to her death. Mama literalizes the very anxieties and problems surrounding kanri shakai’s dependence on female self-regulation: Japanese women are expected to be subordinate, self-effacing servants to their families and the state, and to police their own behavior, as well as the behavior of other women who risk disrupting the status quo. Ōhara suggests that a truly female future cannot be one that merely reproduces the problems inherent to a technocratic patriarchy like kanri shakai.
The gendered perversity of kanri shakai is exaggerated by the fact that Sample B #3 later consumes Mama after she falls down the stairs to her death. Taking on her form and accessing her past, Sample B #3 learns of Jonah’s tragic fate at the hands of Mama’s “maternal fascism” that ironically “mothered” Jonah to death. Jonah’s story can only be told once it has been assimilated into Sample B #3’s body, now a fleshly witness of the violent costs of kanri shakai—that would have women internalize their oppression only to inflict it upon other women, including their daughters. Ōhara’s indictment of this system of “care” is radically feminist: the maintenance of a “harmonious” kanri shakai through heteronormative nuclear families is really underpinned by intergenerational trauma experienced and perpetuated almost exclusively by women who are contained by the domestic spaces they manage. Ōhara inhabits the disturbing interiority of the housewife and daughter trapped by the promises of kanri and imagines what escape from it might look like.
By the end of the first novella, consumption transforms from lethal care into autonomy. As the military finally closes in on Sample B #3 and attempts to raze the “Jonah-house” in order to recapture their asset, Jonah proposes that it consume her corpse within the coffin in order for both of them to escape. The very mechanism of her confinement enables Jonah’s escape, as Sample B #3 assimilates her essence to become another hybrid—a “hybrid child” that is at once Jonah, “Mama,” and all the other beings previously “sampled” by Sample B #3’s body.
While Beck rightly reads this transformative reversal of kanri’s mechanisms of control as Jonah’s unexpected act of agency and resistance, this feels like a reductive equation of liberation with autonomy. Sample B #3-Jonah’s flight may represent “radical adaptation as a means of survival” within such regimes of power, but it seems to be individualizing what Ōhara imagines as a much greater systemic failure to reimagine care beyond its patriarchal forms of control and containment.5 Rather than recognizing their interdependence, Jonah and Mama can only care in selfish ways that harm the other, because that is precisely what kanri shakai depends upon to function, and because that is the only way both of them are socialized to act as females dependent upon yet denigrated by this system.
It is unsurprising, then, that the second novella, “Farewell,” involves the confinement of Sample B #3–Jonah (still in the form of seven-year-old Jonah when she died) yet again, this time by an old man who has lost his great-granddaughter and uses Sample B #3–Jonah as a replacement ward. In a universe structured by kanri, there is no escape but merely deferral of female confinement.
Ōhara imagines the disastrous consequences of kanri shakai at the planetary scale, in the third novella. “Aquaplanet” takes “maternal fascism” to an extreme through the figure of Milagros, a central supercomputer that monitors and controls the entire planet of Caritas through her “Experience-Bodies,” cybernetic devices implanted in nearly every object and organism. Because “she has eyes everywhere, and she never forgets anything,” Milagros is the ultimate manifestation of a panoptic kanri shakai with limitless access to Caritas’ inhabitants regardless of their consent, need, or desire.
“Hybrid Child” delivers a powerful warning about naive frameworks of care that simply substitute patriarchal structures of domination with an essentialized feminine “care.”
As “Milagros’s nerve network branched out to every corner of the planet in a gentle embrace,” that totalizing embrace instead perpetuates widespread ruin, because of the dependency it inculcates. Milagros’s planetwide nutrition system of “suckling stations” that once provided an abundant supply of highly nutritive “milk” has now run dry, and instead circulates toxic and diseased matter consumed by desperate citizens. Programmed, originally, to love the citizens of Caritas, she later begins killing them in order to “learn” about her subjects: she deliberately poisons or starves them, and absorbs their corpses as biological data for her planetary body network in a manner similar to Mama’s parenting and to Sample B’s adaptive technologies. Caritas, ironically named after the Christian virtue of charity and altruistic love, is effectively destroyed by Milagros’s unrelenting “love” that permits no escape from its murderous “care.” Ōhara’s play with scale gothicizes the future of a perfected kanri shakai whose invasive ability to intervene in the minds and bodies of citizens becomes infinite.
Milagros, the Spanish word for “miracles,” is later revealed to be suffering from a degenerative madness caused by the destructive conflict between the Adiaptron Empire and the Allied Humans.6 This pathological neurosis manifests as widespread glitches in her technologies of care, which began as entirely self-sufficient and self-maintaining. Many of the survivors still living in the ruins of Caritas devote themselves to trying to “repair” Milagros’s malfunctioning. The utopian promise of a “future female” world run by a digital matriarch is marred by the revelation that her programming was done in the image of male scientists and their ideals of “perfect care.”
This perpetual war, a conflict produced by the arrogance of mankind believing in its ability to create and control sentient cyborg machines, fittingly unravels this programming and corrupts it into a perverse parody of itself: a lethal patriarchy disguised as a caring mother who just cares too much. Ōhara exposes kanri shakai’s greatest lie, which its citizens, especially female citizens, are expected to believe and reproduce: that patriarchal oppression masquerading as altruistic care is sustainable and even desirable.
At one point, however, the narrator reveals an unexpected aspect of Milagros’s malfunction: “She had been diagnosed with a learning disorder induced by war neuroses, but that was not true. She was simply not doing things the correct way, that was all.” Rather than reducing Milagros’s problems to cognitive disability, Ōhara seems to suggest that there might indeed be a “correct way” of caring and coexisting. Despite the feminist promise of a planet governed by a maternal supercomputer, Milagros was ultimately inculcated with the same militant forms of care that prompted a cosmic race war and shaped the abusive relationship between Jonah and Mama.
The answer is clearly not just female autonomy and freedom through perpetual lines of flight to the farthest reaches of the universe. Ōhara delivers a powerful warning about naive frameworks of care that simply substitute patriarchal structures of domination with an essentialized feminine “care” that merely reproduces its violences. The result is a “maternal fascism” that will not only destroy the citizens it claims to nourish and protect but also itself.
In the process of imagining new futures—futures that are female—experimental speculative fiction like Hybrid Child invites the ethical question of how radically different that future is supposed to look like. Embodied in Sample B #3’s hybrid body seems to be a hint at a world more inclusive and more interdependent.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
- Takayuki Tatsumi, “Generations and Controversies: An Overview of Japanese Science Fiction, 1957–1997,” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 27. no. 1 (2000), p. 105. Tatsumi frames the rise of Japanese postwar speculative and science fiction in terms of four distinct generations that responded to the influence of the Anglo-American tradition by increasingly breaking away from tropes and conventions that seemed detached from Japanese experience. ↩
- Larry McCaffery, Sinda Gregory, Takayuki Tatsumi, and Mari Kotani, “The Twister of Imagination: An Interview with Mariko Ōhara,” Review of Contemporary Fiction: New Japanese Fiction, vol. 22 (2002), p. 128. ↩
- Jodie Beck, “Consumption, Control, and Maternal Fascism: A Critical Introduction to and Translation of Mariko Ōhara’s Hybrid Child” (PhD diss., McGill University, 2015), p. 12. The published translation of Hybrid Child unfortunately does not include this useful prefatory essay by Beck. ↩
- Ibid., p. 14. ↩
- Ibid., p. 20. ↩
- Ibid., p. 23. Beck notes that the phrase kuru or ki ga kuru appear repeatedly throughout the novel: “Kuru, and particularly ki ga kuru, refers to mental insanity—to go crazy, insane, mad, deranged, berserk, unhinged, raving. When applied to objects such as machines (usually just as kuru rather than ki ga kuru), it means “broken down,” “not functioning properly,” or “a little off” (as in the case of the time on one’s watch being slightly wrong, or the disturbance of one’s schedule, for example.” ↩