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The Melancholy of Mechagirl

Catherynne M. Valente


  © 2013 Catherynne M. Valente

  See Publication History for individual story and poem publications.

  Cover art by Yuko Shimizu

  Design by Fawn Lau

  All rights reserved.

  No portion of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission from the copyright holders.


  Published by VIZ Media, LLC

  PO Box 77010

  San Francisco, CA 94107

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Valente, Catherynne M., 1979–

  [Works. Selections]

  The melancholy of mechagirl : stories and poems / Catherynne Valente.

  pages cm

  ISBN 978-1-4215-5613-0

  I. Title.

  PS3622.A4258A6 2013



  Haikasoru eBook edition

  ISBN: 978-1-4215-6443-2




















  This is Catherynne M. Valente’s collection of the stories and poems with a connection to Japan. In the stories with less of a connection, the references to Japan are subtle and as hard to distinguish as a thread woven into fabric. You will also notice other recurring themes. Descriptions of houses and families appear several times. A wife is separated from her husband, and disparate people (and non-human beings) find themselves sharing the same house. The stories are all dressed differently and are quite original. But if you have encountered this author’s works before, you already know how the worlds she depicts are unfamiliar, and you can continue without any trouble and never lose the way. Her prose is as carefully refined as a smoothly paved road.

  I first came across Valente’s work in 2010 when her novel Palimpsest was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. I visited her website and found that some of her works were influenced by Japanese culture. For example, the title of one of her books, Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams (2005), is in Japanese, and she named her monthly letter project after omikuji, fortunes written on paper strips and sold in shrines and temples. Soon after I started reading her stories, I realized that her interest in Japan is informed by both study and by authentic lived experience.

  Did you know that there are 45,000 US soldiers living in Japan? There are another 45,000 members of military families here as well. Valente spent several years living in Japan as part of a Navy family. Consequently, some of her stories seem semiautobiographical, such as “Fifteen Panels Depicting the Sadness of the Baku and the Jotai,” and “Ink, Water, Milk,” the latter of which was written for this collection. Both stories are set in Yokosuka, a city with a US Navy base, and in both appear yokai, imaginary creatures, and a lonely Navy wife.

  Japanese mythology is a hybrid of indigenous folklore and Shinto religion, Buddhism, and foreign myths and folklore, which came to Japan from Eurasia via China. By paging through just the beginning of this book, you will come across the said “Fifteen Panels Depicting the Sadness of the Baku and the Jotai,” on the chaos of Yokosuka—and Paradise—described in a manner that will totally blow you away. In this powerful opening story, Valente introduces her Japanesque view of the world and quickly immerses you in it.

  You will see many yokai in this book. Yokai are imaginary Japanese creatures such as fairies, ghosts, and monsters from myths and folktales. During the Edo period, book-rental shops became common, and leisure reading became a popular hobby in Japanese cities. In those days, yokai were an especially popular theme, and many ukiyo-e artists drew yokai pictures. One of these artists, Toriyama Sekien (1712–1788), made some yokai picture books. He drew famous traditional yokai as well as some he created himself. Kyorinrin and Futsukeshibaba, which appear in “Ink, Water, Milk,” are understood to be Sekien’s creations.

  Valente finds inspiration in traditional yokai tales but doesn’t simply retell classic stories. In “One Breath, One Stroke,” she describes Sazae-Oni (the Horned Turban shell spirit or Snail Woman), a Japanese version of a Siren, in this way: “Sazae-Onna lives in a pond in the floor of the kitchen. Her shell is tiered like a cake or a palace, hard and thorned and colored like the inside of an almond, with seams of mother of pearl swirling in spiral patterns over her gnarled surface. She eats the rice that falls from the table when the others sit down to supper. She drinks the steam from the teakettle.” Valente here shows us her version of cute Sazae-Oni that no one else would ever imagine.

  The image of Japan in Anglophone science fiction has tended to take the form of futuristic megacities, such as Chiba City in Neuromancer by William Gibson. This trend continues today. New writers such as Lauren Beukes and Hannu Rajaniemi have described imaginary future Tokyos—and their work is funny and good—but megacities represent only a small facet of Japan. This country is long, spanning from north to south, and it has many suburban areas, rural locations, and historical ruins. Valente has written about places in Japan not widely portrayed in science fiction and fantasy before, for example, Hokkaido, the northernmost prefecture on the Russian border. She also explores Hashima, a small uninhabited island known as Gunkanjima, where over five thousand people once worked in a coal mine, in “Ghosts of Gunkanjima.”

  In reading this collection, you may discover not only another view of Japan, but also another side of the author, thanks to the stories she published in Clarkesworld Magazine. These include “Silently and Very Fast,” which according to Valente is “real science fiction.” This family history story begins in the near cyberpunkish future and ends in the age of Singularity. It is rich in references to myths and folktales as well. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Space/ Time” is also an ambitious story. It dismantles and reconstructs Creation myths from around the world in scientific terms. “Fade to White” is a dystopian story set in the days after the apocalypse with a slight fragrance of Japanese history. Valente is a masterful “story engineer,” one who adapts and transforms traditional terms and symbols to tell thoroughly modern stories. She demonstrates her power in a freer and more dynamic way in these new pieces. Through the latest work, I am certain that Valente should, and likely will, continue transforming and soaring far beyond possible boundaries of country, new and old, genre and everything.

  Imagine this book as a set of traditional Japanese paper doors. By turning the pages, you slide the doors open. Soon you will enter a place where you have never been.

  Teruyuki Hashimoto is a Japanese reviewer and critic of science fiction, mainly for Hayakawa’s SF Magazine. Born in Hokkaido in 1984, Hashimoto currently lives in Tokyo.


  X Prefecture drive time radio

  trills and pops

  its pink rhinestone bubble tunes—

  pipe that sound into my copper-riveted heart,

  that softgirl/brightgirl/candygirl electrocheer gigglenoise

  right down through the steelfrown
tunnels of my

  all-hearing head.

  Best stay

  out of my way

  when I’ve got my groovewalk going. It’s a rhythm

  you learn:

  move those ironzilla legs

  to the cherry-berry vanillacream sparklepop

  and your pneumafuel efficiency will increase

  according to the Yakihatsu formula (sigma3, 9 to the power of four)

  Robots are like Mars: they need


  Boys won’t do;

  the memesoup is all wrong. They stomp

  when they should kiss

  and they’re none too keen

  on having things shoved inside them.

  You can’t convince them

  there’s nothing kinky going on:

  you can’t move the machine without IV interface

  fourteen intra-optical displays

  a codedump wafer like a rose petal

  under the tongue,

  silver tubes

  wrapped around your bones.

  It’s just a job.

  Why do boys have to make everything

  sound weird? It’s not a robot

  until you put a girl inside. Sometimes

  I feel like that.

  A junkyard

  the Company forgot to put a girl in.

  I mean yeah.

  My crystal fingers are laser-enabled

  light comes out of me

  like dawn. Bright orangecream


  sizzling tangerine deathglitter. But what

  does it mean? Is this really

  a retirement plan?

  All of us Company Girls

  sitting in the Company Home

  in our giant angular titanium suits

  knitting tiny versions of our robot selves

  playing poker with x-ray eyes

  crushing the teakettle with hotlilac chromium fists

  every day at 3?

  I get a break

  every spring.

  Big me

  powers down

  transparent highly conductive golden eyeball

  by transparent highly conductive golden eyeball.

  Little me steps out

  and the plum blossoms quiver

  like a frothy fuchsia baseline.

  My body is

  full of holes

  where the junkbody metalgirl tinkid used to be

  inside me inside it

  and I try to go out for tea and noodles

  but they only taste like crystallized cobalt-4

  and faithlessness.

  I feel my suit

  all around me. It wants. I want. Cold scrapcode

  drifts like snow behind my eyes.

  I can’t understand

  why no one sees the dinosaur bones

  of my exo-self

  dwarfing the ramen-slingers

  and their steamscalded cheeks.

  Maybe I go dancing

  Maybe I light incense.

  Maybe I fuck, maybe I get fucked.

  Nothing is as big inside me

  as I am

  when I am inside me.

  When I am big

  I can run so fast

  out of my skin

  my feet are mighty,

  flamecushioned and undeniable.

  I salute with my sadgirl/hardgirl/crunchgirl

  purplebolt tungsten hands

  the size of cars

  and Saturn tips a ring.

  It hurts to be big

  but everyone sees me.

  When I am little

  when I am just a pretty thing

  and they think I am bandaged

  to fit the damagedgirl fashionpop manifesto

  instead of to hide my nickelplate entrance nodes


  I can’t get out of that suit either

  but it doesn’t know how to vibrate

  a building under her audioglass palm

  until it shatters.

  I guess what I mean to say is

  I’ll never have kids. Chances for promotion

  are minimal and my pension

  sucks. That’s okay.

  After all, there is so much work

  to do. Enough for forever.

  And I’m so good at it.

  All my sitreps shine

  like so many platinum dolls.

  I’m due for a morphomod soon—

  I’ll be able to double over at the waist

  like I’ve had something cut out of me

  and fold up into a magentanosed Centauri-capable spaceship.

  So I’ve got that going for me.

  At least fatigue isn’t a factor. I have a steady

  decalescent greengolden stream

  of sourshimmer stimulants

  available at the balling of my toes.

  On balance, to pay for the rest


  you’ve never felt anything

  like a pearlypink ball of plasmid clingflame

  releasing from your mouth

  like a burst of song.

  And Y Prefecture

  is just so close by.

  The girls and I talk.

  We say:

  start a dream journal.

  take up ikebana.

  make your own jam.

  We say:

  Next spring

  let’s go to Australia together

  look at the kangaroos.

  We say:

  turn up that sweet vibevox happygirl music

  tap the communal PA

  we’ve got a long walk ahead of us today

  and at the end of it

  a fire like six perfect flowers

  arranged in an iron vase.


  Three things are happening at the same time.

  It will be hard for you to believe—being only a reader with employment concerns and a jaded cultural consciousness and having limited patience for this sort of nonsense—that they are happening all at once. Not only at the same time, but in the same place. One on top of the other. Like three blue bowls nesting. Like three cells of film aligned atop a light box. If you will sit quietly inside the palm of my hand I will keep the wind out and we can watch the three things happen into each other. Like ink and water and milk. I will tell you the truth at the beginning so that you will recognize it in the end: there is nothing in this world but ink and water and milk. Of course it doesn’t make any sense now. Three things are happening at the same time. There will be some natural seepage of cause and effect.

  There. This is my hand. It is big enough. There are lines on it like anyone’s hand. A ring. A short, straight scar underneath the pinky finger. Never mind how I got it. It is hard and twisted. The cut was deep. You can rest your tea on it and it will not fall over.

  It would be best, really, if you could tell one thing, and I tell another, and a third person tell the third, so that our voices also happen at the same time, interleaving like fingers. But I do not ask for so much cacophony. I will tell them all and you will remember them thatched as tightly as a roof.


  A summer moon sits heavy as a buoy on Sagami Bay. Cicadas shriek at it, but it is placid. It bobs up and down on the still water. Among the bells of the real buoys, the soft bells of the moon go unnoticed. The sturgeons deep under the water hear them—and the giant clams.

  Kyorinrin also hears the moon. Down in the green-black hills, where the camphor and the cassia and the plum and the red pine and the willow crowd together as close as commuters on the night train, he listens to the moon in an abandoned paper umbrella factory. The windows have holes in them like fists through frost. A hole in the roof sags and gapes like a mouth. The door is bolted and boarded, the pipes burst open like iron flowers, and a sign informs you that you may lease it, if you wish, from a holding company that was liquidated in 1976. The sign is freshly painted. White characters on a vermilion background. Himura Hol
ding Company. Interested Parties Are Begged to Inquire. 075 871 7746.

  Inside the paper umbrella factory the floor shines. Kyorinrin does his best to keep it livable. One thousand kerosene lamps burn, on every pallet, crate, employees’ washbasin, manager’s desk, inspection platform, dye sink, industrial lathe, glue vat, bank of lockers, cafeteria table, pile of ledgers, the gleaming floor. They burn during the day and the night, and they burn a deep shade of cyan. Their fuel is also cyan. There are actually only nine hundred eighty-one lamps. But one thousand is a better number.

  Kyorinrin makes his home in the foreman’s office. The roof there still keeps rain out. This is important because Kyorinrin is not a person but a large paper scroll. His pages look very old, darkened to a rich animal color. His roller is thick and bronze with a badger stamped on one end and a chrysanthemum on the other. His paper is blank, but that is a temporary situation.

  Kyorinrin is not as old as he looks, but he likes to think he provides a sense of continuity. He came to the factory in 1950 in the personal effects of the first foreman, whose name, though unimportant to you and me, was Akiyama Isao. Kyorinrin lived for many years in a glass case along with other objects Akiyama found sacred in a certain private, personal way. These included two small silver rabbit figurines, a photograph of a girl named Akemi who died in the bombardment of Tokyo, a lock of his grandmother’s hair cut on her wedding day, an airplane ticket to a place called Adelaide which Akiyama bought but did not use, a statuette of Jizo wrapped in a red scarf with a red cap on his smooth stone head, a Japanese-to-English dictionary, a miniature onyx elephant with a broken trunk, a map of ordnance sites in the mountains around Yokosuka, and Kyorinrin himself, who bore originally a professionally calligraphed genealogy of the Akiyama clan, inked on commission in 1910, the year Isao was born.

  Kyorinrin supposes all these objects make a person, but you can never know very much from the inside of a glass case.

  Like the rest of the umbrella factory, the case is broken now. The floor of the office still shimmers with a light snow of shards. Kyorinrin had had enough of silver rabbits and Adelaide and dead girls. He looks at it sometimes from the foreman’s chair. Jizo still stands upright. One rabbit. The lock of hair.

  Every evening Kyorinrin rolls luxuriously out to his full length across the factory floor. His paper exults in its own length. Every evening he causes a story to flow over his body in deep, profoundly black ink. Before the sun hefts up over the cinnamon trees, he bathes himself in the employees’ basin and erases what he wrote. He uses the badger end of his roller to spray water down his creases, like an elephant with a working trunk.