Books

Transformation, Consumption, and Confusion in the Alternate World of Mariko Ōhara's 'Hybrid Child'

Gender is fluid, children are murdered, mothers are monsters, and nobody is safe on the distant planet of Caritas, where humans have settled and the governing female AI system is insane.

Hybrid Child
Mariko Ōhara

University of Minnesota Press

Jun 2018

Other

Sometimes the only way to effectively assess a seemingly incomprehensible text is to search for other interpretations, deep academic dives that manage to properly contextualize recurring themes and stylistic patterns in books that are better understood as "important" rather than "enjoyable". This is the best way to understand Mariko Ōhara's Hybrid Child, as translated by Jodie Beck. Published in Japan in 1991 to award-winning acclaim -- the Seuin (Nebula) Award -- Ōhara's story of consumption, control, and maternal fascism (to take from the title of Beck's 2015 Doctoral thesis) is a difficult story to embrace. Do we want this story of shape-shifting, cannibalism, artificial intelligence gone insane?

Readers familiar with speculative fiction may not be prepared for the terror of this entity called B#3, a being that needs only to sample cells of an entity to assume its persona. Gender is fluid, children are murdered, mothers are monsters, and nobody is safe on the distant planet of Caritas, where humans have settled and the governing female AI system is insane.

This is not a text that offers an easy entrance. Jonah is a child who was murdered by her mother. She has become the spirit of a house controlled by a merciless artificial intelligence, where the entity sample known a B#3, having escaped from the lab, takes refuge. It starts to devour the actual body of this child, buried underneath the house, and its power seems limitless. All things are managed, controlled, regulated, but then there's the all-encompassing consumer society. Where and how do they intersect?

Hybrid Child requires a great deal of attention and patience which may or may not pay off in the long run. Perhaps this is due to the fact that translated texts surely lose a lot more than meaning in their journey from original version to English. The reader takes for granted that Beck's translation is good, effective, but the style is stiff, formal, and at times excessively violent. There are three sections here. In "Hybrid Child", we hear from Jonah herself. There's a being called a "ramada", who lives in the house.

"After the nuclear winter, ramadas, who were resistant to radiation, rapidly increased in number… [they]… had no choice but to begin eating the flesh of their own kind… [It had a]childlike brain housed in an adult body…"

Who is this being? What is it? At points it's referred to as a Dada. It consumes the ramada and assumes the form of its meal, sometimes rising to the height of 25 feet above the ground. Soon, a character called the Military Priest enters. He was responsible for developing the sample B group, a collection of beings that could not die. After meeting Jonah, Sample #3 comes upon D.H., Donna Hess, an officer accountable for containing the rogue samples. It tells her "…You will give birth… to me."

At this point, the reader should buckle in. It's going to be a long and difficult ride, not always successfully rendered. We meet the homicidal mother, who took her child Jonah's life: "As an author, Mama was the perfect woman. The being starts to eat her, and then he becomes her. Why did Jonah's mother kill her daughter? We're only told that the mother had been insane. In "Farewell", the second section of Hybrid Child, Jonah exists in one form or another and she is wandering. She is with an old man. "She had been seven years old since the day she first came here six years ago." Of course, the girl is merely the essence of what she was. She's not alive. We switch to the humans on a course towards fighting and containing the rogue Sample #3:

"Now, eight of them were in outer space fighting the Empire of Machines, two were undergoing maintenance work, two had been destroyed, one was being remodeled, and one-Sample B#3- was missing."

It doesn't take long to understand and accept that Sample #3 is Jonah, the eternally seven-year-old girl, and gender indicators are as irrelevant as locations and time shifts.

In "Aquaplanet", the last and longest section of Hybrid Child, we meet Shiverer Mouse, who "…suffered from a genetic myelin deficiency which meant that his nerve cells shrunk as he aged… His muscles were withering away. The nerves at the extremities had been the first to go, and eventually the damage to his brain would kill him…" (It gets confusing when this character is referred to as "she", but perhaps that's the point. We can never be too sure of identity.) Shiverer Mouse understands the Biblical origins of Jonah's name and "…detested the power of a God who could do as he wished with human beings." Jonah is not human, just something masquerading in human skin. Is she the sacrificial lamb, the Christ-like figure born in order to die? Plot does intervene, as it should, in the midst of these character sketches:

"The war between the Humanoid Allies and the Adiaptron Immortal Empire of Machines had been raging on for centuries."

Meanwhile, those who are born give birth to their own mothers. It's rendered here with the subtlety of a sledgehammer (the ellipses in the following two quotes are as they exist in the text):

"But Jonah had given birth to her.

She… gave birth… to her own mother.

Because she was so lonely; she was all alone-always all alone.

She needed her."

Then, there's Milagros, a Queen-like character who ends up killing half a million people by various methods. We don't have much time to take the full measure of that statistic before we learn of her spewing out all sorts of poison, all sorts of things that had built up inside of her. She is an omnipotent force who remembers everything. We are reminded of Jonah's suffering:

"Jonah knew death… because she had once before been starved to death by her own mother."

What is the reader to make of the character Dreyfus? He…"had killed a lot of people before now, but he had never killed anyone so ritualistically before." Milagros returns here, and the results are horrendous. She's been consumed, and memories are recalled of children with "…scorched flesh burst open..." Others are "…squashed in a melange of brightly colored blood and soft meat…" The impressions of horror get too overwhelming even for the reader acquainted with this style.

In the epilogue, Ōhara provides what seems to be an explanation of what's happened. Eight hundred years have passed. The military priest has achieved his purpose of "connecting souls to God" and the world has not changed that much:

"Life consciousness has been built into the universe since the very beginning… The breath of life and the light of consciousness burned in robots, in machines-in all kinds of things."

How does it end? There's no sense of connectivity the reader can easily share with this text, and it's perhaps due to the likely impossible task of effectively translating it from Japanese to English without sounding impossibly wooden. There's no justice in this world. Jonah's death is not avenged, and all the bloody combinations or vicious murders and viscous fluids spill in between the lines and in the margins. Yet it's oddly dispassionate. In her thesis, Beck argues that maternal care is omnipotent and continuous. It transcends issues of social, military, and technical control.

The reader unacquainted with Ōhara's previous work (this reviewer included), however, will feel lost by the end of Hybrid Child. It's all description, all tell, and there's nobody in whom we are allowed to fully invest our attention. That may as well be the point of this text, a commentary on Japanese society in the '80s, where consumption and production were always at a breakneck speed towards the finish line, but as a novel it never quite congeals. In a way, the novel Hybrid Child is a shape-shifting monster that devours everything it encounters. That's exciting visually and aurally, but even a hybrid fantasy/sci-fi/feminist/novel needs stability. Hybrid Child is moody, visceral, graphic, and atmospheric, but it may leave the most confident reader more confused and frustrated at the end.

5


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.

Books

John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.

Music

Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.

Music

Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.

Books

Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.

Music

Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.

Film

Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.

Television

Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.

Film

Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".

Music

The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.

Music

The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.

Music

Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.

Music

​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.

Music

John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.