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.