The Past and Future – The Unique Speculative Fiction of Pumpkin Scissors

In my family we used big ol’ knives to carve pumpkins. For Ryotaro Iwanaga they apparently used a large and heavy set of scissors. The title of the story is drawn from the central cast’s role in the government – they represent a sort of internal affairs group that audits corruption in the military, government and associated contractors, cutting through the tough skin of bribery and backroom connections to try and bring relief to those suffering in a post war world. That’s not what really makes the story of Pumpkin Scissors interesting.

What makes it interesting is the way it uses old fashioned technology to shed light on how our current technology is changing our lives, creating one of the most unique approaches to speculative fiction I have ever encountered.

You see, the level of technology in Pumpkin Scissors is all over the place. They have high performance internal combustion engines but telegraphs are relatively new and they’re just starting to think about radio. Tanks and zeppelins are a thing but no one is talking about building airplanes. One of the protagonists has had his brain surgically modified but they can’t build a flamethrower that can be used without injuring the soldier carrying it. The reasons for all these absurdities is summed up in the name Caplan.

A recurring trope in Japanese storytelling is the genius. This is not a Sherlock style figure, who is knowledgeable in many fields and has a mind of frightening acuity. Rather it is a superhuman figure who dominates everything remotely related to their field of interest. A baseball genius will have unparalleled strength and footspeed, a magicians dexterity, the hand-eye coordination of a master sniper and a head for figures that can remember every player on every team now active in his league and most of the notable players from other leagues – even leagues overseas. A fighting genius will be able to medal in the Olympics in every fighting sport they put their hands to. And a scientific genius will lead the way in every field of study known to man.

Such a figure was the founder of the Caplan Institute. He pushed science forward to such degrees, and with such acuity, that in many cases the infrastructure and technology to test his theories did not exist. Every aspect of medicine, botany, biology and engineering had their borders vastly expanded by Caplan. Ultimately he would die with many of the mysteries he hoped to prove long out of reach. As the society around him built up their industrial capacity to manufacture the blueprints he left behind in his Institute they began to put them to use, and so, with the help of Caplan, some fields of technology grew in leaps and bounds, driven by the work he left behind combined with the needs of the governmental and industrial leaders who came to Caplan for aid.

This allows Iwanaga to create very interesting situations where technologies that would not normally have interacted because they existed in different eras do meet – with results that he can accurately predict because all the pieces in play did exist and had fully understood limits, even though they would not normally work together in such a way. He can also use some aspects of this antiquated technology to offer commentary on modern society, such as when terrorists seize a far-flung telegraph network to institute a miniature surveillance state, obliquely reflecting the way our own telecommunications create vast quantities of information that can be used against us and are not at all as secure as we might like them to be.

Iwanaga also offers commentary on the politics of academics through the controlling nature of the Caplan Institute and its patent systems, which allows it to quash scientific inquiry in other places through force of law and superior financial power. While Caplan does have very advanced theoretical work in its vaults, there’s no guarantee it’s the only solution to the problems Caplan imagined – much less the best. And, knowing what we know of much more advanced technology than Caplan put forward, some of which should exist alongside what exists in the present day of Pumpkin Scissors, the readers can see that yes, the scientists in Iwanaga’s world are, indeed, missing big pieces of the puzzle that have been hidden behind the walls of Caplan’s own vision of the future. How much, Iwanaga seems to ask, is missed by a modern scientific establishment that is driven by its own prejudices and politics?

Science fiction is often positioned as stories about the future and what it could mean for our society as technology progresses and we try to adapt to it. But the genius of Pumpkin Scissors is that, in spite of have a fairly normal story in structure, character progression and plot, it manages to fascinate by taking the strictures of its own genre and tinkering with them in a way that challenges our expectations while still delivering on that solid story. Many people delight in subverting expectations but they never stop to ask why that so often makes for surprising stories. The reason for it is simple – it forces us to look at a story, its tropes and morals in a new light. But if all you do is subvert expectations for its own sake then you’re just creating a new canon of tropes and morals – and probably not as interesting a canon as the old (it was there for a reason, after all).

But by subverting genres with intention, as Ryotaro Iwanaga does in Pumpkin Scissors, he revitalizes his story and makes his take on his story a little fresher and a little newer. Well done, sir.


Why Speculate?

Most of what I write falls under the genre of Science Fiction, but that’s a label I don’t really care for. You see, the term Science Fiction comes with a certain degree of bias built into it – it expects to be based on, you know, science. In fact, there’s a whole sub-genre called ‘hard’ Science Fiction that revels in providing the full scientific argument underpinning everything that happens, much to the detriment of the flow and pacing of the story they are presenting.

Apologists for hard Science Fiction insist that this is correct, because the whole point of Science Fiction is the science, not the fiction. We are, they tell us, in the age of science and it is the duty of conscientious authors to educate people about the science that will drive us into the New Age. Okay, maybe not all of them think that way, but the most vocal certainly seem to.

My biggest problem with Science Fiction is the Science. I’m not talking about the day to day observation, postulation, experimentation and conclusions of the laboratory. I do that kind of science in my day to day just like everyone else. I even try to be conscious of the process and direct it with my full faculties. I’m talking about Science, or, if you prefer, the Orthodoxy of Reason.

See, a lot of the big Science advocates insist that, with a little more time, they’ll have the numbers they need to make the world perfect and then, once all the people indoctrinated by Science Fiction and ready for the Coming Change fall into line, Science will usher in the Golden Age of Humanity and we can forget about all those pesky social ills, relational problems and personality disorders we have to deal with. This all sounds pretty good, to tell the truth.

My problem is, I observe history and note that people said those kinds of things in France and Russia while making sweeping changes to society. In France they even built statues to Reason, but what they wound up with was Napoleon. At least the Russians got Lenin, who was better looking and taller. I postulate that any new attempt in this direction is likely to end the same way.

Except this is America, so our guy will be even more hansom that those jokers.

Due to the immense human cost those last experiments in the bounty of human reason exacted, I’m loathe to accept a new one. No matter how appealing it might seem to have an Asimovian system like psychohistory in place, the past suggests that these kinds of things are pipe dreams.

So I’m not here to write science fiction. I don’t want to write about science, as fascinating as that subject can be. I want to write about people. One way to highlight what makes people people is to show them in vastly different settings and let how they are similar to us show through.

Sometimes those different settings will look something like our future. Sometimes they’ll look like what our world could have been like if something in our past changed. And sometimes they’ll look like a world that never existed. Officially, these kinds of stories would be considered science fiction, alternate history and fantasy.

But I prefer to use the term speculative fiction. It’s purpose is to show us different worlds, but it’s also to show us humanity, and only if the humanity rings true can we really call it a success. I hope that, as you read along with the story starting October 1st, you’ll find that I have managed to do just that, and that you’ll let me know what you think.