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.