“Perhaps the horror genre can take us back to a more naked state of being and present us with a starting line from which to discuss the world with one another…”
A heady concept, but one would expect nothing less from Hideaki Sena, one of the planet’s reigning masters of genre fiction. At once known for two hugely successful video games (not to mention manga and a feature film) based on his seminal novel Parasite Eve… and for his academic and nonfiction work in cell biology, Sena is a bit of a science-fiction concept himself: the kind of thinker who crosses conventional boundaries in ways that one hopes will be more commonplace in the future. After all, how many novelists earn praise from Time, Library Journal, and Fangoria?
When his second novel, Brain Valley, won the prestigious Nihon SF Taishô Award (Japan’s grand prize of science-fiction), it should not have surprised readers of Parasite Eve, which posits a diabolical plot by mitochondrial DNA to usurp the course of human evolution itself. But lest a newcomer to Sena’s work get the impression that it’s overly cerebral, I should point out that it frequently contains stunning passages of pure, frontal-assault horror:
“Asakura’s heart froze. As it moved towards her, she could make out a few details. Almost all of it was completely opaque, but what she did see looked like a heap of flesh.
‘No,’ she said with tears in her eyes. But it continued its approach. There was a sound like that of tentacles wriggling along the floor and bubbles popping like crushed tomatoes. The whole circus was coming her way…”
Bearing in mind this wide range of talents and thematic concerns, it’s probably safe to say that there are few authors as qualified as Hideaki Sena to delve deeply into the nexus of pop culture, literature, science, and social issues. At Firefox News we’re very fortunate that he chose this as the platform from which to address his English language fans on such compelling topics.
Firefox News: I believe that at least initially you experienced some criticism from fellow scientists because your novels mix fact with speculation. However, have they also been impressed with the number of lay readers you have made interested in topics such as cell biology, genetics, and medicine? Has the scientific world started to see the long-term value of your literary work to society?
Hideaki Sena: When Parasite Eve was released, the Japanese public was in an uproar over a religious cult’s terrorist acts [Aum Shinrikyo’s subway sarin gas attack –tr.]. The cult leader had incorporated SF, anime, etc., into his religious doctrine in a distorted way, so at that time the Japanese public was highly sensitive about scientific imagery leading to actual horror. However, there were book reviewers who properly differentiated between fiction and reality and saw literary development in sublimating science as horror.
Even now, at the beginning of the school year, I receive letters from young readers telling me how Parasite Eve gave them an interest in the life sciences and decided their course of study. I am happy that my novel is helping to create the future of science.
Meanwhile, becoming a novelist has actually given me more opportunities to converse with scientists. I have been invited, as a novelist, to many conferences on the life sciences, robots and artificial intelligence, and both the scientists and I come away from them with new ideas that lead to new work. Such activities, I think, expand the horizon of both fiction and science.
Last year, The World Science Fiction Convention was held in Yokohama, Japan. There I hosted a panel where Japan’s top scientists shared the stage with Japanese and American science fiction writers, to the great delight of the audience. Later, each author wrote a short story based on the essential issues of science discussed during the panel. The stories were collected and published this summer along with research articles by the scientists. It’s an unprecedented book that goes beyond categories such as nonfiction and science fiction.
Just as fans of horror fiction themselves have different tastes, not everyone in the scientific community will accept my literary work. However, compared with that period of great confusion when a religious cult had carried out an indiscriminate terrorist attack, the relationship between science and fiction is developing and maturing, I think, little by little.
With that in mind, can you comment on the wonderful effects that can be produced when an author combines a sense of mystery and a solid working knowledge of science? For me, the way that your writing points to the depths of both what we know and what we don't know is one reason it’s so powerful.
Scientific discoveries and a fresh sensibility in mystery writing both present new ways of feeling and looking at the world. Scientific discoveries, I believe, shake the common sense of humans accustomed to society, while a mystery sense points to new essentialities of the world. People who observe society and nature carefully are the ones who are the most deeply shaken, and they wish to understand better.
When you are combining a sense of mystery together with science, neither must be treated superficially; both have to be respected if the resulting work is to be profound. Personally, I take care that the idea at the center of a novel is an original one of my own. Just as ideas are the heart of science and engineering, in treating science as a writer I try to use original ideas to create narratives, and that’s because I want to impact the scientific community as well as the community of readers. I couldn’t be gladder if this way of writing is being termed “powerful.”
Speaking of the community of readers, how has the global culture's attitude toward genre literature changed in the dozen or so years since you first became well known? Do you find that through movies, the Internet, and video games your work has a larger "built-in" audience?
A recent trend in Japan: best-selling novelizations based on games and manga are often written by award-winning novelists, while novels written by game scenario writers attract wide readerships as well. From before my debut, I was interested in manga and anime, and not just novels, so I asked my editors many times to let me novelize manga works, etc. Back then, many people held novelizations in low esteem, and writers who got their start that way were encouraged to move on to “more serious work.” But since my debut more than ten years ago, the situation has changed a great deal. Eventually, there will be more and more authors who transcend boundaries—not just between novels on the one hand and manga and games on the other, but also boundaries between science and fiction.
As a follow-up, how important do you think the horror genre is as a means of discovering our common humanity? That is, can people from different cultures learn something about each other by coming to understand the fears that they share?
At first glance, the primordial human instinct of fear and the scientific endeavor to understand the essence of nature seem miles apart. Fear against science has often been depicted in novels: the mad scientist who does something weird to plunge people into fear; the birth of some eerie new life form.
I believe, however, that our fearing hearts come from the same place as our religious and scientific impulses; all of them played an important role as the ancestors of humankind matured into homo sapiens. As living things, we’ve been born endowed with the ability to be scared, to fear, and to be in awe. Religion and science are the outcome of humans’ social response to that fear.
Humankind is now separated into different cultures, each living with their own values, and there are a lot of religions and scientific fields. But the horror genre has the power to do away with many of those bonds and to confront us with the essential questions of religion and science, namely, how to face the world, what the self is, etc. Perhaps the horror genre can take us back to a more naked state of being and present us with a starting line from which to discuss the world with one another.
Do you feel that because of the direction that the world is headed, both technologically and politically, we will see more and more literature that is a hybrid of science-fiction and horror?
If fear is indeed the physiological root of science and religion, then literary hybrids between SF and horror will only become more common in an attempt to portray modern society.
What I often think about recently is this: if fear is the root, how do I depict hope? Thinking about the future; expectation; the drive for hope: they’re probably the flip side of fear. If SF-horror hybrids merely depict technological and political fears, we can’t be said to be facing what the world may bring. How the literary hybrid should depict human hope is a crucial topic, and I’m trying to engage it through accomplishments in neuroscience, robotics, man-machine interface technology, etc. I feel that the answer may already lie buried in our corporality, our social intelligence, and the novel form itself.
Beautifully put. Thank you so much for your time.
Special thanks to Vertical, Inc. for all the hard work and skill that went into translating this text.Also, for my book review of Parasite Eve, please see Rue Morgue, issue #82 .-PG