The Science Fiction Worldcon was in Yokohama, Japan, about a decade ago. I attended, as a panelist and a pro, partly because it was a chance to experience Japan, something that might not come my way easily again.
While I was there I witnessed a very uncomfortable sociopolitical moment.
A panel and an audience
Some of the panels at the con were real-time translated. The English-speaking panelists were, having a discussion, as usual, except that after every person spoke they had to wait while their English words were translated for the mostly Japanese audience. The panel moved a lot slower than usual because of this. Perhaps it was this sense of everything happening in slow-motion that sharpened my own focus, and it might have been the same thing that lulled my fellow panelists into oblivion; that, or it might have been a clear cut sense of national origin.
My fellow panelists were all American-born. I was not.
My fellow panelists all seemed wrapped in the invincibility of their American armor, blissfully unaware of the effect that some things they were saying were having on the interpreter, and through him the audience.
I got a sense of discomfort, even dismay – but I couldn’t step in front of this unfolding disaster, and my fellow panelists carried on digging themselves into a hole with every pontificating thing that they said. Americans. In Japan. Who seemed to have entirely forgotten the history that they had with this place.
The translator finally politely stopped the discussion, asking our pardon in that inimitable self-effacing Japanese way, and asked the panel’s permission to pause the discussion while he explained something to the audience.
It was only then that my fellow panelists began to sit up, going over some of the things they had been saying, and coming up against the indefensibility of some of their utterances as Americans in a country which had a city in it… named Hiroshima.
The only atomic bombs ever dropped on people
The nuclear bombs dropped on civilian population centers of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a stain on the escutcheon of all mankind, but specifically on the nation of the United States of America, which remains the only country in the world which has used nuclear weapons in anger.
We all know about the mushroom cloud because we have seen images of nuclear tests in deep deserts, on abandoned atolls in the middle of empty oceans, but we all shy away from the superimposition of that cloud and a city full of a civilian population going about their business and unaware that their lives are about to be ended, instantly or slowly and excruciatingly over a long period of suffering and pain.
Because this is not something that the “good guys” do. “Good guys” would never do such a thing to a defenseless target, just to flex their military muscle, just to prove their strength, just to sound a warning to an entirely different nation. we are here, look what we can do.
Researching the horror
I had occasion to research Hiroshima and Nagasaki recently, because of a story that I was writing for my work in progress. I wrapped myself in the pain, the tragedy, the apocalypse of the act of dropping a nuclear weapon on a city. I saw the flash of the bomb in my mind’s eye; somewhere deep inside of me the thunder of the explosion sent a shockwave throughout my soul.
It was the unspeakable, and it had been done. This was history.
The more I read, the more I could taste a bitterness at the back of my throat. That people who called themselves human beings, as I think of myself as a human being, people like me, could have sanctioned this act, could have planned it, could have executed it, and then found ways to rationalize it and even take pride in it, after. It felt unclean to be human. It felt unclean to be me.
I wrote a story which had no word of reproach or rebuke in it, but whose very existence is that. A story which should have been purest invented horror, but was not. A story that looks upon the blasted ground on which a black radioactive rain once fell, and weeps over man’s inhumanity to man. A story which looks the monster in the eye and asks if there can be healing.
Whether or not there can be, the story will leave its readers to decide. But writing it… was hard. It left an emptiness, a sadness, a taste of ashes. I can shine a light into these shadows – I am a writer, and I create stories, and this is what I DO. But oh, looking at things in that pitiless illumination is an act that is my own expiation for the sins committed by other human beings like me.
I remember sitting in that panel in Japan, up there at the high table with other panelists all of whom were squirming uneasily while being rebuked for their hubris and their arrogance in a sublimely polite and exquisitely courteous Japanese manner, and I looked into the eyes of a Japanese audience, and I wondered if there had been a bridge on which we had met and which had begun to crumble underneath us,Perhaps r whether the bridge had always been an illusion and we stood on different sides of a wide and angry river which neither of quite knew how to cross.
Maybe the story I just wrote was the beginning of such a bridge.
Perhaps there can be no real forgiveness. Maybe there can only be understanding, an understanding that tastes as bitter as that thing at the back of my throat. A knowledge. A guilt. The first bitter taste of a healing draught.
The story is part of a collection, and the collection won’t see the light of day until Fall . But I am building those bridges, in the best way I know how. I dress truth in rags, or in exquisite fairy tale floaty gowns; I shape the truth into smooth stones worn round by river water, or ground into faceted diamonds which sparkle and dazzle and reflect difficult truths back at their wearer. I am Writer. That is what I do.
You can learn more about this new project on my Patreon, at https://www.patreon.com/AlmaAlexander , in time. Announcements of imminent advent will be made here. Watch this space.