In 2005 the Japanese Archipelago was designated a biodiversity hotspot by Conservation International, an international environmental NGO. Many of the Japanese islands have their own unique self-contained ecosystems, and the islands themselves stretch over a wide variety of climates: subarctic in the north, subtropical in the south, and different conditions between the Pacific side and the Sea of Japan side. There are thousands of unique species of plants and around 200 unique animal species – and many of them are endangered.
During the Edo period (1603-1868) animal and bird hunting was very strictly regulated, the culmination of a thousand-year ban on eating meat. However, when Japan decided to end its isolation from the rest of the world in the mid-nineteenth century, these restrictions were lifted and wildlife suffered. Several species of animal went extinct and several more became critically endangered. These days Japan has very strict wildlife protection laws, and there are quite a few wildlife protection areas. After learning all this, I felt I understood a lot better the context behind Tatsuaki Ishiguro’s Biogenesis.
“It is with the deepest sincerity that I offer prayers for Dr. Nobuhiko Akedera, who succumbed to the acquired immune deficiency disease on May 2, 1991, and Dr. Keiichi Sakakibara, who succumbed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis on December 25, 1992. Their bereaved families were kind enough to allow me access to their experiment logs and diaries, and I should begin by noting that the passages reproduced in print herein appear by their permission.”
This book is a collection of four short stories that all focus on a different fictional extinct species:
- “It is with the deepest sincerity that I offer prayers” tells the story of a glowing winged mouse. This is the best of the four stories.
- “Snow Woman” is about a species of human-looking females with much lower than normal body temperatures.
- “Midwinter Weed” gives us the discovery and loss of a vampiric plant that thrived on blood.
- “The Hope Shore Sea Squirt” is a marine animal that was fished to extinction due to its healing properties. I found this one to be the weakest.
The first three stories are written as scientific papers, and the last one is an actual story. The common theme shared by each of these stories is that these fictional species were designed to inevitably go instinct. The people studying them became overly invested in their subjects, and they often made decisions that compromised their scientific objectivity. The reasons were always different, but the end result was always the same – a tragedy. It’s a shame these stories didn’t move me in that way.
More Science Than Story
“Below are the lists of the locations, dates, and times where winged mice were found and their dates and times of death, as compiled by Dr. Sakakibara and exactly as Dr. Akedera would have seen them. (There are other instances of the capture, but they are not included in the table because the time, date, and/or location were unclear.) (Tables 1, 2)”
In many ways the first three stories are works of art. Each story closely mimics the style of an academic paper. “It is with the deepest sincerity that I offer prayers” is even written in double-spaced Courier New, and comes with tables, graphs, and citations. However, these are papers that have a very human element to it. They tell the stories of obsessed scientists desperate to uncover the biological secrets of the species they’re studying, and they’re written with clinical detachment.
These papers weren’t written by the scientists who conducted the studies, but rather by the scientists who followed-up on them. The former managed to forge extremely strong attachments to their test subjects. The latter were just relating what happened using cold scientific language, filled with biological details and minutiae that the average reader just isn’t going to care about, and that’s what makes these stories even sadder. It’s the death of a species being related in an academic paper that will probably never get published in an academic journal. I couldn’t connect with that.
The last story, “The Hope Shore Sea Squirt”, is the weakest of the four in my opinion. It’s about an American lawyer, desperate to find a cure for his dying daughter, who discovers a marine species with healing properties and fishes it to extinction. I felt the writing here was considerably weaker than the other three stories and the plot was forced. The protagonist is able to learn in barely three months what most biologists and doctors spend decades learning, and then implement a working cure. And these two issues were not enough to compensate for what was supposed to be the tension between a father’s personal struggle and wider concerns relating to the discovery of this species. All in all, I’d recommend skipping this one.
Nothing Lasts Forever
The Omer today is eternity in kindness, which is kind of the exact opposite message this book is trying to convey. Nothing lasts forever. The winged mouse was going to disappear, the snow woman wouldn’t have lasted, the Midwinter Seed was so aggressive it poisoned its own seedlings, and someone would have inevitably discovered the healing properties of the Hope Shore Sea Squirt. These species were destined to die out, and no amount of kindness could have saved them. Just another cruel twist of nature.
About The Author
Born in Hokkaido in 1961, Tatsuaki Ishiguro has served as a lecturer at Tokyo University and as an assistant professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and currently practices at a clinic in Tokyo. As the author of a unique brand of science fiction, he has been nominated for the Akutagawa Award, the Yukio Mishima Award, and the Seiun (Nebula) Award. Biogenesis is his first work to appear in English.