A few weeks ago, I was at a Barnes & Noble, just looking through their speculative fiction section when I came across Yokohama Station SF by Yuba Isukari. It was a slight, green book with an intriguing cover, and I was surprised I’d never heard of it before.
Naturally, I bought it, and let me tell you, it’s only a bit longer than 200 pages, but it has more depth, tension, and mystery than some books three times its length.
It’s a lighthearted dystopian novel, if you can believe that, and it should definitely be on your 2021 reading list, and here’s why:
Yokohama Station SF is One of the Best Dystopian Novels I’ve Read
The premise for the novel is quite simple. A sentient train station takes advantage of human weakness after Japan is ravaged by the Winter War, and gradually grows to take over the islands of Japan. Life inside the station is regulated by the station’s ‘Internet’-equivalent, SuikaNet, and its robotic enforcers, the turnstiles.
The characters must find a way to stop the ever-growing station from destroying the rest of Japan.
It’s a neat idea, to be honest. The whole conflict is mostly internal for the characters, aside from the occasional row with the turnstiles.
Yuba Isukari pairs a dry narrator voice with a semi-dire plot, and throws in some humor for good measure. All while inside a sprawling, replicating, self-healing, omniscient train station. It’s pretty cool.
However, the structure of the novel is a tad confusing. It jumps a bit back and forth between narratives for long stretches of time, leaving us wondering about the other characters. And the ending only resolves a few of our character’s dilemmas, again leaving us wondering about the other half of the characters, of which there are no mentions.
Perhaps it’s a consequence of translation, or perhaps the story’s meant to jump back and forth. Regardless, I didn’t find the transitions too jarring, and was able to power through a few confusing pages.
The main character, Hiroto, is quiet and laid back, resembling an observer more than an active participant in his own life sometimes.
A lot of the things that happen to him throughout the story aren’t of his own doing, and he merely perseveres through everything that’s thrown at him.
He does portray a keen sense of duty, however, which defines him as a character. He ventures into the station to find the leader of the Dodger Alliance, and in the end, to reach Exit 42 and find answers—answers to what, he’s not sure.
The notion that Hiroto just decides to go into the station on a mission he clearly doesn’t understand—or really care about, it seems—just speaks to the kind of character he is. He’s sociable, curious, and compassionate. He’s ‘go with the flow’ until he finds something that piques his interest, then he’s all in.
Hiroto contrasts with another of the main characters, Toshiru, who has an intense dislike for people. Toshiru is Hiroto’s shadow, but with a clearer purpose, and clearer desires. This isn’t to say that Toshiru is a bad person, quite the contrary, he’d just rather spend time with machines than with people.
Plus, there are a couple of quirky AI companions for both Hiroto and Toshiru along the way, and they act as foils for the two character’s most endearing qualities.
The whole sentient train station vibe is pretty cool, and it creates an of air of danger and mystery while reading. Hiroto walks through the halls of the station, literally in the belly of the beast.
However, there are parts in the story where Yuba Isukari’s sparse prose does not lend itself well. I wish there had been more descriptions of the interior of the station, like what the halls looked like, the cities, the people, etc.
A lot of those details are left up to the reader’s imagination, which is fine, I guess, but I’d have liked the author to solidify the world in which we’re immersed.
For all we know, the inside of the station might be clean and white and sterile. Or, it could be dark, dingy, and really embody the dystopian tropes. But I’m not sure what it looks like exactly, aside from a very brief description at the end of the book where the walls are described as “white concrete”.
About the Dystopian Novel
So apparently, Yokohama Station SF was originally a manga published in Japan from 2016 to 2018, called Yokohama-eki Fable, or Yokohama Station Fable. I learned this after researching the book when I’d finished reading it.
The manga started as a popular web comic by the author, who was trying to wind down from work with a creative outlet.
The novel that I read was translated by Stephen Paul, published by Yen Press in March 2021, and marketed to English readers. The manga has yet to be translated into English.
Regardless of the history of the novel, it stands as a great addition to dystopian sci-fi. It’s short, quirky nature makes it stand out from the ranks of grim, brooding dystopian novels double its size.
If you’re looking for a short, fascinating read, I give Yokohama Station SF an 8/10.