Something bizarre, bigger than anyone could ever build, was protruding from the surface of Mercury. She was not sure whom to tell. She was not even sure she should tell anybody at all.
Title: Usurper of the Sun
Author: Housuke Nojiri
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
VIZ Media’s Haikasoru imprint has, for a while now, been publishing English translations of Japanese science fiction in order to bring it to a wider audience. Since I have no familiarity with Japanese sf, I thought it was time to dive in and have a closer look. My first taste of the Haikasoru library is Usurper of the Sun, a first contact story in a hard sf vein with a compelling premise.
Aki Shiraishi is a precocious member of her high school’s astronomy club. While observing a Mercurial eclipse with the school’s telescope, she discovers something unexpected: an apparent structure on the planet’s surface. A huge structure. What is it? How did it get there? Maybe more importantly, who put it there? As Aki’s observations are confirmed by the scientific community, these questions rage around the world as seven billion people debate the meaning of what may be the most important event in human history.
Soon, though, it becomes clear what the structure on Mercury is doing. The very material of the planet is being ejected, launched into space, and is slowly being assembled into a gigantic ring around the Sun. All the previous questions of who, what, and why are now transferred to the Ring, whose purpose is unknown. What is known is that the Ring has already begun blocking part of the Earth’s share of sunlight, and things will only get worse as the object grows.
This is a wake-up call for humanity to grow up fast, to stop all its petty bickering and fighting, and to join together to address the common threat. Over the course of several years, a spacecraft is built and a mission planned to investigate the Ring at close range. During this time, Aki has become a world-famous figure. Her discovery sparked in her an unquenchable passion to uncover the truth, and after an intense college education in the sciences she has become the world’s foremost “Ringologist.” So it’s no surprise when she is chosen for the mission.
Upon reaching the Ring, Aki succeeds in discovering it’s purpose — or at least a part of it — which leads to an even bigger revelation: our solar system is going to have visitors. This leads to a whole new set of questions. What will these aliens be like? Why are they coming here? Is it an invasion? Do they even know there’s life on Earth? How can we communicate with them?
The book’s cover blurb compares it to the work of Clarke, and I do get a vague sense of that, although I can’t put my finger on exactly why. I was reminded more of Lem, actually, in that one of the main themes of Usurper is the unlikelihood of any truly meaningful communication with an alien species.
This is a well-told and engaging story with a fascinating premise that takes a mature approach to the well-known first contact scenario. My only complaint might be that there’s a certain innocence to the whole thing, a kind of airy, Young Adult style to it. I don’t know if that was the author’s intention, or if maybe that’s a general Japanese aesthetic, or what. I just would have preferred a bit more sophistication in some of the story’s aspects, particularly in the characterization department. But minor complaints aside, it’s a good fun read, and I think you’ll enjoy it.