Both foreign travel and speculative fiction are ways of asking, What if? They let us see things from slightly altered angles and reimagine our own beliefs, emotions, and lives. When Robert Heinlein wrote Stranger in a Strange Land, he wasn’t just depicting a psychic, polyamorous Martian for the hell of it—he was asking readers how their lives would be different if their own society proceeded along psychic, polyamorous lines. (The answer: Pretty sexist, but open-minded about cannibalism.) Likewise, when we take a trip to Germany or India or even Minnesota, we’re not simply sightseeing. We’re imagining ourselves living in these novel locales—what we’d love about it and what we’d hate, and what that means about our values and assumptions, what we take for granted as normal.
Kelly Luce’s Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail deftly combines these two modes of psychic exploration. A collection of speculative-fiction short stories about Japan and America and the interactions between the two, the book forces both its readers and its characters to confront the question What if?
This dynamic sprouts up in the very first story, “Ms. Yamada’s Toaster,” in which a neighborhood woman’s toaster develops the power to char a piece of bread with a kanji character predicting how the user will die. What if, the story asks, an ordinary household appliance could tell you something as monumental as your manner of death? Actually, according to the story, not much would change. The town reacts pretty much the same way people across the world have reacted to every near-magical technological advancement: half the residents line up to take advantage of it, and the other half denounce it as unnatural and sinful with protest slogans like “Don’t let curiosity pollute your mind!” (Avoiding a prediction is such a slippery proposition in any case. A couple whose toast reads, “Air” cancel their upcoming flight, but Birnam Wood always finds a way to come to Dunsinane, you know?)
The real magic in the story is not the toaster itself but rather the climactic encounter between the toaster’s owner, “religious nut” Ms. Yamada, and the young narrator, Keisuke, who delivers her orders from the local liquor store. The toaster first revealed its powers when it accurately foretold her husband’s death by coronary, and she performs a devotional ritual at his shrine every day. That ritual shows Keisuke an emotional ecstasy he couldn’t learn in his “family of skeptics,” one where love is so enormous and unbridled that it topples the barriers between life and death. The real question of the story turns out not to be What if you knew how you were going to die? but rather What if the person you loved most in the world were suddenly gone? And really, is any experience more surreal than that?
Not all the stories in the collection involve elements as obviously fantastical as a prophetic kitchen appliance. In “Ash,” the plot points are all relatively plausible: A minor volcanic eruption showers ash on the Japanese town where an American woman is living with her family. She is arrested because of a misunderstanding and spends a few days in jail, where the language barrier prevents her from communicating with anyone. So far, so believable.
But Luce transmogrifies a realistic setting into strange terrain worthy of Dick or LeGuin. From the ash-blanketed suburban landscape dotted with kids “wearing bathing suits and surgical masks” to the jail cell in which “any inclusion, even in a group scolding, would’ve been comforting,” the protagonist is an alien, both figuratively and literally. The questions raised by this story are just as disorienting as the ones in the more fabulist “Ms. Yamada’s Toaster”: What if you found yourself in a place where no one could understand you, and you could understand no one? And what if you never quite got that understanding back?
“Rooey,” one of the book’s longer pieces, wavers between the speculative and the realistic. In it, a young woman named Maxine is racked with guilt about the death of her teenage brother Rooey. The story’s red, visceral rawness makes it somehow both the strongest and the weakest story in the collection. It’s not as compact and elegant as some of the others, but Maxine’s grief rises up off the pages like heat waves off Texas concrete. Here the theoretical question at the heart of the narrative is practically shouted through a bullhorn: What if I had been the one who died instead of him? Maxine pursues this question with unnerving obsession, rifling through Rooey’s collection of Japanese kitsch (which she’d never really cared about before) and developing a fixation with his Japanese-American girlfriend (whom she’d previously thought of only as “strange-looking”). By the story’s climax, this question has become more than an obsession—it has consumed Maxine like the ocean in which her brother drowned.
But even when the subject matter starts floating off into the heights of the extraordinary—the title story, for example, does exactly what it says on the tin—Luce grounds it in lovely, understated language, never giving in to the temptation to describe incomprehensible events in incomprehensible language. A falling piano “smashed into the sidewalk with a sound like the end of the universe.” The American woman in the Japanese jail stares at a window, “loneliness on me like a glove.” Even the description of a pale boyfriend as “white like recycled paper” has a quiet, surprising gleam to it.
Luce surfs from story to story like this, dialing spec-fic influences up and down with purpose and grace, no wacky Japanese stereotypes in sight. As if the friction and affection between Japan and America weren’t enough to make the collection cohere, she slides little images through the stories like beads on a string. The empty bottle in the first story echoes the empty bottles in the second and third stories. Jizo, Japanese figurines thought to “tend to the souls of miscarried or aborted fetuses, or any child who precedes his parents in death,” crop up repeatedly (and, as you’d imagine, painfully). Technically possible or not, the stories all take place in the same world of bent rules.
If there’s a consistent weakness in Hana Sasaki, it’s that plot developments can sometimes feel unearned. What exactly prompts Ms. Yamada to open up to Keisuke about her husband and his shrine? Why precisely does the jailed American woman end up kissing her elderly female Japanese neighbor, and why does it make her think, I can do anything? There’s a certain opacity to the characters’ motivations that leaves some question marks around their actions. But in a book where toasters tell fortunes and women grow tails, where the whole point is to imagine weird actions and weirder reactions, it’s easy to let go of that objection and let the stories buoy you happily along. After all, you can’t keep asking What if? without starting to sever some of the stitches between effect and cause.