Toward an Ethos of Relationality

Radical Eroticism and Collective Becoming in Ueda Sayuri’s Zeusu no ori

Raechel Dumas, Asian Languages and Civilisations, University of Colorado at Boulder [About | Email]

Volume 15, Issue 3 (Article 11 in 2015). First published in ejcjs on 13 December 2015.


From cybernetic organisms to cybernetically disembodied beings, Japanese science fiction is saturated with visions of posthuman becoming. Yet while high-tech iterations of the posthuman continue to dominate the genre, for some writers the flesh remains a fertile ground for exploring the perils and potentialities of the future. This paper examines Ueda Sayuri’s 2004 Zeusu no ori (The Cage of Zeus), an ambitious novel that, through its unrelenting focus on embodiment, not only challenges conventional models of gender and sexuality, but also elaborates a futuristic vision wherein the figure of the indeterminate social subject acquires a vital role in the course of biological and ethical becomings. My analysis will draw on thinkers working in and across multiple disciplines, inclusive of psychoanalytic criticism, queer theory, evolutionary biology, and affect theory. Ultimately, I will argue that Ueda’s cautiously optimistic novel points to the possibility of a future in which the underpinnings of private and public acts of violence are replaced by a sense of ethical obligation to others.

Keywords: Japanese science fiction, gender and sexuality, the posthuman, Ueda Sayuri.

Posthuman visions have gained a tenacious foothold in the Japanese cultural imaginary, frequently taking the shape of cyborg figures whose transformations into flesh-metal hybrids evince the negative ramifications of boundary transgression. While the conflicts that guide such narratives take diverse shapes, a great number of these stories share an overarching concern with what N. Katherine Hayles identifies as a disintegration of the clearly delineated domains of “self” and “other”:

The presumption that there is an agency, desire, or will belonging to the self and clearly distinguished from the “wills of others” is undercut in the posthuman, for the posthuman’s collective heterogeneous quality implies a distributed cognition located in disparate parts that may be in only tenuous communication with one another… If “human essence” is freedom from the wills of others, the posthuman is “post” not becauseit is necessarily unfree but because there is no a priori way to identify a self-will that can be clearly distinguished from an other-will (1999, pp. 3-4).

The meeting of the biological and the technological—an event with abundant potential for physical and psychological violence—has thus become a privileged form of encounter through which to explore the dangers of posthumanist configurations of subjectivity.

As Rosi Braidotti notes, however, the global science fiction imagination has also engendered considerably more affirmative narratives of posthuman becoming in which one’s liberation from the dualism of self/other creates space for novel forms of relating. And, as she explains, many such narratives eschew the images of techno-genesis that saturate so many utopian and dystopian stories alike by focusing instead on posthuman forms of enfleshed embodiment:

A posthuman notion of the enfleshed and extended, relational self keeps the techno-hype in check by a sustainable ethics of transformations. This sober position pleads for resistance to both the fatal attraction of nostalgia and the fantasy of trans-humanist and other techno-utopias. It also juxtaposes the rhetoric of “the desire to be wired,” to a more radical sense of the materialism of “proud to be flesh” (2010, p. 90).

This essay will explore what I view to be a unique formulation of the posthuman subject in contemporary Japanese science fiction through an analysis of Ueda Sayuri’s 2004 novel Zeusu no ori (The Cage of Zeus).

Ueda imagines a futuristic interplanetary society in which medical technologies facilitating one’s transition from male-bodied to female-bodied entities (or vice-versa) pose few if any bioethical conundra. Enter the novel’s central conflict, an artificially constructed race of beings known as Rounds who present fluid gender traits and possess both male and female sexual characteristics. The Rounds are part of an experimental project to liberate humankind from their conventionally sexed bodies in order to render them more psychologically and physiologically capable of exploring worlds beyond their own solar system. Owing to their perceived threat to the moral fabric of society, however, they are relegated to a special district located on a space station orbiting Jupiter. When the station becomes the target of an act of terrorism on the part of an organisation known as the Vessel of Life, a group of typically gendered humans (referred to as Monaurals in the novel) is assigned to guard the local population.

In this analysis I will argue that Zeusu no ori, through its enduring focus on embodiment, seeks to frustrate conventional models of gender and sexual identity in order to elaborate a radically new economy of desire and, in turn, an affirmative vision of a community whose inhabitants are psychically and ethically bound to others. In doing so, I will begin with a consideration of how the novel engages with some of the primary tropes of Japanese science fiction narratives with the aim of highlighting how Ueda interrogates representational trends that have long dominated the genre. From there, I will explore the novel’s depiction of Round sexuality, employing a selection of thinkers working in the fields of psychoanalytic criticism, queer theory, evolutionary biology, and affect theory in order to illustrate how Ueda devises a model of relationality that transcends the limitations of the human libidinal economy. Finally, I will examine how Ueda, extrapolating outward from her depiction of queer sexuality and sociality, develops a modified vision of posthuman subjectivity in which the purportedly marginal figure of the indeterminate social subject acquires a vital role in the course of future biological and cultural becomings.

De-Constructing Masculinity, Dissembling the Cyborg

In exploring how Ueda deploys only to undermine some of the dominant tropes of Japanese science fiction, I will first consider a seemingly minor yet significant plotline through which the tension between the Round and Monaural communities is elaborated: the story of two former lovers, a Monaural man named Harding and a Round named Veritas. The circumstances surrounding the couple’s failed relationship, which has concluded by the time the novel begins, are referenced throughout the narrative, wherein their intimate interpersonal conflicts are positioned as a mirror for the broader ideological struggles that divide the Round and Monaural communities. Harding and Veritas, we learn, had become sexually involved soon after Harding’s arrival in the special district, but as Harding explains it,

At first I made love to Veritas, one-way. But soon it could not be restricted to just that. It was a matter of course. The Rounds are absolute hermaphrodites. They achieve psychological balance first and foremost by loving both as a man and as a woman at the same time… To the end, I only physically desired Veritas’s female half. And during that time, I set aside the physical and emotional needs of eir male half. A part of me was turned on by imposing those sorts of constraints. And surely I experienced a kind of taboo allure… I couldn’t do what ey asked, I told em. My body was my own (Ueda 2004, pp. 285-86).1

Subsequently, Harding confesses that, in an attempt to rebuff the Round’s amorous advances once and for all, he had punched Veritas in front of the men under his command.

While Japanese science fiction encompasses a diverse array of narratives, many works belonging to the genre share a tendency to cast traditional forms of masculinity as endangered vis-à-vis the manifestation of exotic life forms that are identified as both feminised and feminising. As I will discuss shortly, cyborgs represent one of the most widespread science fiction tropes that play on anxieties surrounding the dismantling of masculinity; in other texts, however, these same fears are explored in a variety of other compelling and corporeal ways. One of the most remarkable works in this vein to be published in Japan in recent decades is pharmacologist-cum-novelist Sena Hideaki’s 1996 Parasaito Ibu (Parasite Eve), which has since been adapted into a series of well-received video games for the Playstation platform. In the novel, an ancient mitochondria parasitically propagates itself through a female line of descent in order to subjugate the human genetic code to the will of an endlessly adaptable, wholly feminised life form. In Makino Osamu’s 2002 Lovecraftian short story “Shi no kaiken (Nekurofarosu)” (translated under the title “Necrophallus”), an alien disguised as a young woman turns an unambiguously phallic dagger against the sadistic male protagonist’s body, transforming him into something unrecognisably other and enabling him to experience a mixture of pain and pleasure unthinkable in this world. In Asamatsu Ken’s 1993 Kun’yan no jō (Queen of K’n-Yan), an investigation into the DNA sequence of a Shang Dynasty mummy is interrupted when the corpse reveals itself to be a shape-shifting alien queen who embodies not only the horrors of a subterranean alien world, but also deep-rooted hostility regarding Japan’s mid-twentieth-century aggressions against China.

These and other texts demonstrate a propensity to deploy figures that are identified as feminine as a means of dismantling (often quite literally) characters that are in some way aligned with conventional models of masculinity. In all of the works named above, men are exposed for their personal and cultural transgressions; in the process, however, the feminine takes on an even more nightmarish form in the interest of thoroughly tipping the scales in favour of chaos. I do not imply here that there is no value beyond that of entertainment in such revenge fantasies—contrarily, such narratives can, I think, have productive outcomes by exposing the obscured mechanisms that keep social and political hierarchies intact, as well as by articulating the possibility of their subversion. What I suggest, however, is that these works illustrate the prevailing tendency in contemporary Japanese science fiction to fall back on antagonistic portrayals of femininity even in the process of attempting to interrogate the status quo.

By contrast, Zeusu no ori permits male characters to serve as the primary agents in exposing their own deficiencies. Returning to the incident described above, it is Harding who shoulders the responsibility for the failure of the relationship, having engaged in an extended fantasy predicated on the disavowal of Veritas’s male attributes and, in the end, rejected the Round in an aggressive display of hostility. As Judith Butler writes,

the heterosexual presumption of the symbolic domain is that apparently inverted identifications will effectively and exclusively signal abjection rather than pleasure, or signal abjection without at once signaling the possibility of a pleasurable insurrection against the law or erotic turning of the law against itself. The presumption is that the law will constitute sexed subjects along the heterosexual divide to the extent that its threat of punishment effectively instills fear, where the object of fear is figured by homosexualised abjection (1992, p. 110).

Reflecting his deeply entrenched feelings of misogyny and homophobia, Harding’s fear of emasculation—expressed in his refusal to subject himself to being loved as a woman—nicely illustrates Butler’s comment. Here we do witness a momentary destabilisation of the phallic order whereby the self-identified man, confronted by the possibility of what he views to be a feminising homosexual encounter, derives pleasure from the act of skirting taboo. Unable to extricate himself from the perceived crisis of his own desire, however, Harding altogether rejects the erotic potentialities of the act itself, employing humiliation and, ultimately, violence as a means of severing ties with Veritas and re-positioning himself within the established bounds of heterosexual masculinity.

In order to explicate a second way in which Ueda engages critically with established genre tropes, I will now explore one of the novel’s most complex characters, a Monaural woman named Karina Majella. A mercenary hired by the Vessel of Life to help put an end to the genetic experimentation involving the Rounds, Karina is first introduced to the reader as a biological researcher whose mysteriously violent former life designates her an ideal candidate for the task of infiltrating and releasing a plague upon the Round community. Despite her recent commitment to non-violence, Karina reluctantly agrees to participate in the conspiracy when her future employer threatens to destroy the fruits of her scientific labour. As the novel progresses the details of Karina’s hidden past come to light, and we learn that she had spent her childhood and teenage years reluctantly involved with a political terrorist organisation known as Libra. Karina had shown great promise as a solider; in adulthood, however, she had thoroughly rejected her former identity—even going so far as to alter her facial features many times over—as well as distancing herself from political ideologies. Importantly, the figure of Karina was inspired by Ueda’s viewing of a television documentary on the subject of child soldiers. “I remember wondering what these children might hope for if they should survive the war,” Ueda stated in an interview with Charles Tan. “No matter how brilliant the ideology or how magnificent the new society that grown-ups end up creating, these child soldiers would see it all as nothing more than an illusion built on the bloodied corpses of the weak” (The World SF Blog, 2011).

After an extensive period spent working undercover as an employee of the space station inhabited by the Rounds, the Vessel of Life puts its plot into action. In the process, Karina experiences a dramatic reversion to her former mentality and finds herself once again reveling in the violence of warfare. The most exemplary scene in this regard unfolds after Karina captures Fortia, the leader of the Rounds. “Seeing people like you makes me want to tear you all to shreds,” Karina tells the Round. “If I were a man, I would rape you right now.” “Too bad, eh? You’re a Monaural woman,” Fortia replies. “You don’t have the equipment to make love to me” (Ueda 2004, p. 180). Karina subsequently rips off Fortia’s clothes, explores her external genitalia, then rapes her:

Karina bent over Fortia and forcefully pressed her lips against eirs. Gritting eir teeth, Fortia resisted. Her tongue moving leisurely like that of a cat, Karina slowly licked Fortia’s lips. Then, as one would do with a sexual partner, she put her hand between Fortia’s thighs. Fortia screamed as though ey’d been struck with a hot iron. Ey tried to fend Karina off with all eir might. (Ueda 2004, p. 181)

In a novel in which, as I will address shortly, nearly every other character identified as a woman is depicted to be positively affected by encounters with the Rounds, how might we account for Karina’s behaviour?

Significantly, Karina is the only character in Zeusu no ori who represents a cyborgic figure in the more traditional sense—that is, a character that is part flesh, part machine. Having sustained a series of near-fatal injuries throughout her childhood and teenage years in Libra, Karina had gradually replaced nearly all of her limbs with prosthetic ones. Moreover, she is also equipped with a neural inhibitor capable of manipulating the sensory neuron receptors that transmit pain impulses to the brain. Severed from the reality of her physical form, Karina prevails in a series of shootouts and escape attempts throughout the course of the novel. She also employs her body as a means of infecting the Round community with a parasitic machine designed to fix each member’s sex. Karina’s cyborgic features, in other words, grant her a major advantage in times of warfare.

In her seminal essay on cyborg subjectivity, Donna Haraway contends that the rise of cybernetic technologies might initiate a collapse of the troubling dualisms, “self/other, mind/body, culture/nature, male/female, civilised/primitive, reality/appearance, whole/part, agent/resource, maker/made, active/passive, right/wrong, truth/illusion, total/partial, God/man,” according to which modern private and public relations operate (1991, p. 177). In Japan, however, narratives that fully realise Haraway’s dream of “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries” (1991, p. 150) are far outweighed by those in which boundary transgression gives rise to personal and cultural catastrophes. As Stephen Brown notes in his reading of Tsukamoto Shin’ya’s seminal 1989 cyberpunk film Tetsuo, for instance, while the salaryman’s transmutation into a hybrid flesh-metal body entails a number of positive implications, the film ultimately foregrounds the negative ones. “Such transformation,” Brown explains, “is marked by the release of dark forces, desires, and fears, the abjection of the body (both the protagonist’s own and others with whom he comes into contact), as well as the loss of identity in which the self becomes other as the body undergoes radical change” (2010, p. 78).

Sharalyn Orbaugh likewise touches on the pessimistic flavour of many contemporary Japanese science fiction narratives, honing in on the manner in which assumptions concerning gender have been deployed to add a second dimension of fear to pop cultural representations of the technological sphere, and particularly to images of the cyborg. Treating two highly successful mid-nineties anime series—Shin Seiki Evangerion (Neon Genesis Evangelion, 1994-95) and Kōkaku kidōtai (Ghost in the Shell, 1995)—Orbaugh offers a deeply compelling analysis of how bodily penetration and permeability are explored through images of phallic plugs, yonic entry points, and womblike capsules that enable both bodily invasion and what Orbaugh terms “inter-corporation” (2002, p. 442). Orbaugh views such imagery as anticipating the failure of social institutions designed to maintain a modernist model of autonomous male subjectivity vis-à-vis the eruption of the repressed feminine body into the realm of culture.

In her attempt to reconsider gender representation in cyberpunk within a uniquely Japanese cultural context, Kumiko Sato similarly focuses on images of the cyborg body. Through readings of two novels—Kanbayashi Chōhei’s 1984 Sentō yōsei yukikaze (Battle Fairy Yukikaze) and Noa Azusa’s 1991 Baberu no kaori (The Flower of Babel)—she argues that the emergence of female cyborgs in Japanese cyberpunk represents a symptom of Japan’s struggle with its dual subjectivity in the wake of Westernisation. “Strong female cyborgs and androids so dominant in recent Japanese science fiction,” she concludes, “are actually presented as referencing signifiers of the empty subject at the centre, who is often embodied in the form of a passive, powerless male character” (2004, p. 353).

Tatsumi Takayuki addresses more extensively Japanese science fiction’s technophilic propensities in terms of globalisation, emphasising the extent to which the East-West binary has informed the genre. Coining the term “Japanoid,” Tatsumi describes a kind of national techno-subjectivity that is rooted in the global imagination of Japan as a technotopia, and which emerges in the form of human-machine hybrids across a spectrum of Japanese science fiction narratives (1993). Ueno Toshiya identifies a similar phenomenon, emphasising the role of global capitalism in perpetuating what he terms “Techno-Orientalism”—a kind of “mirror stage” that has both enabled the West’s perpetual misrecognition of “an always illusory” Japanese culture and hindered Japan’s own self-understanding (2002, p. 229). Moreover, he argues, Japanese animation has served to reinforce cyberpunk imaginings of Eastern nations as futuristic technoscapes, illustrating “the mutation of global capitalism itself by appropriating the illusion of Asia or Japan” (2002, p. 231).

It is also important to note that one of the defining features of many Japanese science fiction narratives is what Braidotti describes as the “trans-humanist fantasy of escape from the finite materiality of the enfleshed self” (2013, p. 91). This so-called “contempt for the flesh” (a phrase derived from William Gibson’s seminal 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer) is explored in a number of Japanese texts in which characters are enabled to transcend the confines of their own bodies in order to re-map their identities within the immaterial context of cyberspace. And, as illustrated by such works as Takeno Masato’s 1989 novella Yamada-san nikki (The Yamada Diary) and the 1998 anime series Shiriaru ekusuperimentsu Rein (Serial Experiments Lain),this form of experience is frequently depicted as one entailing shock, whether brought about by the vertiginous pleasures of shape-shifting and networking or, on the other hand, one’s realisation of the eminent possibility of a short-circuit.

While many Japanese writers and filmmakers have thus envisioned the bionic body, on the one hand, and cyberspace, on the other, as humankind’s final frontier, the prominent image of the biomechanical hybrid, although profoundly transgressive of modern conceptualisations of the body as a self-contained entity, is frequently rendered as a site of crisis. Moreover, while in Haraway’s view the cyborg embodies the potential to transcend categories such as gender and national identity, as the other critics cited above suggest, in Japan (and elsewhere) the assumption of sexual dimorphism and the reality of dissolving geo-political borders have long maintained a critical role in articulating the fears experienced by science fictional characters faced with the possibility of transformation into the other.

Through the character of Karina Ueda elaborates on widely explored anxieties concerning the erasure of the body vis-à-vis the rise of technology, while also interrogating the logic dictating that female/feminised cyborgs necessarily pose a challenge to hegemonic masculinity. This is not to say that Karina does not possess certain qualities that identify her as an iconoclastic character; as a biologist, a soldier, and, finally, a human-machine hybrid, she poses a triple-threat to the assumption that the spheres of science, warfare, and technology are the provinces of men. Even more interesting, however, is the novel’s emphasis on the ways in which Karina’s attempt to overcome the limitations of the human form ultimately lead to a restoration of the very conditions she had hoped to transcend.

In Karina’s view, her technologically enhanced form grants her absolute self-determination, enabling her to act in the service of her own ethical principles while avoiding a replay of the suffering she experienced as a child soldier forced by her own mother to kill on behalf of a notorious terrorist organisation. Yet in reality, Karina is increasingly subjugated to her cyborgic body, which represents a site imbued with violent potentiality. One defining feature of Karina’s character, for example, is her affinity for St. Gerard Majella, the patron saint of motherhood (an association that is further reinforced by the fact that Karina’s last name is also Majella). When the Round children begin to die off as an unintended result of the parasitic machine Karina has carried into the special district, it becomes clear that her own will has been undermined by that of her body, unexpectedly transformed into a genocidal organ through its incorporation and dissemination of the potentially fatal disease. By the end of the novel, it would appear as though Karina’s body has become a total other, betraying even the woman’s own sense of herself as an authentic being: “Her body, chemically altered to extinguish her pain,” explains the narrator, “felt entirely artificial” (Ueda 2004, p. 243).

In her foundational text on posthumanist theory, Hayles makes a compelling case for viewing posthumanism as an extension of the liberal humanist project, noting that these traditions share an emphasis on cognition over embodiment. “Indeed,” she writes,

one could argue that the erasure of embodiment is a feature common to both the liberal humanist subject and the cybernetic posthuman. Only because the body is not identified with the self is it possible to claim for the liberal subject its notorious universality, a claim that depends on erasing markers of bodily difference, including sex, race, and ethnicity (1999, pp. 4-5).

Perhaps more than any other scene in the novel, Karina’s rape of Fortia demonstrates the astronomical personal and social costs of the erasure of embodiment by making the reader a witness to the shocking re-materialisation of that which has been de-materialised. By severing her scarred limbs and dulling her synaptic pathways, Karina attempts to efface her “natural” body, inscribed with the collective trauma of her early life. Yet this trauma, we find, increasingly threatens to explode from within Karina’s seemingly perfected form when she is confronted by the hostile resurgence of the repressed memories of her childhood. It is finally Fortia’s suggestion that Karina, by virtue of her femaleness, lacks access to the male prerogative of rape that provides Karina with a renewed sense of the manner in which her own embodied experience has shaped her existence. Yet Karina disavows the profound connections between her own lived trauma and the systematic oppression of the Rounds, enacting her desire to violate the female component of Fortia’s body—and in the process negate her own femininity—through an act of penetration. This scene both draws attention to and plays out the dire consequences of an identity political schema wherein, as feminist critic Takemura Kazuko writes, “in order for excluded woman, whose voice goes unheard, to engage in dialogue with a man, she must speak in the guise of man. In other words, to communicate with men, she must appropriate the language of ‘men,’ must become like a man” (Takemura 2002, pp. 294-95).

It is only in the final pages of the novel, after Karina has left a trail of corpses in her wake, that she begins to come to terms with the impossibility of evading her past. Her realisation, however, comes too late. As she attempts to escape the space station Karina sustains a fatal wound and, the neural inhibitors that had previously dulled her pain having worn off, is reduced to a bloodied, writhing animal first as a spear penetrates her chest, and then as two bullets enter the back of her neck. As the cumulative pain of all of Karina’s wounds—emotional and physiological—comes surging forth, the violence she has inflicted on others throughout her lifetime is redirected inwards. In this way, Karina’s desire for self-preservation—enacted through her participation in a cycle of violence designed to eliminate bodies marked by difference—gives way to a drive toward self-annihilation.

Karina’s plotline thus illuminates both the dangers of hegemonic masculinity and the shortcomings of cyborgian solutions to gender injustice. Moreover, this character speaks to the failure of cyborg politics as a viable mechanism for addressing real historical and present-day issues, revealing how the suppression of materiality in favour of an “always illusory” veneer forecloses the possibilities of traumatic resolution, empathetic encounter, and a meaningful sense of selfhood. Karina thus demonstrates psychoanalytic critic Bracha Ettinger’s contention that “if difference remains caught unavoidably and exclusively in oppositions, disintegrated into endless particles or ignored by the pretense of sameness, the risk is that it will continue to threaten, terrorise, and destroy the fabric of our inner and political worlds” (2008, p. 182).

Radical Embodiment: Sexuality, Severality, and Heterogeneous Desire

Having explored how Zeusu no ori exposes the limits of some of Japanese science fiction’s most prevalent tropes, I will turn now to a consideration of how Ueda, through a return to the flesh, constructs an alternative and more affirmative vision of posthuman subjectivity. In particular, I will examine the themes of love, eroticism, and reproduction in the novel, focusing on a selection of key scenes that elaborate the frameworks of the Round sexual economy, familial structure, and social schema. In doing so, I will argue that Ueda advances a radically new vision of posthuman identity that is predicated upon what might be described, to borrow again from Ettinger, as an affective mode of “joining-in-difference” (2008, p. 142).

To begin, I will consider a connection between Zeusu no ori and a rather unlikely source, Aristophanes’ speech on love from Plato’s 4th century BCE philosophical treatise Symposium. “Possessing functional reproductive organs of both genders,” writes Zeusu no ori’s narrator, “the Rounds were the kind of virile beings envisioned by Plato” (Ueda 2004, p. 117). In Plato’s text, Aristophanes describes the beings in question as follows:

And first let me treat of the nature and state of man; for the original human nature was not like the present, but different. In the first place, the sexes were originally three in number, not two as they are now; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature; this once had a real existence, but is now lost, and the name only is preserved as a term of reproach (1993, p. 15).

This account continues, explaining also that primeval man was round, comprised of twice the number of appendages we now possess, as well as of two faces set upon one neck and facing opposite directions. The gods, threatened by the will and strength of these beings, found themselves in need of a solution to the spectre of an impending coup. And, Aristophanes claims, it is Zeus who ultimately brought an end to the threat of humanity by cleaving each of its members in two in order that their power might also be halved. “After the division the two parts of man,” Aristophanes states,

each desiring his other half, came together, and threw their arms about one another eager to grow into one, and would have perished from hunger without ever making an effort, because they did not like to do anything apart… so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man (1993, pp. 16-17).

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud references the events described in Plato’s work as an example of what he views to be a driving force in the development of sexual instincts—namely, “the necessity for the reinstatement of an earlier situation” (1922, p. 74). Freud’s emphasis on the role of original unity in formulating libidinal desire is reflective of psychoanalysis’s grander preoccupation with regression, that is, with a compulsion toward repetition, and especially that of the subject’s traumatic split from the mother during the infantile stages of development. While Ueda’s depictions of Round physicality and sexuality do entail several striking parallels with Aristophanes’ conceptualisation of original human nature, her novel impedes any attempt to understand these characters’ desire in the terms set forth by Freud. In fact, I contend, through the figures of the Rounds, Ueda seeks to frustrate the concept of origins in the traditional sense by conceiving of beings who are constituted not by an Oedipal split, but, conversely, through their participation in a kind of enlarged, co-affecting subjectivity.

In exploring this notion I will briefly elaborate the work of two critics: the aforementioned psychoanalytic theorist Bracha Ettinger and queer theorist Sudeep Dasgupta. In her groundbreaking work The Matrixial Borderspace (2008), Ettinger elaborates the concept of “subjectivity-as-encounter,” which poses a radical challenge to phallocentric conceptualisations of identity. Ettinger develops this model with reference to the late prenatal period of fetal development, that is, to a moment prior to the infant’s denial of the maternal womb. Like Lacan, Ettinger identifies this phase as one in which the subject-to-be, uninhibited by incest taboos, is affectively linked to another, with whom s/he shares the status of part-subject, part-object, and onto whom s/he inscribes traces of her trauma, phantasy, and desire while being inscribed with the m/Other’s same. Yet while conventional psychoanalytic thought conceives of the infant’s passage into culture in terms of a break with the maternal, Ettinger contends that this state persists in the post-natal world as an affective paradigm which

concerns the subjectivising process of several partial-subjects who cannot be entirely thought apart from their encounter as subject-subject, rather than as only subject/object, and in a way that it is impossible by definition, and not only as a result of any previous assumption, to reach absence without presence, presence without absence. Under the matrixial dimension of subjectivity, severality is originary (2008, p. 36).

In his own work, Dasgupta fuses Ettinger’s re-conceptualisation of the womb as a site of relationality with queer theoretical considerations of subjectivity. Referencing the writings of Lee Edelman, Leo Bersani, and Tim Dean, Dasgupta stresses that while queer theoretical discussions of same-sex intercourse widely figure such forms of encounter as a way of “thinking beyond a self-enclosed subject” through the relational mode, these same models frequently position the rectum as a space serving not so much as a passageway between selves as a receptacle that, through the act of sodomy (and especially bare-backing), “instantiates the death-drive and the shattering of the self” (2009, p. 3).

In an attempt to move beyond considerations of the rectum as a site of anonymity and fatality—and thus the act of penetration as a movement toward self-dissolution—Dasgupta suggests that Ettinger’s concern with relationality “might help re-direct the focus on deconstructing subjectivity in queer theory, broadening out the latter’s emphasis on self-shattering toward a politics based on forging alliances and a being-together between several selves rather than individual dissolution and dissipation” (2009, p. 4). While Dasgupta’s essay aims specifically to rethink subjectivity within the context of male homosexual encounter, I contend that his overarching concern with the forging of alliances can be extended also to the erotic potentialities embodied by the sexually fluid figures of the Rounds.

Consider, for example, a scene that appears relatively early in the novel, and in which the male Monaurals’ reactions to the Rounds are starkly contrasted with the perceptions of two female Monaurals named Shiohara and Ogata:

The men were curious about the female part of the Rounds, but they also felt resistance toward the male part. However they felt about transgendered persons, it seemed wrong for two sexes to exist simultaneously in one body. Shiohara and Ogata were different. The notion of a masculine Round possessing a female physiology wasn’t a deterrent… The two found themselves chatting about what kind of relationship they would have if they were to fall in love with a Round (Ueda 2004, pp. 79-80).

In her attempt to move beyond the schema of conventional psychoanalysis Ettinger elaborates her concept of the matrix, which, she writes, “intertwines the woman as between subject and object and between centre and nothingness, on the axis of heterogeneous severality; the phallus posits her as either a subject in the masculine format or an object patterned on masculine desire, and which can be reduced to nothing” (2008, p. 112). Juxtaposing the reductive tendencies of the phallocentric heterosexual matrix with her notion of the matrixial as a site of severality, Ettinger offers a fruitful way of thinking about Ueda’s articulation of desire in the gendered terms deployed above. In the case of the male-bodied characters, we witness here the subject’s tendency to reduce the other to a projection of his own desire, thereby evading the potential for the “self-shattering” described by Dasgupta by abjecting that which, to borrow from Julia Kristeva, “disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (1982, p. 4). By contrast, the female members of the crew register minimal anxiety when confronted by the Rounds, instead finding themselves intrigued by the prospect of a re-signified form of erotic encounter.

Sex between Rounds is likewise depicted as a form of relating that is largely unthinkable within the confines of the human libidinal economy. This contrast is most pronounced in Ueda’s depiction of the relationship between Calendula and Tygris, who represent the first set of Round parents encountered by the space station’s Monaural team members. Surprised to discover that the pair’s two offspring are not twins but, rather, children born around the same time—one from each parent’s womb—a man named Arino inquires as to the difference between Monaural ovulation, termed “voluntary ovulation,” and Round ovulation, termed “reflex ovulation.” “In reflex ovulation, the amount of time between stimulation of the cervix and the beginning of ovulation differs depending on the animal,” Tygris explains.

For example, it’s ten hours for hares, but in the case of Rounds, it’s about a week after. In cases in which sex isn’t consensual, ovulation may not begin until around a month later. Since the pituitary gland is easily influenced by psychological factors, stress can delay ovulation. As we continue to have sex with a satisfactory partner, ovulation becomes synchronous, and simultaneous pregnancy occurs (Ueda 2004, p. 86).

This passage again emphasises the vital relationship between the mind and body, while continuing to develop a schema of eroticism that challenges the dominant heterosexual matrix. Divorced from conventional models of sexual relations, Round sex is not gratifying because it re-enforces hierarchies through the sublimation of one partner or the other to an object of desire; rather, it would seem, the pleasure—as well as the productivity—of Round sex directly correlates to the intensity of the psychological and physical bonds linking each participant with the other.

 Pregnancy, childbearing, and parenthood within the Round community must also be understood in terms other than those commonly deployed. As noted, in the work of Freud the subject is constituted by a split from the mother, and thereafter experiences at the psychic level a repetition-compulsion whose pleasure is located in the rediscovery of identity (1922, p. 43). Lacan likewise figures subject development in terms of loss, situating the mother as an object toward which we are eternally driven and, yet, eternally forbidden by the law of the father. Within the schema of Round relations, however, the very dichotomies upon which such conceptualisations of the psychic plane rely break down. And, in their place, there comes to light an alternative vision of becoming in which both parents share in the experience of the so-called maternal functions of pregnancy and nurturing, as well as in the purportedly paternal function of initiating the child into the grander cultural sphere. Thus, here identity is constituted not through the process of exclusion, but, contrastingly, through one’s birth out of and into a familial dynamic predicated upon non-hierarchical, mutually affecting forms of desire. This transgression of traditionally conceived gender roles represents a challenge not only to conventional psychoanalytic models of subjectivity, but also to domestic identity politics in Japan, where many neoconservatives remain invested in the narrative that, as prominent feminist thinker Ueno Chizuko succinctly phrases it, “If you are not raising children, you are an enemy of the state” (2008, p. 74).

While Round reproduction is naturally depicted as vital to the survival of the species, it is crucial to note that Round sexuality is also linked to diverse forms of play. Consider an early scene in which Harding, while discussing Round sexuality, compares these figures to two other animals that are simultaneously hermaphroditic, sea hares and snails:

When sea hares mate they form a long link, with any number of them connected back to front. One puts its male organ in the female organ of the sea hare in front of it, while its own female organ is entered by the male organ of the sea hare behind. This is referred to as a “mating chain.” Snails mate in a similar way. But they face each other, so that each can insert its male organ into the other’s female organ. The Rounds are the same way… It ain’t right. Any group that that can so nonchalantly do something like that hasn’t any right to call themselves human (Ueda 2004, p. 39).

While Harding’s comparison of the Rounds to these mollusks concludes on a highly derogatory note, it is interesting to think about the more positive implications of his remark. Ethology specialist Jonathan Peter Balcombe, for example, contends that animal sex, far from serving exclusively reproductive purposes, is also characterised by pleasure. “Most of us are taught to believe that sex is merely an instinctive act for animals,” he writes. “Not so. Animal sex is versatile, opportunistic, and sometimes creative” (2011, p. 89). One would be hard-pressed to argue that the mollusk rituals described by Harding lack versatility or creativity, and it is precisely this reality that leads to his suggestion that Round sex represents a form of perversion. Yet from a different perspective, this comparison might also be said affirmatively to depict a sexual economy in which relations are not foregrounded in the reducibility of subjects to the roles of active and passive on the basis of their genitalia, but rather in heterogeneous configurations of desire.

This component of Round sexuality is more fully elaborated through the novel’s depiction of a character named Tei, who serves as a mediator between the Round and Monaural communities. Tei, we learn, possesses unique genital characteristics, with eir penis and vagina being positioned in a formation opposite that of the other Rounds. “With no fear or anxiety, Tei embraced her adolescent years,” explains the narrator. “When ey had tried to make love with another—more for the purpose of communication rather than procreation—ey had realised that eir own body was slightly different from everyone else’s” (Ueda 2004, p. 41). The result of a chance genetic mutation, Tei’s unusual genital configuration is initially disconcerting to em; however, ey soon begins to embrace eir unique physical features. “Because people like me are also necessary,” Tei tells Karina when the woman asks why ey elected not to correct eir condition with surgery. “If there is no one whose characteristics differ from everyone else, Round society will become homogenous and eventually reach an impasse” (Ueda 2004, p. 209).

Being In-Between: Posthuman Subjectivity as Co-Becoming

I will now employ Tei’s comment as an opportunity to enlarge this discussion of the erotic and reproductive schemas of Round relations into a broader consideration of the trope of the “hybrid” or the “in-between.” As Brian Massumi notes, theories privileging notions of hybridity exhibit a tendency to articulate the in-between as a

blending or parody of the always-already positioned. Social change is spatially relegated to precarious geographical margins, where unauthorised positional permutations bubble up from the fermenting mixture. Even more precariously, in the case of theories of subjectivity as performance, change is confined to sites whose “marginality” is defined less by location than the evanescence of a momentary parodic rupture or “subversion” (2002, p. 69).

Such a construction of the hybrid or metamorphosing body is one premise of Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, in which the author, drawing on the work of Chela Sandoval, cites “women of colour” as an exemplary model of cyborg praxis by virtue of their participation in what she describes as a form of “liminal transformation” (1991, p. 177).

In her extensive study of feminist politics in global science fiction narratives, Kotani Mari highlights some of the ways in which artists have conceived of characters that challenge established gender and/or sexual norms as occupying a peripheral, or, in psychoanalytic terms, repressed, dimension of culture. In doing so, she develops the term “tekuno-gaineeshisu” (techno-gynesis). Derived from Alice Jardine’s concept of gynesis, techno-gaineeshisu concerns the ways in which “the unconscious world of a self that is not human but, rather, technological” has come to be aligned (both negatively and affirmatively) with a feminine, or at least not-conventionally-masculine, subject position (1994, p. 230).

Other writers have taken a somewhat different approach to exploring the possibility of liminal transgression against the status quo by eschewing the anxiety-inducing images typical of cyborg and alien narratives in favour of separatist utopias in which women are altogether cut off from male-dominated culture. Matsuo Yumi’s 1994 novel Barūn taun no satsujin (The Murder of Balloon Town), for example, imagines what Kotani describes as a “marginal blind spot” in which pregnant women seek solace from patriarchal society in order to embrace the transformations of their own bodies and experience childbirth naturally (2002, p. 403). Arai Motoko’s 1999 Chigurisu to Yūfuratesu (Tigris and Euphrates) likewise unfolds within the confines of a “temporary space” dedicated to female bodily transformation, and specifically the process of the young woman’s passage from adolescence to adulthood (2002, p. 403).

While Zeusu no ori shares several features with these and other works of feminist science fiction, what I argue here is that the novel also challenges dominant theoretical and fictional delineations of the in-between. As I have demonstrated thus far, the paradigm of subjectivity developed by Ueda is one that is embedded first and foremost in relationality. In my view, Ueda’s radical vision of the posthuman subject not only urges us to reconsider the primacy of conventional models of identity, but also seeks to grant legitimacy to the in-between by elaborating a cultural economy in which, as Massumi writes, “individuals and societies are not only empirically inseparable, they are strictly simultaneous and consubstantial” (2002, p. 71).

Consider once again the figure of Tei, who is marked as a kind of marginal character not only by virtue of possessing a distinctive genital configuration, but also owing to eir unique position as the sole mediator occupying the “gray zone” (Ueda 2004, p. 303) between the Round and Monaural communities. Ueda’s depiction of this character is remarkable in that it manages both to illuminate the material difficulties of inhabiting a body that does not align with any established set of norms while also construing this same body as desirable not only in terms of the Round sexual economy, but also within the broader schema of Round society. To broaden this discussion out even further, one could even say that by virtue of eir difference Tei is cast as occupying a vital role in the course of human evolutionary history.

In evolutionary theory, so-called adaptive features are viewed to be ones built by natural selection in order to fulfill their current role. Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth S. Vrba have addressed the flip-side of this coin, advancing the term “exaptation” to describe features that did not initially arise to serve a certain purpose, but which have since been co-opted to the advantage of those who possess them. “Flexibility lies in the pool of features available for co-optation,” they write. “The paths of evolution—both the constraints and the opportunities—must be largely set by the size and nature of this pool of potential exaptations. Exaptive possibilities define the ‘internal’ contribution that organisms make to their own evolutionary future” (1982, p. 13).

Gould and Vrba’s remarks can inform a nuanced understanding of Tei’s suggestion that eir physical makeup, while not conducive to the typical manner in which Round sex unfolds, represents a valuable asset in the course of human evolutionary history. More pointedly, while, as noted, it is tempting to read Tei as marginal owing to both her apparent handicap and her role as mediator between the Round and Monaural communities, as the following comment made by a Monaural named Prescott suggests, by virtue of her difference this particular character might instead be understood as leading the charge to overcome humankind’s obstinate, and even self-destructive, insistence on the body’s sacrosanctity:

We’re tied to the parts of our nature that keep us earthbound. And why? No matter how far we’ve come, our Earthian ways remain. So long as we hold onto our Earthly bodies, rather than adapt to gravity, we will indefinitely alter the space environment to render it habitable… We’re not Martians or Jovians. We’re Earthlings that live on Mars and Jupiter. This body holds us captive. Like a cage, it impedes our psychological growth (Ueda 2004, p. 19).

Further to illustrate this point I draw a connection between Zeusu no ori and another text that deploys evolutionary theory in an endeavour to present an affirmative vision of posthuman becoming: Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, which was first published between 1987 and 1989. As Eric White remarks in his reading of Xenogenesis, through her depiction of the Oankali race, Butler “imagines a revised economy of repetition and difference in which difference is neither persecuted as a threat to identity nor interpreted as subordinate in an attempt to justify a desire for primacy but in which repetition also finds a new legitimation” (1993, p. 406). Of course, there are a number of marked differences between Butler’s trilogy and Zeusu no ori. Perhaps most notably, Butler’s alien colonisers are, in the eyes of the human beings to whom they awaken following their capture, unmistakably other; by contrast, Ueda’s Rounds bear such an uncanny resemblance to members of the Monaural community that they are distinguishable only upon close inspection of their genitalia. Nevertheless, I contend that White’s observation concerning repetition and difference in Butler’s work can be extended to a consideration of Zeusu no ori. Like Butler’s Oankali, Tei, far from being excluded from the Round community on the basis of eir difference, is positively identified as a primary agent of biological transformation. In turn, ey is also positioned as an agent of social change, tasked with strengthening the fragile ties that hold together Round-Monaural relations and, by extension, ensuring humanity’s long-term survival in a limitless cosmos in which the subject is grounded only through interdependent relations with other members of the human community.

Zeusu no ori seeks to depict an ethos of relationality as vital to the future of humanity in other respects, as well. In the moments prior to Karina’s rape of Fortia, for example, the Round explains to her captor that “in order to tackle unanticipated dangers with limited resources and people, it’s preferable that the staff exists as a giant organism with a shared consciousness. Like a Portuguese man-of-war, able to survive even if a part of it is cut off” (Ueda 2004, p. 179). It should be noted at this juncture that Ueda’s Rounds have very little in common with, say, the antagonistic, hive-minded Borg of the Star Trek universe. That is, they strive to enlarge the human community not through assimilation but, rather, through diversification. One might even say that they function less like an integrated circuit than as a discrete one, in which each subject is, in Ettinger’s words, “from its emergence several, joint-in-separateness, distant-in-proximity” (2008, p. 27).

 “Articulating change in a way that retains a necessary reference to the already-constituted preserves a crucial role for formations of power and marks a refusal of spontaneism or voluntarism,” Massumi writes.

The problem arises when no way is provided to conceptualise the in-between as having a logical consistency, and even an ontological status, of its own. The necessary connection to the already-constituted then becomes a filiative dependence to which the “subversion” must continually return in order to re-engender itself. The foundation eternally returns (2002, pp. 70-71).

Continuing, Massumi argues for the importance of granting a logical consistency to the in-between by “realigning with a logic of relation.” It is only by doing so, he claims, that the discussion may be “diverted from an addiction to foundation and its negation to an engagement with change as such, with the unfounded and unmediated in-between of becoming” (2002, pp. 70-71).

In Zeusu no ori, Ueda conceives of a space that, rather than relegating bodies that differ to the margins of culture, assembles these same bodies at the centre of a speculative vision of humanity’s future. This vision is articulated through the development of an economy of desire in which selfhood is not threatened by the prospect of what Kristeva describes as “being swamped by the dual relationship” (1982, p. 64), but rather is sustained by co-affective exchanges with others. In this respect Ueda’s novel might be said to elaborate what White describes as an “erotics of becoming,” and in doing so to begin to rectify that which Orbaugh views as lacking within the grander corpus of contemporary Japanese science fiction narratives (and particularly science fiction anime): the representation of cyborg sexuality as something that may be experienced in a “pleasurable, fully post-gendered way” (2002, p. 449).

This is not to say that Ueda’s vision of the future is utopic—contrarily, in its elaboration on the fears that arise when humankind is confronted by the eminent collapse of its perceived ontological and socio-political foundations, the novel is incontrovertibly bleak. “This station is a cage,” Tei remarks. “A cage designed to imprison the Rounds. To separate and distance us from the Monaurals, to create the illusion that we do not exist… For the Rounds, Jupiter-I is the cage of Zeus” (Ueda 2004, pp. 97-98). Tei’s assessment of the setting in which Zeusu no ori unfolds serves to reinforce the novel’s overarching focus on the Round community as occupying a liminal position within the schema of human society. Yet while the Rounds are, for the foreseeable future, relegated to the special district—which rests in the borderspace between the Monaural domain and the heretofore unexplored universe beyond—the novel concludes with a tone of cautious optimism through yet another appeal to the figure of Tei, whose birth name, Lanterna, as well as her Chinese name, Tei 灯, mean “light”: “Perhaps Lanterna was too small to light humanity’s journey into the cosmos,” the narrator remarks. “But anything was better than nothing. Much better” (Ueda 2004, p. 303).

Ultimately, Zeusu no ori moves beyond a politics of subversion to arrive at one of generativity. Like a great deal of Japanese and global science fiction, Ueda’s novel offers a nuanced critique of the regulatory mechanisms and institutions that inform contemporary social and political life. Beyond this, however, the novel also devises an alternative vision of an enlarged subjectivity in which identity remains socially contingent, yet is not produced through exclusionary processes. Moreover, Zeusu no ori stands apart from much contemporary science fiction in that its radical movement away from the so-called normative body does not entail a form of techno-rebirth. Rather, the novel constructs the body itself as a site of erotic interconnectivity, countering techno-apocalyptic visions of becoming-other with an affirmative vision of co-becoming.


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[1] My own translations maintain the use of gender-neutral pronouns as employed by Takami Nieda in her English-language translation of the novel. I have used “ey” in place of “he/she,” as prescribed by Christine M. Elverson. “Em” takes the place of “him/her” and “eir” takes the place of “his/her,” as prescribed by Michael Spivak. In the original Japanese text, Ueda altogether avoids pronouns when referring to the Rounds.

About the Author

Raechel Dumas recently earned her PhD from the University of Colorado at Boulder and is currently a lecturer in Japanese at the University of Colorado. Her research interests include Japanese genre fiction, gender and sexuality in Japanese literary history, and science and literature. Her dissertation, entitled “Echoes from the Other Side: Gender, Space, and Psyche in Contemporary Japanese Genre Fiction,” will form the basis for her first book project, which will explore spectral women in Japanese popular fiction and film.

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