I love how quickly Sterling conjures up an atmosphere of nineteenth-century Japan; you feel like you’re standing in the streets of Edo in just four short paragraphs. Politics and mood are deftly woven in when the protagonists walk from the old, dye-smelling streets into the red brick, Western-built part of the city.
Everything is suffused with the feeling of the old being uncomfortably replaced by new. The protagonists include a comedian who has learned to adapt his routine to include vaudeville and modern routines, an ex-samurai who is bereft of purpose, and an artist whose old business has collapsed and is struggling to find a new source of profit. He used to draw scenes of graphic violence for the underground market, but now:
“Modern people want to see what’s happening now! Take an old theme picture – Yorimitsu chopping an ogre’s arm off, for instance. Draw a thing like that today and it gets you nowhere. People’s tastes are more refined today. They want to see real cannonballs blowing off real arms. Like my eyewitness illustrations of the Battle of Ueno…”
While there is some nostalgia for the past there is also a hint of fascination at what the future seems to hold, and the tone wavers between pessimism and optimism throughout the story.
All this, a demon and a big fire. You can’t go wrong.
Flowers of Edo by Bruce Sterling
Availability: print only
Word count: 9,700
First published: Asimov’s May 1987
Where to find it: The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Fifth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois, 1994, St Martin’s Press
Modern Classics of Fantasy, edited by Gardner Dozois, 1997, St Martin’s Press
Ascendancies: The Best of Bruce Sterling, collection, 2007, Subterranean Press
Crystal Express, collection, 1991, Ace Books