In 2015, Haikasoru — a small press dedicated to importing Japanese fiction into the United States — published Taiyo Fujii’s first novel, Gene Mapper. It’s an intriguing book about biohacking and genetically modified crops, and ever since I finished it, I’ve been looking forward to his next book.
That novel is a futuristic thriller called Orbital Cloud, and in March, Haikasoru will publish it in English (translated by Timothy Silver) for the first time. When it came out in Japan in 2013, it earned the 2014 Seiun Award, Japan’s highest honor for science-fiction writing. It also won the 2014 Nihon SF Taisho Award, and took first prize in the "Best SF of 2014" contest in Japan’s SF Magazine.
In 2020, the owner of a shooting-star-tracking website called Meteor News sees some space debris moving strangely in orbit. Soon, he receives information from an Iranian scientist that puts him in the midst of a much larger conflict between major governments and titans of private space industry. As the ramifications of his discovery become clearer, a new orbital space hotel, a terrorist plot, and a military investigation all factor into the equation. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the book:
August 15, 2015
A Suburb of Tehran
A red van turned off the highway into a scrubby, rock-strewn field and came to a stop. The white “〒” symbol of Japan’s postal service visible on the door told of the repurposed vehicle’s origin. Its faded frame was riddled with patches of rust and large holes sealed with silver duct tape.
The figure in the driver’s seat coughed lightly several times as a cloud of sand swirled in through the crack between the window and the door. His face was hidden behind sunglasses and a baseball cap was pulled low over his eyes, but his smooth cheeks and thin mustache revealed that he was not yet thirty years old.
The young man pulled the scarf wrapped around his neck up to his nose, turned on the military radio in the driver’s seat, and held the receiver to his ear. After listening intently for a while, he tossed the receiver aside and began to murmur in a silly voice: “As-salamu alaykum. Peace be upon you, my brethren. It is now time for the weather report. The detestable Anjian unit is heading west from Tehran. All those living in its path, please be mindful of twenty-millimeter cannons and rockets overhead.” From beneath his scarf, the young man gave out a muffled laugh.
He had been listening to an unofficial program broadcast by an antigovernmental organization. Ever since the government had announced the date of the presidential election, it had been using the Anjian drones it had just purchased from China to eliminate suspected rebel groups. Their so-called triumphs in this campaign were reported almost daily, but the rumors that a certain percentage of those who lost their lives were regular people with no connection to the movement had not escaped the young man’s ears.
The young man knew just how he would appear through the shoddy lens of a drone’s camera, out here in the middle of this desolate field thirty miles west of Tehran, manipulating an all-too-suspicious device that emitted radio waves. The drone’s operator, sitting in some underground bunker in the city with bloodshot eyes eager for more “triumphs,” would surely fire a rocket at him without hesitation.
“I hope I’ve got the right timing,” the young man said, shifting the scarf he had just raised back down to the base of his neck and stroking his mustache. There was no way they’d be able to recognize his face through a drone’s camera, but they would be able to tell if he was trying to hide it. Taking off his glasses, he directed his dark-brown eyes to the smog drifting over the streets of Tehran and then to the cloudless blue sky spread out above it. He saw no glittering dots there and heard no engine sounds approaching. Hardly enough information to cure his uneasiness. “Inshallah. Come on. Tell me they won’t be coming. Just for one hour.”
The young man stepped slowly out of the van and went straight around to the rear. Flinging open the trunk, he took out a large, rolled‑up canvas tarp and dropped it onto the ground. He grimaced as a puff of sand danced up into his face and pulled the scarf he had just lowered back up to his nose. The young man then began to unroll the tarp behind the van but immediately found a small piece of wood caught inside and plucked it out. It was the twig of an olive tree.
“Oh, Alef… How could you use this for the harvest?” Spreading the tarp out on the ground, the young man slumped his shoulders in disappointment when he saw the appalling state it was in. Twigs and leaves were scattered all over its five-square-meter surface, and it was smeared with the crushed remains of olives. He had lent the tarp to his friend, Alef Kadiba, whose father owned a wealthy estate, after Alef had said he was going for a picnic. But the young man had never suspected for a moment that he was borrowing it to collect olives.
The young man knelt and began to pick away the mess bit by bit. Every time he moved, sweat dripped off him, making spots on the tarp that immediately evaporated under the searing sunlight and dry wind. Working in silence, he cast aside all the scraps he removed. “If my balloon pops because of this, you’ll be paying me back, Alef.”
When he had finished cleaning up, the young man took a bag of lime out of the trunk and sprinkled the white powder on top of the tarp with a shovel before evening it all out with his hands. This was to prevent the balloon from sticking to the tarp. His movements became increasingly fluid as he continued this task, the lime that misted upwards turning his arms and clothing all white.
Next, he carefully unfolded a big plastic sheet atop the tarp. This was a balloon designed to carry equipment for high-altitude weather observation. A tube extending from the trunk of the van was attached to the balloon’s base. The young man now sprinkled lime over the unfolded balloon as well.
“Please! Let there be no holes!” Putting together his sweaty, lime-dusted hands, he bowed his head to the heavens and raised his voice in prayer. What God would think of the challenge to his supremacy this experiment represented, he had no idea, but he had nothing to lose by praying. He then opened the valve of the helium tank laid on its side in the trunk, and first the tube, then the balloon, began to wriggle. Lime slid off the surface of the balloon. The young man bent down and cocked his ear toward the balloon, listening for any major leaks. Then, standing up straight again, he took out a scratched‑up smartphone from a pocket in his cargo pants, held down the home button for a few seconds, and set it by voice with the command, “Tell me when twenty minutes has passed.”
“The alarm has been set for twenty minutes,” his phone replied in excellent Persian.
“Now if I could just make calls with this…” The young man had acquired this smartphone, usually reserved for foreign businessmen, through his friend Alef, but his contract only allowed him to use it for data transfer, and even that had to be with government-approved service providers. He supposed he should feel grateful that he at least had permission to use a server that processed voice input.
Reaching deep into the trunk, he dragged out a tool kit and a boom box. “All right. You better keep working for me today,” he said. “I paid three hundred whole euros for you.”
Inside the tool kit was a roll of wire and two Tupperware containers. “Test device #42” was written on the lid of the tool kit in permanent marker. The young man carefully removed the containers and wire and placed them beside the balloon, which was beginning to expand. He then immediately began to untangle the wire, both ends of which were threaded through jagged holes that he had opened himself in the containers.
Picking up one of the containers, the young man opened the lid. Inside a vinyl chloride case, a homemade electronic circuit had been taped with red and blue wires connected point to point. With a power supply, radio, and gyro sensor inside, this was the controller. Installed in the other container was an electron gun, which he had scrounged up the last of his money to purchase. He inserted some AA batteries into one side of the circuit and turned on the boom box, which had been tuned to a specific frequency in advance. It began to emit a clear electronic beeping sound. “It works,” he muttered, as he sat on the edge of the trunk and took a bag of rolling tobacco from his thigh pocket.
“I guess for number 43 I could try attaching a switch…” He began to consider the design of his next experiment while rolling a pinch of tobacco in crinkled paper. He had spent the entire research budget that allowed him to work on his own projects months ago.
To conduct this launch, he had saved up by cutting down on his expenses, even food. If he had had the option, he would have preferred to use a rubber balloon like the ones people in developed countries used, not this heavy plastic one that was a nuisance to fold up. With a lightweight rubber balloon, he would have been able to carry the experimental craft up to an altitude of twenty-five, no, thirty miles.
The young man turned over his smartphone, still displaying the alarm countdown, and stroked the diamond-cut edge of its case. Apparently, one hundred million of these smartphone cases had been produced, and each one had been chiseled from a solid lump of aluminum with a laser. The fact that such a design not easily suited to mass production had been realized showed just how much the engineers involved were respected. If only he lived in a country that had technology like this, someone like him who worked exclusively on spacecraft propulsion systems would be sure to find investors. That wasn’t going to happen in this country, though. To get funding here, he had to conduct applied experiments that were practical enough for his advisor, Professor Hamed, to understand. A surveillance satellite? Nope. That would be impossible. With its current design, his craft couldn’t carry a camera. And he had no access to atomic clock units like those used in GPS satellites. What else was there? What could you do with a small satellite able to move freely in orbit and—
The smartphone vibrated in his hand, and the alarm went off. He looked up. The balloon had expanded to about twice the size of his van and was swaying in the wind. At the moment, it appeared as though it wasn’t even filled halfway with helium, but it would swell almost to the point of bursting in the low pressure of the skies. There were no holes in it. “All right,” he said. “You were lucky this time, Alef.”
The young man reached out to the tank in the trunk and closed the valve. “Verification test launch number 42. Counting down: ten, nine, eight…”
As he counted down, the young man took one of the containers he’d placed on the tarp and hung it from the base of the balloon. He then unrolled its wire all across the surface of the tarp and put the sole of his shoe down on the other container. “Four, three, two—”
When he removed the tube from the base of the balloon, it wavered once like a bubble and then floated up into the sky. The attached wire began to reel out rapidly from the container.
The wire was now stretched taut from underneath the man’s foot to the base of the balloon twenty yards above. From beneath the sole of his shoe he could feel the force of the container trying to rise into the air. The balloon, tethered by the wire, swayed like a jellyfish.
The young man lifted his foot. The container he had been holding to the ground leaped up with suppressed energy and flew past his face. Floating now in the clear blue sky, the balloon made one last wild jiggle before shooting up even higher.
The pitch of the beep from the boom box in the backseat changed. After checking that his cassette had been rewound, he pressed down the record button. Then he opened his hands wide and used his fingers to count the number of beeps, which had been encoded into 8 bits.
“Altitude one hundred ...one hundred and fifty-eight meters. Acceleration three meters per second. This launch is a success!”
The balloon was sucked into the sky. One hour later, it reached an altitude of twenty miles. Looking upwards from its location, the sky would likely be dark even during the day, and the warped outline of the Earth wrapped in a thin, blue-hazed layer of atmosphere would be visible. There the balloon popped and dropped the two containers back to the ground.
This was where the experiment began. The timer went off, and the electron gun in the lower Tupperware began to fire electrons into the space. When the current passed through the wire, it bent slightly under the influence of geomagnetism and shifted the two containers off course from free fall a very small distance, approximately two hundred meters over the whole fall. The effect was very slight. Even so, this marked a major advance for the young man’s research, providing evidence that a revolutionary propulsion system no one else had ever put into practice, one that could move objects in orbit without the use of propellants, was actually in action.
The man’s limply hanging fingers moved in time to the beeps he was recording. His only equipment for documenting the experiment was a cassette tape, and even those were difficult to acquire of late. His only equipment for analyzing it was his brain and fingers decoding the 8-bit signal, pencil and paper, and a scientific calculator he had purchased with a loan from his relatives. He had no friends to help him with this painstaking, hopeless work. If he had just had a bit of money, he could have increased the altitude of the balloon by another twelve miles, run some computer simulations. Perhaps he might have upgraded the precision of his experimental devices too.
The young man lay down in the shadow cast by the raised door of the trunk. “What I wouldn’t give to go to America,” he mused, gazing up at the sky.
Here he was, spending the earnings of his part-time job, making his gear himself, all to take these tiny hops toward the cosmos. Little did he know that in a few short years his research would shake the whole world.
Orbital Cloud will be released on March 21st, 2017.