Kawamata Chiaki’s DEATH SENTENCES is a fascinating sci-fi story about a poem that once read, distorts time and space. It’s borderline Lovecraftian in the way Junjo Ito’s UZUMAKI is, presenting a strange and compelling mystery that had me turning pages.
In the 1980s in Japan, a secret police squad tracks down and eliminates people exposed to reading an obscure surrealist poem written in France in the 1940s. They are taking this draconian measure to stamp out the spread of an epidemic of people becoming catatonic and dying after reading a poem.
In the 1940s in America and then Paris, André Breton, leader of the surrealist movement, meets a young poet named Hu Mei, who claims to have invented a way to use words in sequence to change the reader’s perception with a nearly tangible experience. Copies of Mei’s last poem are mailed to all of his friends, starting a plague that fizzles out until the poem is rediscovered in Japan.
It’s a thinky kind of story touching on a lot of interesting themes. As with other English translations of Japanese works, the writing is kind of clinical, though, and I didn’t feel much connection to the characters. There’s so much detail, much of it unnecessary, the story develops a kind of documentary feel to it, which was fine only I ended up skimming in places.
Despite all that, I have to say I really liked this one for its originality and engaging mystery. The story’s ideas elevate it quite a bit into something unique, and though I had some troubles with the execution, I’d love to see more of this kind of thing in genre fiction.