Review: Yokohama Station SF Review: This Light Novel Feels Lost in Translation

Yokohama Station SF is not the sort of light novel that usually gets translated officially into English. There's no anime adaptation, and while there is a manga adaptation, it is still unlicensed in America. It's not part of an ongoing series (it had one sequel, but that's it). It doesn't have any isekai heroes, video game worlds, fan service or any other recognizable light novel tropes -- unless there's suddenly a flood of living train station books that haven't made their way to America yet.

Yes, Yokohama Station SF is a book about a living train station. It takes place in a post-war future where Yokohama Station has become a self-replicating artificial intelligence and enveloped almost the entirety of Honshu. Since the station takes up practically the whole island, trains themselves are of no use now; people live inside the station and get around mostly on foot. Robot turnstiles enforce strict anti-violence laws, while all residents are implanted with Suika cards. Those who violate the rules or don't have a Suika or other documentation get thrown out of the station.

Author Yuba Isukari is a biologist who developed this story by applying Illya Prigogine's theory of "dissipative structures" to Yokohama Station, which has been under constant construction since 1915. Yokohama Station SF seems like a book that's best appreciated by those familiar with both these scientific principles and the intricacies of Japan's public transit system. Having read Tsutomu Nihei's manga Blame! might also help in understanding, as Isukari describes the book as partially a parody of that series in his afterword.

Yokohama Station SF illustration

Without all of this background knowledge, Yokohama Station SF is a somewhat befuddling read. It's often hard to gauge the story's tone -- is it a satire, a serious science fiction story or simply a work of surrealism? There's clearly some class commentary, with the protagonist Hiroto being an outsider only able to access the station through a special ticket and some interesting ideas about the impermanence of digital technology and how civilizations transform. None of these themes, however, makes the overall story much easier to grasp onto.

The descriptions are filled with heavy technobabble, which doesn't help visualize the complicated setting. Though Tatsuyuki Tanaka's illustrations are cool, there aren't enough of them to clarify much; this story's manga adaptation might be more accessible.

Yokohama Station SF feels like the sort of book written for a niche audience, even in its home country. Outside of Japan, its sensibility is probably too obscure to pick up many fans. Sci-fi readers intrigued by the premise might find things to enjoy about the book but don't go in expecting to get it entirely.

Yokohama Station SF is available in English from Yen On.

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