I do enjoy a good Alternate History novel, and after a few early rough patches, United States of Japan worked its way into a decent novel, in the vein of Phillip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. The broad outline being that the Axis Powers won the Second World War, with Japan using giant robots as their superweapon.
The novel opens interestingly enough, set in an American concentration camp, where the Japanese-American prisoners are being tortured. Okay, well, interesting is probably the wrong word for it. The early chapters follow the rescue of several of the prisoners, and their release into the community.
And then BAM! Like a giant electro-sword through the heart, the author switches to 40 years later, where (most of) the rest of the novel takes place. I get that the story the author actually wanted to tell takes place in the 70s and 80s, but this jump forward in time was something of a jarring shift. I was just getting interested in what was going on post-war, and thought that I must have missed something.
At the heart of it, United States of Japan is something of a morality tale about the nature of freedom, and choices that we make in life. It is filled with twists and turns that keep the reader on their toes, and the revelations which came toward the end were quite a shock to me. I guess I could have used a little more foreshadowing along the way.
The author handles some very impressive battle scenes, with some good old-fashioned giant robot on giant robot violence. He also explores some interesting ideas around alternate development of technologies like cell phones and the internet.
If there is any criticism I have about this book – aside from the occasional time jumps – it is this: Given the way that the world has evolved – the real world that is – in the years since the end of the world war, I think that there is a certain lack of imagination about the way the rest of the world outside the United States and Japan develop in this alternate history. The Japanese Empire becomes embroiled in a version of the Vietnam War, for reasons unknown, but apart from this nod, and occasional reference to the pesky Nazis who need to be slapped down occasionally, there is little outside the USA and USJ.
With all of that being said, this was a really interesting, and entertaining read. I was intrigued by the characters, and it kept me hanging until the end.