Aliens among us: Sayaka Murata’s ‘Earthlings’

By Brooke Boland
The bestselling author of ‘Convenience Store Woman’ delivers another dark tale of alienation and belonging

Sayaka Murata shot to global fame after her novel Convenience Store Woman was translated into English in 2018, becoming the first book by the already bestselling Japanese author to reach a larger English-language audience. Now, two years later, Murata gives us another dark tale of alienation and belonging in Earthlings (Granta, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori), an unsettling and gripping novel that locates the tenuous foundations of productive society and violently tears them down. Like Convenience Store Woman, Murata’s latest novel tells the story of a strange woman living on the fringes of society. This time the woman is Natsuki, the novel’s blunt narrator, who is desperately trying to fit in.

The young Natsuki is an outsider in her own home. Rejected and abused by parents who favour her demanding older sister, Natsuki finds little relief from her alienation even as a child. Brief summers at her grandparents’ house in Akishina, a verdant mountainside jungle, become an idealised counterpoint to the concrete city of Chiba, where she lives. In Akishina, Natsuki spends time with her extended family including her favourite cousin, Yuu, a compliant boy who shares Natsuki’s desire for connection. She finds only one explanation for their shared social isolation: her and Yuu are aliens from a different planet.

Against a backdrop of stifling societal conventions, the novel asks: what makes us human? To be alien and strange is to defy the accepted logic of these conventions. It means going against the modern Japanese society in which she lives (“The Factory”, as Natsuki calls it).

Chiba, in 11-year-old Natsuki’s view, is replete with rows and rows of “breeding boxes”, where a human’s primary responsibility is procreation. “My town is a factory for the production of human babies. People live in nests packed closely together … The nests are lined up neatly in rows and each contains a breeding pair of male and female humans and their babies,” she says. She is the outsider looking in trying to understand how everything works.

The literal transposition of alienation takes this novel into strange territory where realism blends uneasily – sometimes humorously – with fantasy. As a child, Natsuki uses her vivid imagination to create stories of aliens from outer space with magical powers. “Piyyut was the one who’d given me my magical objects and powers. He was from Planet Popinpobopia. The Magic Police had found out Earth was facing a crisis and had sent him on a mission to save our planet. Since then I’d been using the power’s he’d given me to protect Earth,” the young Natsuki explains.

Except these childhood tales never dissolve, as one would expect. Well into adulthood, after Piyyut stops speaking to her and her own magical powers fade, the 34-year-old Natsuki still believes the fantasy and sees herself as an alien from Planet Popinpobopia. Her acceptance of this strange origin story is so confident that at times you wonder, Is she really an alien? But Natsuki’s continued belief in Popinpobopia becomes a coping mechanism that is inseparable from her sexual abuse by a predatory teacher at cram school, and his subsequent murder. Without the fantasy, the reality of her trauma would be unbearable.

The older Natsuki eventually submits to an unconventional asexual marriage. In this partnership, she evades the requirements of “The Factory” that would force her to breed in order to be seen as a successful member of society. Through the dark social observations of our narrator, Murata reveals how true horror resides in the parts of Natsuki’s story that most resemble our own reality.

This surreal novel takes the conspiracy theory that aliens walk among us and turns it into truth through Natsuki’s eyes, upheld by her husband’s faith in her story. “I know Yuu doubted whether you were really an alien. Maybe you do too. But you are Popinpobopian. You definitely are. I know it,” he tells her emphatically. When Natsuki asks if he is scared of her, he replies: “What I’m really scared of is believing that the words society makes me speak are my own.”

The reader is offered no resolution to the questions surrounding Natsuki’s mental state. In fact, you would be better to accept Earthlings for the strange tale that it is and avoid looking for definitive answers. Murata certainly doesn’t offer any. When Natsuki returns to Akishina as an adult, the novel moves into even darker territory to reveal a nature more alien than expected.

Brooke Boland

Brooke Boland has a PhD in literature from the University of NSW and works as a freelance writer. Her first monograph, Transnational Women’s Writing and Embodiment, is forthcoming from Taylor and Francis in 2021.

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