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The Baku
by Edward Bryant

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted April 26, 2019

I had to edit my review of another Bryant title, Particle Theory. The e-book I have from ReAnimus Press contains a story titled "The Hibakusha Gallery," but that was incorrect. That was actually "The Baku," the title story of this collection. They share a similar theme, both use the word hibakusha, but are completely different stories. I no longer have the paperback of Particle Theory (I think I gave it to my son) so I can't check to see which story was included in that edition. Although it is not on the cover or title page of my e-book, other editions of The Baku have included the subtitle, "Tales of the Nuclear Age."

In his introduction, Bryant says he got a contract to write a teleplay for the mid-80s version of The Twilight Zone, recommended to the producers by one of the story editors, Harlan Ellison. Everyone was enthused about Ed's pitch for "The Baku," but they also universally rejected his completed script. That ended his contract, for that story at least, even though he eventually asked one of the other writers, George R. R. Martin, if he would read a revised script, if only so he could prove he had what it took to be a screenwriter. Martin agreed, although according to Bryant, the show was cancelled by that time. His timeline might have been off though, since a prose version of the story, also presented here, was published in Night Visions #4 in November 1987. The show ran through April 1989. I'm assuming the story was written after the revised script, but since Bryant has passed away we may never know for sure. A hardcover of this collection was originally published by Subterranean Press in 2001, but the current e-book and print editions came out in 2014 from ReAnimus.

The prose story comes first. Robert Maxwell (fictional name) had been a USAAF pilot during the mission that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. For most of his life he considered himself a hero, although he is beginning to change that assessment. He is now an executive for Enerco, an energy consortium preparing to build a nuclear power plant in California. Both pro and anti-nuclear groups have been picketing Enerco's offices while the final negotiations with all relevant agencies are underway. Maxwell has also been having disturbing nightmares, in which he is his younger self, but on the ground in Nagasaki just after the explosion. His dreams are haunted by shadowy, indistinct figures, except for one small Japanese girl, who holds out her hand to him, and in her hand is a carved jade figurine, with the body of a panther and the head of an elephant. The figure glows and moves as if it is alive. The next day as he is pulling into the parking garage at Enerco, he sees an older Japanese woman staring intently at him, her hand held out but clenched into a fist. In another dream he makes it to a Jeep, and is driving away from the devastation when he is startled by the girl in his path, barely able to stop before hitting her. In another daytime vision he sees the older woman in the hallway of his home, just after protesters throw a rock through his kitchen window. The last vision is in the parking garage when the power suddenly goes out and he's lost in the darkness. Then the older woman appears, again offering him the jade figure, the Baku. He thinks it is to punish him, but she says the Baku is the devourer of nightmares, that it has helped her and other hibakusha, that it can end his torment. Then again, maybe that is a false pretense, because the story ends with power restored, the lights in the garage coming on again, continuing to brighten until it is as bright as any light he has seen since 1945. The revised script includes visual cues for the filmmakers, but is missing some of the expostion. Otherwise it is very close to the story.

"The Hibakusha Gallery" was first printed in Penthouse magazine in 1977. It was nominated for a Nebula even though it has no speculative elements. The setting is not specified as to city, it could be either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, maybe Tokyo, or any random large city that is a tourist destination. The titular gallery displays photos of the aftermath of the bombings. It doesn't seem to be that significant to most of the tourists who drop in, perhaps not even to the man who manages it, maybe it's just a job to him. One visitor seems to be more interested, asking the proprietor to take pictures of him in front of the displays, while he attempts to mimic the position of the people in the photos. When he returns the next day he refuses to take the prints, saying the gallery worker needs to study them closely himself, to understand what it means to be a hibakusha, a sufferer, a survivor of the tragedy. Bryant says this was filmed by a UCLA student filmmaker, Frank De Palma, and that it barely missed making the cut for an Academy Award for Best Short Live Film, but it's not listed in De Palma's credits at IMDb. The only other reference I've found about it is on the website of the British Film Institute, but there are no details other than it was made in 1981 and De Palma directed it, but the link on his name goes to a page with entirely different credits than on IMDb, and "The Hibakusha Gallery" is not included. I would like to see it if that is at all possible, so I'll continue searching.

The final story in this short collection is "Jody After the War" from 1972. It originally appeared in the Orbit 10 anthology edited by Damon Knight. Set in Denver, the new United States capital several years after a nuclear exchange with China. The first person narrator uses the word hibakusha in reference to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, although those in America after the war are simply known as survivors. He had been a kid in Nevada at the time, away from the devastated areas, and not really aware of the conditions in the east, or west of the Sierras. His girlfriend, Jody, had been in Pittsburgh. She was a survivor, physically at least. The trauma has made it difficult for her to visualize a future, especially a future that would include a husband and children. She's actually afraid to find out if she is capable of becoming pregnant, and their relationship is severely strained. Other than flashbacks and discussions of previous events, the story encompasses just one evening as they are picnicking in the mountains outside Denver. Nothing is decided, with the story concluding on a grim note - "We climbed down from the rocks then, with the November chill a well of silence between us."

It's difficult saying which is the better story. They are all depressing, but still meaningful concerning human emotions, the human reaction to tragedy. Right now I'll say the prose version of "The Baku" most successfully developed its theme, and it's the one I'd more likely be willing to reread. All of them are at least as good as the majority of those in Particle Theory, with the exceptions of "Strata" and "To See." As with the other ReAnimus titles, the e-book is very reasonalby priced, and recommended, as long as you're prepared for its downer nature.


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Edward Bryant

April 1, 2001

"The Hibakusha Gallery" was a Nebula Finalist

Available from ReAnimus Press