As a child, Natsuki felt so out of place with her family that she escaped in a world of fantasy in which she had magical powers given to her by a stuffed hedgehog from the planet Popinpobopia. Her cousin, Yuu, who she saw on a family vacation each year, joined her in this fantasy, declaring himself an alien, and the two decided that the only thing to do was to get married and find his spaceship so they could escape to Popinpobopia.
The premise of Earthlings by Sayaka Murata and translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori may sound light and fun, but it’s a dark story indeed. For one thing, what Natsuki wants to escape is more than typical pre-teen awkwardness. Her mother criticizes her at every turn, no matter what she does, and when a popular teacher at school begins abusing her, her mother says she’s not attractive enough to get his attention and scolds her for being late coming home from school. Magic powers and an alien home are her way of imagining something different for herself.
That imagining brings with it a whole new set of rules, different from those of society, and eventually leads Natsuki into a marriage that involves its own rules, kept secret from anyone who wouldn’t understand.
Natsuki narrates her own story, and although as readers we can see where she doesn’t have a good grip on reality, her choice of a different reality makes sense, even when the consequences are terrible. Why would she want to live in a word that has treated her so cruelly, and why wouldn’t she decide the rules that keep society running smoothly aren’t necessary? Yet, at times, she wants to figure out how to live as an ordinary human — to be “brainwashed” and forget who she is so she can happily fulfill her duties in the societal “factory” for doing work and making babies.
I liked that this book went in directions that I didn’t expect. It’s clear early on that things are likely to go badly for Natsuki, at least for a while, but there’s reason to think maybe she’ll find some way to get along ok in world, following her own rules. But it’s also clear that the call of the “factory” is loud and will be difficult to silence. Ultimately, silencing it requires an even bigger break with society’s rules that I anticipated, and the story gets darker and weirder right up until the end.