Stories of Ibis
This is the first title in my sporadic “Science Fiction of the Orient” series. Unsure where to start with Japanese sci-fi, I visited the SF community on Mixi (the biggest Japan SNS) and asked for recommendations. The very first reply came from a man named Yamamoto Hiroshi, who said, “Here’s a publisher releasing English translations of good stuff, including one of my own.” Of course I immediately looked for his book here and, happily for me, the library had a copy. (Bonus: Mr. Yamamoto lives in my former home, Kyoto. This was destined to be.) Stories of Ibis soon arrived on interlibrary loan and is the subject of this historic first post.
The book is a set of seven short stories about robots, tied together by interludes that form a loose, overarching story. The human character is injured early on by the android Ibis, his erstwhile enemy. The android then tells the stories to the human as he gradually heals in an android hospital. Though the two characters comment partway on their resemblance to the Arabian Nights metastory, Asimov’s I, Robot is a much better comparison. The Laws of Robotics feature heavily, making Stories of Ibis rather like Asimov’s Robot series filtered through the two prisms of otaku lifestyle and Japanese humanism. (Otaku, for those who have missed the whole anime boom, are the Japanese subset of nerds who are generally anime/gaming/technology oriented in their nerdiness and maintain a distinctive subculture.) Each of the component short stories concerns the relationship between robots and humans; taken together they are a larger story that Ibis tells to her prisoner/patient about that same relationship in the book’s “real world.”
This book is still rattling around in my head the day after finishing it. I am trying to nail down my opinions on what it is trying to be and how I feel about it. In some ways, this review would benefit from a conversation with a reader who is ignorant of Japan and not still in the grad school habit of analyzing and categorizing everything into various mental Japan Compartments. That said, one thing that stood out immediately is the differences between this and Anglo-American SF. Of course, most of the standard SF tropes and assumptions are present. It is clear, though, that the world view underpinning Stories of Ibis is not the one that we share here in the West. (This is a theme that will no doubt resurface in these columns.)
The reasons for this clear difference can be traced to two aspects of the book itself. First is the story’s engagement with immediate cultural issues inside Japan. The short stories are speculative in that they are introducing robots and virtual worlds not currently possible, but the settings for these are utterly contemporary. Characters argue over the effects of video game violence on children, contend with bullying at school (a universal problem to be sure, but with unique characteristics in Japan), worry about Japan’s declining population, and even talk about Hiroshima and The Bomb. The last is very much a contemporary issue, even if we Americans have relegated it to history. None of these problems is exclusively Japan’s, but the topics are ripped straight from the Japanese headlines, so to speak.
The second aspect of the book that highlights the proverbial divide between East and West is the overwhelming presence of otaku. Again, Japan is not the only country with nerds, nor is it the only country where nerds are a hot topic. (Social Network anyone?) But like many things in Japan, otaku have carved out their own distinct space. Part of their influence on the book is logical extrapolation: androids are robots refined, most robot engineers and visionaries tend towards the otaku spectrum. If these androids are produced by a company staffed primarily by otaku, the product will reflect their proclivities. In this case, the fighting robots are mostly women of insane proportions and wholly inappropriate battlewear, the nurses are young women with kind voices and pink skirts, and virtual creations spin around inside globes of light while transforming into outlandish costumes that are apparently required for fighting giant monsters.
All of these things struck me as familiar, because these are all hot topics and cultural assumptions of my adopted home. At the same time, as I read I was constantly reminded that this was a Japanese novel; suspension of disbelief was nearly impossible as I was continually jolted by the off-kilter (for me) world view. I am curious how a reader ignorant of Japan reacts to this book. Is it possible that I know too much to sit back and enjoy it? This could be similar to experts in film, music, or whatever viewing a subject in their expertise and failing to enjoy the whole for the unveiled component parts. (To be fair, an in depth knowledge of music has never interfered with my enjoyment of good music. It ruined the bad stuff though. Perhaps this is not quite the same thing.)
All cultural musings aside, Stories of Ibis was thought provoking and entertaining. While robots are not my favorite topic in SF, they are interesting enough and Yamamoto’s attempt to update Asimov strikes me as a valuable contribution. Appeals for universal love and respect within the story felt naïve, then needlessly pessimistic, but I am left with the feeling that it was the characters speaking, not the author. Other readers may feel differently and be put off by the naked emotionalism at the end of the book, but to me it felt like Yamamoto kept himself a step away from the melodrama, commenting on it but not taking part. I am reminded, however, that Japan as a culture has yet to walk down the road towards the post-modern, ironic self-awareness that has somewhat contaminated Western culture. There are places where we wink knowingly and grow smug about our own detachment that the Japanese still don’t fear to tread.
And since this post keeps trailing back into anthropological navel-gazing, I will cut it off here and hope that someone else has read this and is ready for heated discussion.
Rating: Nagoya Grampus Eight. My favorite name for a Japanese football team, because I have no idea what there are eight of. Also, their Serbian manager once scored a goal from the sideline while wearing dress shoes (and was ejected).