The Stories of Ibis
Hiroshi Yamamoto (Trans. Takami Nieda)
Haikasoru/VIZ Media LLC
ISBN 9781421534404 April 2010 Science Fiction
For anyone keeping track, this would be the third Haikasoru book I’ve read and the third one I liked, which given that there are fewer than a dozen and half titles to select from isn’t a bad average. It’s not as close a fit to my main obsessions as the previous two but there are definitely items of note to me.
On a scale I’ve explained elsewhere, this is towards the harder end of the science scale, more optimistic than not but not particularly whimsical. Call it a +3, +4, 0 on five-point scales. Yes, I’ve added numbers (-5 to +5) to a system I am not going to explain; they make my system that much more compelling.
I went into this expecting a cousin to Simak’s City and that’s sort of what I got, except that in the Simak fix-up, the stories are all from the same setting and depict the gradual decline and extinction of the human race. This is a collection of stories that share certain themes, but which are otherwise unrelated1 save for the framing sequence and the final story.
The frame involves a human storyteller living in an era when there are very few humans (a few tens of millions) living in a state of on-going warfare combined with total dependence on a robot civilization. The humans believe they were overthrown by the robots but the storyteller, while subject to the prejudices of his time, is aware many details of the world he lives in make no sense in the context of the explanations he has been given; why, for example, do robots ship food they have no need for in vehicles humans can easily hijack?
The storyteller is ambushed and captured by Ibis, who we eventually learn was one of the very first intelligent robots built way back in the 21st century. The human fears a painful vivisection is his lot but in fact all the robot wants to do is to illuminate certain matters for the human by telling him a series of stories, most of which are presented as entirely fictional stories within the context of the book.
The collection contains seven stories, many of which involve human-machine intelligence interactions. Let’s see if I can describe them without spoiling them:
1: The Universe on My Hands : A gamer learns that a fellow gamer has killed someone and is on the run; their shared world plays a role in the resolution of the crisis.
2: A Romance in Virtual Space : Two teenagers circumvent barriers to contact via VR.
3: Mirror Girl : The preciousness of a particular toy to the protagonist and the attention she invests in it turns out to have consequences nobody foresaw (although in retrospect it was probably obvious things could turn out as they do).
4: Black Hole Diver : A station-keeping AI forms an emotional bond with a passing explorer.
5: A World Where Justice is Just : A young superhero discovers the true nature of the relationship between her and her pen-pal.
6: The Day Shion Came : In a Japan whose population is both declining and aging, a human nurse trains a prototype android nurse, but it is the relationship between android and a malevolent businessman that is the focus of the story.
7: AI’s Story : The storyteller’s robot host explains who she is and how she came to be. This involves a robotic uprising but probably not the uprising readers may expect.
With the exception of Black Hole Diver, these are set on Earths of the 21st Century (although the Earth of a World Where Justice is Just). The first two stories appear to be included to make the case that fictions have utility in the real world; the next five are Ibis working her way to explaining their shared world to her guest, in particular helping him to understand the role of a particular fiction in his society and what impact this is having on the future of robot society.
In three of the seven stories, humanity is clearly declining. It’s not surprising to see this in SF by a Japanese author; although paying attention to real world demographic trends is often anathema to SF writers, Japan’s population decreased from 2006 to 2007 so this sort of thing is on minds over there. Not all of the declines are Stage Five demographic decline; at least one setting has discovered the joys of attempted omnicidal warfare. Despite this the tone of the stories is generally not negative, although there is melancholy; people living in the worst version of the world still find time to preserve what they can, leaving an inheritance for those that follow, and their doom is not necessarily total.
One major difference between Yamamoto and Simak (and there are many) is that Yamamoto is trying to be a much harder SF writer than Simak ever was, thus a description of the sun from Pluto that isn’t just “the Sun was a star-like dim speck.” In that sense, he’s closer to an Egan or a Stross than Simak. He’s not really like any of those writers, but I am trying to find writers to compare him to that I think people reading this will be familiar with.
Yamamoto is happy enough to have machines that are very human in their thought processes when that serves his narrative purpose but I think it’s clear he sees this as unrealistic; machines might be constrained by the roles they are created for to present a seemingly comprehensible face to humans but the cognitive mechanisms underneath the surface could be very inhuman2. This doesn’t mean the robots are inferior to human; Ibis and her fellows are not Chinese Rooms and their accomplishments are impressive (Someone else I can compare him to: he is the anti-Lovecraft in the way he presents things that look familiar that aren’t).I
[first draft so I may come back and revise this] I didn’t.
1: Well, except that for some reason Ibis is really fond of the short stories of a particular Japanese SF writer named Hiroshi Yamamoto, since every story she picks happens to have been written by him some time between 1997 and 2006. He is never named checked, though.
2: This is very convenient for me because there’s a model for a specific demographic decline provided in the final sections that I can reject as the robot getting it wrong due to her inhuman thought processes. Also, readers of a certain political tendency may be annoyed by goals of the robot uprising so keep in mind that Ibis and her friends are operating from very different principles than humans.