Monday, June 28, 2010

Book/Magazine Review: The Stories of Ibis by Hiroshi Yamamoto translated by Takami Nieda

The Stories of Ibis is one of the more complex books that Haikasoru has released. The first element I'd like to tackle is the format. Is this book a short story collection or a mosaic novel? The Stories of Ibis is presented such that "intermissions" precede each of Hiroshi Yamamoto's stories. If you disregard the former, this could easily be read as a short story collection. The intermissions however set the framework for the book, linking seemingly-unrelated stories into a larger, elaborate narrative. This is also the authorial conceit of Yamamoto: he's able to utilize his stories which are set in different milieus and setting to fit the plot. All but the last story is also presented as fiction, allowing for contradictions (which the author himself--through the voice of the character Ibis--points out and is well aware of).

As a reader, this presentation draws me in. Personally, I find the stories themselves to be adequate--nothing that I'd nominate for an award (although I am fond of "Black Hole Diver")--but it's the intermissions that pique my curiosity: how does this story relate to the larger mystery presented in the book, namely the conflict of humans vs. artificial intelligence. Is the setting a dystopia or an utopia? Better yet, how was this accomplished?

The Stories of Ibis is also an interesting book to analyze using a feminist perspective. All seven stories have a female protoagonist as its main character. The story's narrator, Ibis, despite being an android, identifies herself as female and describes the situation aptly:
"I'm able to emphatize more easily with a female protagonist than a male one. It's why I prefer such stories. As I've said before, the act of reading a story is a kind of role-play. For as long as I read the story, I become Nanami Shiihara, and Nanami becomes Ginny..."
A subtle detail in the story is how artificial intelligence developed through the technological innovation called the SLAN Kernel, SLAN being the initials of its two creators, Susan Lellenberg and Andrew Nonaka. It's interesting to note it's the female creator's name that takes precedence.

Then there is the character of Ibis, who introduces the reader to the book. For me, Yamamoto makes an interesting choice in applying gender to artificial intelligence, as a lot of people would consider artificial intelligence to be genderless. While there is some idealism in the portrayal of Ibis (and perhaps leans too much on the Weird Science trope that plagues many anime/manga), she is also more than capable of fending for herself (and in fact proves herself to be the superior to all of the male characters in the book).

As a translated work, one of the details that I miss is the depth of the original title, "Ai no Monogatari" which can be interpreted as "Ai's Story". On the literal level, while this doesn't really stray too far from "The Stories of Ibis", the choice of using Ai vs. Ibis is at the forefront of my mind throughout reading the book. Ai is still Ibis and in the last part of the book, Ibis is revealed to be Ai's full name. But the retention of Ai as a name has lots of implications in the book, considering the overarching theme of artificial intelligence (AI), love (ai in Japanese), and to a lesser extent, imaginary numbers (i) and the first person (I).

With regards to Yamamoto's writing, one of the things I noticed is that he sneaks in a lot of popular culture, whether it's Western science fiction such as Star Trek or Isaac Asimov, to Japanese staples such as super robots, the magical-girls genre, and otaku culture. At times, these elements can be jarring. For example, in the first intermission, Ibis asks our male protagonist if he's familiar with Star Trek (as the story "The Universe On My Hands" arguably relies on knowledge of the tropes of the series) and when he says yes, that stretches credulity, considering that the book opens with what seems to be a dystopic setting with humanity struggling for survival.

Overall however, The Stories of Ibis is a compelling read and provides a different paradigm of science fiction. Yamamoto provides a plausible reason for the development of artificial intelligence, and a resolution for how the conflict between artificial intelligence and humanity is resolved. The book is also an example of how hard science fiction doesn't have to be intimidating and can be propelled by compelling characterization.

1 comment:

Drax said...

Awesome. Thanks, Charles. Now I really REALLY want to read this book.