Book Review: The Stories of Ibis by Hiroshi Yamamoto

Robo Reads

Title: The Stories of Ibis
Author: Hiroshi Yamamoto
Translator: Takami Nieda
Published: (Kindle Edition) 2011

Quotation: Why were there so many stories about robots and humans fighting? Did they only exist because that was how mankind had always lived? Did we simply see ourselves in these humanoid machines?

The Stories of Ibis presents a sequence of five short stories and two slightly longer ones, each exploring human relationships with artificial intelligence, or with other humans in a technologically-enabled world. Hugely diverse in setting, the subjects include the following: a group of bulletin-board users collaboratively imagining the adventures of a Star Trek-like fictional space crew (“The Universe on my Hands”); a tale of told by artificially intelligent space station on the edge of a black hole that provides a final stop-off for the adventurous and the suicidal (“Black Hole Diver”); there’s even a bubblegum anime-inspired world populated by powered up AI school-kid fighters (”A World Where Justice is Just”). Each tale stands alone, but scaffolded by an introduction and series of intermissions in which characters reflect on the story they have just heard, the stories combine to offer an impressively original exploration of the possibilities and perils of humans creating artificial life.

Kindle Edition cover

Kindle Edition cover

The creation of autonomous robots and the consequences of this for humanity as a species is a topic to which sci-fiction returns time and again. Yet Yamamato’s work never feels stale precisely because of the extent to which it recognises this fact. Artificial intelligences like the titular Ibis – the female AI who narrates each of these wide-ranging tales, rather like a robo-Scheherazade – are not simply the product of technical advancements, they are also born from stories and fictions that first imagined them. More concerned with language and psychology than engineering, this collection acknowledges the creative power of story telling, particularly those yarns spun about robots…

‘Robots that look like humans.’ ‘Robots with human feelings.’  Robots that befriend humans.’ We are those human dreams made flesh. We were all born from fiction. Just as humans call the ocean the birthplace of life, the dreams of mankind, their fictions – that is our birthplace.’

The only other work I’ve found to illustrate this notion in such a powerful and poetic way is Marge Piercy’s Jewish, feminist robot-novel, He, She and It, in which the Android Yod, expresses jealousy for his female companion’s sense of blood ties and long-standing familial heritage: “You are embedded in history in a sense that I can’t be” Yod tells the women. “What leads to me? Legends, theories, comic books.” While Yamamoto’s tone feels lighter and more pop-cultural than Piercy’s, The Tales of Ibis flows in a similarly melancholy direction. The quote I used above may focus on the many positive robot fictions that have been imagined. But Yamamoto does not shy away from the fact that so many other robot tales express a fear of AI and anticipate an eventual robot uprising. Have we created a self-fulfilling prophecy?

The stories’ unifying framework might seem to suggest so. The human recipient of Ibis’ tales is also a Storyteller; known simply by that moniker, he is a nomadic entertainer moving between the tribes of surviving humans whose population has been reduced dramatically after a war that has led to robots becoming the dominant species on Earth. Having been defeated in combat and captured by Ibis he expects only death from the machines he has been raised to despise, but instead he is forced to listen to his captor’s stories. Initially works of fiction, the tales finally pave the way for Ibis to relate her own history, which expands the the Stoyteller’s horizons and unsettles many of his beliefs.

A story about storytelling could easily become quite pretentiously self-referential. The Stories of Ibis certainly deals with some weighty themes, and the final tale, “AI’s Story” ruminates in quite complex detail on the psychological differences between humans and Ibis’ kind, the TAI. These differences lead the TAI to develop their own language, assigning numerical values and creating new words to fill in the vagaries and gaps in human expression. Yet, even with the inclusion of these challenging ideas and concepts, the overall tone of the collection remains surprisingly light, perhaps due to the strong – and strongly sign-posted – anime/manga influence, both on the stories in the collection, and on the pop-cultural stories that, told and retold, Yamamato suggests, gave rise to the conception and creation of beings like Ibis in the first place. In this collection, challenging explorations of the chasm between AIs and their creators are interspersed with saccharine romance, school locker-room melodramas and even video-game style fight sequences and overall effect is a mixture of styles and tones which elevates the importance of the pop-cultural imagination in robot lore.

The diversity of Ibis’ stories are what make this collection so intriguing, but at the same time it’s hardly surprising that a work of such breadth would suffer some unevenness. A few of the tales felt rather simplistic and amateurish in tone. I wondered at first if this is was a consequence of the translation from Japanese but as I read further it became apparent that it was more of a deliberate effect, to establish a very distinct array of narrative voices. While this works to support the themes of the collection (and the main message of it fictional narrator), it does mean some stories are simply stronger, and more deeply characterised than others.  My personal favourites are probably “Black Hole Diver” and “The Day Shion came.” The first of these offers a neat reversal of the “human befriends robot” cliché and contains some the collections’ most poetic moments, as the space station tries to understand what propels its visitors towards the almost certainly fatal enigma it orbits. The second is the collection’s penultimate tale and its longest aside from Ibis’ own. Shion is a prototype care-giver android, and the story examines the emotions and experiences of the human care assistant who reluctantly accepts the task of working with her in a home for the elderly. While many of the stories in this collection are born from the more colourful world of anime, this one felt particularly grounded, since the issue of how to care for an aging population is a pressing and pertinent one in many developed nations, and in Japan especially. Lots of robot fiction expresses the dream of androids becoming more human and relatable, but “The Day Shion Came” is interesting because its message of overcoming prejudice against robots is rooted in precisely the opposite: the tale’s narrator can learn to trust and befriend Shion only by recognising the insurmountable psychological gulf between them.

Fractal black hole by Patrick Hajzler courtesy of freeimages.com

Fractal black hole by
Patrick Hajzler courtesy of freeimages.com

You should never judge a book by its cover but in this case the stylish art for the Kindle edition I read brilliantly captures one of the key concerns of the collection, that of flow. The sweeping lines evoke the in-text description of Ibis whose body is exaggeratedly feminine and graceful  (knowingly, the phrase ”otaku’s dream come true” is actually used in one of the stories). But there’s also a sense of flow in the collection as a whole: not just in the way the disparate stories build on one another, but also how they suggest a sense of inevitability and the passing of time, of generations, of epochs. It’s hard to evade the melancholy overtones of this theme, yet The Stories of Ibis flow towards a conclusion that is strangely uplifting, albeit in a quite an abstract way. I’ve noted before how Asian traditions often convey an attitude to technology that is more positive and practical, and less distrustful than in Western culture, and this contrast is greatly apparent here.

Taken as a individual shorts, The Stories of Ibis can seem a little uneven but seen in its wider arc as a novel, this is a unusual and consistently thought-provoking collection which offers a moving reminder that acceptance can be necessary even when true understanding is impossible.

Robo Reads

Next time on Robo Reads:  a bit of coffee table Robo-Reading: R reviews Robot Takeover: 100 Iconic Robots of Myth, Popular Culture and Real Life by Ana Matronic.

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