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Hiroshi Yamamoto on THE STORIES OF IBIS

The fix-up novel—one created by linking together several pieces of short fiction—has a long and proud tradition within science fiction. After all, the modern genre was born not between hard covers but in pulp magazines. In Japan, short fiction remains absolutely vital and thus so does the fix-up. That Hiroshi Yamamoto is a walking encyclopedia of SF history helps a bit too. With the release of The Stories of Ibis we’re pleased to bring you some remarks from the author himself on the titular stories that make up our latest Haikasoru novel. If you want more of a taste, be sure to check out The Universe on my Hands, published by Words Without Borders late last year as part of their International SF issue! We did try to strip out as many “spoilers” as possible, but very sensitive readers might want to read with a hand clapped over one eye.

The Stories of Ibis Commentary
(excerpted from the author’s website “Hiroshi Yamamoto’s SF Secret Base”)

Ai is Ibis’s nickname. It is also I (the self), AI (artificial intelligence), i (the imaginary number) and ai (love).

The framework for this book came to me not too long after I had written “The Universe on My Hands.” Having already finished “A Romance in Virtual Space” and “Mirror Girl,” I had planned to publish these stories as a short story collection; but then I realized all of the stories were all about artificial intelligence and virtual realities, as well as being told from the point of view of the heroine. Maybe I could put them all together into one novel?

At first, I thought of arranging the stories chronologically to create one historical timeline as in Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, but inconsistencies would emerge. The technology featured in “A Romance in Virtual Space” and “Mirror Girl” just didn’t line up on the same historical timeline.

Eventually, I came upon the idea that the book should be fashioned, not after The Martian Chronicles, but after The Illustrated Man—that perhaps the device of a mysterious character telling the stories to a boy would work. I gave Ibis a facial tattoo as a tribute to that book.

Originally, I had intended on a slim volume, but “The Day Shion Came” and “AI’s Story,” written expressly for the book, turned out to be so long that the two stories took up over half the book. The novel ended up being just as thick as God Never Keeps Silent. But since the stories were written with a light-novel touch (many of the stories first appeared in light novel magazines), there weren’t too many difficult parts, making for a much easier read than God Never Keeps Silent. They might be closer tonally to Robert F. Young’s romantic SF stories that moved me when I was younger. My editor saw this novel’s publication as an opportunity to tap into a female readership, but whether that will happen remains to be seen….

The stories compiled here are tearjerkers. I know because I myself cried writing them. Having Ibis say repeatedly, “This never happened in reality,” would weaken the emotional impact of the stories. It was a dangerous gamble as a writer, but I decided to use that to my advantage.

Reality is never as logical as fiction. Rarely do you see the kind of idealistic happy endings that you read in stories. There are even those who criticize stories with happy endings as “half-baked” or “unrealistic.” “That could never happen,” they say. The writer knows this all too well. This is nothing more than fiction. There isn’t a scrap of truth in it. But this writer believes there are wonderful things that only fiction can convey. If you are a lover of stories, I know you will share my belief.

“The Universe on My Hands” (First appeared in winter, 2003 issue of SF Japan)

The model for The Celestial was an actual club that I belonged to before I became a professional writer called S.S.C. The members became part of the crew of a spaceship and wrote novels and manga based on this common setting, using our character names as our pen names. It’s what’s now called a “shared world,” but the Internet didn’t exist at the time, of course, so we had to mail each other our submissions. Even so, this made for a homey and truly exciting atmosphere.

The story-within-the-story that appears in “The Universe on My Hands” was an idea I’d come up with for S.S.C. but was one of many stories that never got written. One morning, when I was lying in bed tossing around a different idea in my head, I realized I would have a pretty amazing plot by combining the two ideas. I got so excited the moment it struck me that I just about strangled my futon in a bear hug thinking, “Damn, I gotta write this thing!” So when SF Japan contacted me, I knew I had to write “The Universe on My Hands.”

The title is inspired from Frederic Brown’s short story collection Space on My Hands because the stories collected for the issue all had to borrow a title from a science fiction work from overseas. The issue also included “Captain Future and Seven Space Stones” by Taku Ashibe, “Ring World” by Giguru Akiguchi, “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” by Shinji Kajio, and “Destination: Universe!” by Hideyuki Furuhashi.

The first title I proposed was “Beam Us Home,” (no explanation necessary), but after learning that two of the writers involved were already using Tiptree titles, I had no choice but to change it. Oh, well, I guess anything involving Tiptree is going to be a hot contest.

“A Romance in Virtual Space” (first appeared in May 1997 issue of Game Quest)

Among all of the stories compiled for this book, this one is the oldest. The story was written to coincide with the magazine’s serialization of the role-playing game GURPS Dream Quest and as a way to introduce readers to the MUGEN Net, which would be the setting for the RPG. Unfortunately, the series never came to fruition for various reasons, and “A Romance in Virtual Space” was the only story to be published.

It is at once a traditional science fiction story about virtual reality, a saccharine love story, not to mention an odd female Tarzan story. But I rather like the sticky-sweet ending.

“Mirror Girl” (first appeared in March 29, 1999 issue of SF Online)

The seed for this story came from Ray Bradbury’s short story, “I Sing the Body Electric.” The Bradbury story focuses on an android nanny’s interactions with her young charges; when I thought about how it might be updated for modern times, this was the story I ended up writing.

“Black Hole Diver” (first appeared in October 2004 issue of The Sneaker)

I received an offer from the editors at The Sneaker, a light-novel magazine that doesn’t specialize in hard science fiction, to write a short SF story. It was rare to get an offer to write a science fiction story from anywhere other than a SF magazine. I eagerly sent the editorial department a list of possible plots.

At the top of the list were light-novel stories I’d conceived with the The Sneaker’s readers in mind, with the stories’ sci-fi elements becoming increasingly stronger as you went down the list. I put “Black Hole Diver” last on the list, thinking they would never let me write anything so hardcore. So imagine my shock when the editors chose it!

“You didn’t expect us to choose this one, did you?” the editor said to me with a laugh. Wow, he must’ve read my mind! But when I asked with some trepidation, “Would you like me to tone it down for your readers?” the reply was, “No need to hold back, write it the way you like.” Now I had to rise to their expectations! And so I was allowed to indulge my tastes and write a hard science fiction story.

Although I did, rather clumsily, sneak in a “moe” character in the form of Illy’s robot maid body .

“A World Where Justice Is Just” (first appeared in June 2005 issue of The Sneaker)

When I submitted the proposal for the hardcover publication of this book, the editors told me that they wanted to balance out the collection with one more story. I thought about it. I had already done stories about an android, the birth of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, so to come up with another story that didn’t overlap with the others…

Then I realized that I had yet to explore the idea of reality as seen from someone who lives in virtual reality. Since I had already written about the shock of discovering that you exist in a virtual reality in God Never Keeps Silent, I decided to give Saika a more defiant attitude—”So what if this world is a virtual reality!” As soon as the idea struck me, the rest of the story quickly fell into place.

I worried even after finishing the story. The first half is more of a gag story, while the second half suddenly takes a serious turn. The tonal balance was definitely odd, but because I liked both parts as they were I decided to keep them.

Reading the story over, I found myself laughing at those silly gags and getting choked up over Saeko’s last message to Saika.

The title of the story, as I was writing it, had been “The Email from the End of the World,” but when the editors told me the title lacked impact, I changed it. For a while, the new title “A World Where Justice Is Just” sounded strange, but now it seems like an appropriate title that matches the overarching theme of the novel.

Incidentally, the dynamic duo of Saika and Mafuyu wasn’t really inspired by any particular anime, but I have to say, I couldn’t help hearing the voices of Yoko Honna and Yukana, voice actors from the anime Purikua, in my head as I was writing the dialogue.

“The Day Shion Came” (written for the novel)

My wife used to be a nurse and worked at a senior nursing facility until she gave birth. After I had heard so much of her trials and tribulations at work, it occurred to me, “Maybe it would help to have a caregiver android.”

Before setting out to write, I read a lot about elder care, interviewed my wife, and visited a care facility. Many of the episodes are based on my wife’s experiences. I think the story is pretty realistic as a result. Once I finished the story, I asked my wife to go over it and correct any points that might seem odd, so I believe the people working at senior nursing facilities will be satisfied by the end product.

Accordingly, I had so much to write that the story ended up being unexpectedly long. However, it’s been pared down to a length without any extraneous details.

It’s questionable whether an android would actually be able to learn caregiving skills so easily, but the heart of the story is not so much about Shion’s technical development but about her psychological growth. My goal was to jettison the age-old convention of the robot learning to love through human interaction.

But darn if the part towards the end where Shion sings doesn’t bring a tear to my eye.

“AI’s Story” (written for the book)

Since I originally started with the idea of a beautiful combat android telling stories to a boy, the reason for a combat android to be shaped like a woman and Ibis’s motivation for telling the boy these stories had to be added eventually. But when I actually wrote those parts, I was surprised to find just how well that situation seemed to work for the story. It’s as if I had already thought of this ending by the time I had written “The Universe on My Hands” and “A Romance in Virtual Space.” Although that really wasn’t the case.

All through the process of writing, I was bothered by whether the climax lacked a catharsis. But just when it came time to write that scene, I realized, “There should be a battle.” When I read over what I’d written thus far, it was already alluding to a battle. It wasn’t planned, but I had to do it.

I rarely write fight scenes, but I tore through this one with zeal. I think the story turned out to be exciting, but touching, as a result.

I had always felt an aversion to the way robots thought and spoke all too much like humans in science fiction books and manga. If they think like humans, then they might as well already be humans.

The difference between robots and humans can’t simply be about whether your body is made of metal or not. Perhaps the biggest distinction is in the difference in their self-consciousness.

It’s meaningless to demand that robots be just like humans. Robots cannot become human. It’s hard to imagine that robots, lacking sexual appetites and the instinct to preserve their species, could develop romantic feelings or maternal love. Even so, I believe they would have a heart. A heart does not necessarily mean to think just like humans. The term “skunk’s fallacy,” appearing in the novel, comes from the lines the villain Skunk Kusai says in an episode of Astro Boy called “Lightning Man”:

“Astro Boy isn’t perfect. That’s because he doesn’t have a bad heart.”
“If he were a perfect work of art, he would have the same heart as a human.”

These words are rooted in the fallacy that “perfection” = “identical to humans.” In fact, this is how many people think. That man is the lord of all creation and stands at the apex of evolution. That for robots to progress in their evolution, man is the goal they must This is not so. For robots, humanity would neither be the goal nor a way station in the evolutionary process. No doubt robots would have a progression and a goal of their own. I don’t know if robots will ever attain the goal I described in this novel in the distant future. That’s because “Ai’s Story” too is a fiction. But I sincerely hope that’s the kind of ending they will see.

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Two New Books, Starring My Dog!

Advance copies of Slum Online and The Stories of Ibis came in to the office today, and by extension, to my home. The books won’t hit stories until sometime next month (we had a little delay in our schedule, sorry about that) but that just gives you, dear reader, more time to contemplate your reading choices for the next month. Slum Online is a slice-of-life story about a guy who is nearly addicted to a martial arts MMO, The Stories of Ibis is a novel-in-stories about the rise of artificial intelligence and the decline of humanity (…and the completion of humanity’s greatest dream!) But which is better? To find out, I asked my dog Kazzie.

First, she was undecided:

But finally, remembering her love of Holden Caulfield, made a choice!

Slum Online it is!

Of course—and this was a shameful secret—my dog Kazzie can’t actually read English. But she’s made her choice. What might yours be? Intellectual science fiction, or youth-of-today martial arts drama? You tell me! Heck, you can get your hands on both and join the Kazzie Book Club today!

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World SF, Worth Reading BEFORE developing an opinion

The Twitterverse is aflame today over comments made by Norman Spinrad in his latest On Books column in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. I was sent the link by three different people who wanted my opinion on it. At first I was excited. Was it a very juicy column? Was it about meeeee? Sadly, no.

Instead, it’s a meandering display of fundamental ignorance about what we call “world science fiction.” The column was brought to my attention thanks to this line:

With the exception of the Japanese, I at least, am at a loss to point to any science fiction that I know of that has evolved independently in non-European languages or cultures disconnected therefrom.

Anyone who has read one of our lovely Haikasoru titles would stop there. Japanese SF certainly did not evolve independently of that well-loved European culture…the United States? (We’ll see soon that Spinrad includes most of the planet in “Europe” for some reason.) I spent a few hours some time ago digging up a copy of an obscure van Vogt story from 1944, “The Harmonizer”, as it is this story from which the titular character of our forthcoming The Stories of Ibis is named. Surely that doesn’t spoil a sixty-six-year-old story, right? Also, author Hiroshi Yamamoto named a chapter of his book The Universe on My Hands after the Fredric Brown short story collection Space on my Hands. Japanese SF authors will often proudly wear their influences on their sleeves, and those influences include American science fiction writers of the Golden Age and New Wave, as well as manga, the space race, philosophy both Western and Eastern, etc.

Spinrad’s claim is simply inaccurate, but what really upset people was this:

So, for now at least, and in the apparent absence of a significant body of science fiction written by born and bred Africans, this Caucasian American is probably the closest thing there is or has been to an African science fiction writer, with the exception of Octavia Butler. Who did write the same sort of thing, and did it well, and was Black to boot, but I use that politically incorrect word rather than “African American” because aside from her genetic heritage she was no more African than Mike Resnick.

Very silly. Forget the fact that the film District 9—directed by South African Neill Blomkamp—was recently nominated for an Academy award. (This is rather aside than one what thinks of the film or its depictions of Africans, specifically Nigerians.) There are African science fiction writers: Nnedi Okorafor comes immediately to mind. By definition, of course, any African SF writer would be better at being an African SF writer than non-African Mike Resnick, despite non-African Norman Spinrad crowning him as such.

The problem is that Spinrad is just making an appeal to ignorance. He’s not familiar with the many writers of world SF, so he assumes they do not exist. For whatever reason, though he could be familiar with Japanese SF as some of it has been translated into English, he decided to ignore actually existing Japanese SF. He also utterly ignores Chinese SF, which has been a going concern since 1904 at least. China is also the home of Science Fiction World, the most widely read SF magazine on the planet.

Further, Spinrad isn’t necessarily a good judge of how writers tackle other cultures. He lauds Ian McDonald’s Brasyl which for the first 200 pages was indeed a very strong novel. It devolved utterly into a series of silly fights and battles though, and at least some of the silliness can be laid right at McDonald’s feet. He credits the Brazilian martial dance capoeira, for example, with a martial prowess it simply doesn’t have. That’s especially sad as there is a native Brazilian martial art which is one of the most formidable in the world: Brazilian jiu-jitsu. BJJ even has multicultural origins (based on Japanese Judo and Euro-American catch wrestling, perfected by a Scottish-Brazilian family: the famous Gracies), which is one of the themes of the book. Sounds like nitpicking, but much of Brasyl’s climax does hang on the efficacy of capoeira and anyone familiar with Brazil’s martial or street cultures knows that it just doesn’t work outside of its own set of highly stylized competitions. McDonald stumbled in my view—the last 100 pages of Brasyl just felt like action-packed “fan service”—and Spinrad didn’t notice the fall at all.

Of course, Spinrad has also managed to declare Latin America, thanks to Spanish and Portuguese, “not entirely culturally disconnected from the self-styled First World.” Indeed, but Japan isn’t so disconnected either. Indeed, nor are the science fiction writers of the Philippines and the Indian sub-continent, many of whom write in English as either their first language or as a close second. One cannot even appeal to the paucity of translations to defend ignorance of these SFnal traditions, as increasing amounts of SF in English from these countries has been becoming available thanks to the Internet and global publishing. Part of what makes the First World the First World is that it is nigh impossible to be culturally disconnected from it, after all.

In the end, it just feels as though Spinrad isn’t making a cultural argument, but a racialist one. Japan was occupied by the US and the origins of modern Japanese SF are most often located by historians to that occupation and subsequent cultural exchange. (Even the pre-war Japanese SF, of which there was some, was heavily influenced by translations of Western SF and mystery stories.) Why insist that Latin America is essentially connected to the “First World”, but that African and Asian countries—which include many Francophones and Anglophones thanks partially to colonialism—somehow are not. (And thus have no SF!) In Spinrad’s essay, there appears to be an unexamined assumption that Africans and Asians are fundamentally different than Europeans—and “Europe” for mysterious reasons includes the peoples of the Americas. This is not even due to a dependence on the old framework of First/Second/Third World, as Spinrad acknowledges how problematic these terms are. Ultimately, Spinrad doesn’t know much about world SF, and feels entitled to project his own vision on terra incognita, thus his insistence that white American midwesterner Mike Resnick is as close as the world has come to an “African science fiction writer.”

As world SF becomes more popular, such attitudes will surely be corrected one way or another, but right now it is quite disappointing to see such a wrongheaded essay in the country’s leading science fiction magazine.

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That was how the story had unfolded three days ago. And then Xevale came up with his plot proposal—one in which the Celestial received a distress signal from the mining base the moment it came out of warp and entered the planetary system—only today. And how the away team took the shuttlecraft Dart to the base only to find that the workers had all been killed by some mysterious force.

“This story better have a resolution,” I said to myself, dubious about the whole turn of events. Knowing Xevale, he probably didn’t have an explanation for the workers’ deaths. He only liked to create these kinds of mysterious incidents.

I could just ignore Xevale’s plot submission. But then simply destroying the planet and the DS as planned didn’t provide much of a catharsis. The story could use one more twist before the end. After thinking about it long and hard, I pasted the text written by Xevale onto a new web page, created a link from the contents page, and clicked PUBLISH.
Just as I opened a new tab on the browser to verify the changes on the website, there was a knock at the door.


I left the computer running and went to answer the door. I couldn’t remember ordering anything by mail order. The only people that came knocking on the door on a late Saturday afternoon were either newspaper solicitors or some lady from a local religious group. I’ll just get rid of them.

Standing on the other side of the peephole were a young policeman and a balding middle-aged man.

I cautiously opened the door just a crack, and the middle-aged man asked, “Are you Nanami Shiihara?” He pulled out his ID from his gray coat and held it up in front of my face. Although I’d seen plenty of police IDs being flashed on TV, this was my first exposure to the real thing.

“My name is Iioka. I’ve been asked by the Niigata Prefectural Police to investigate an incident. Do you know a young man by the name of Yuichiro Tanizaki?”

Yuichiro Tanizaki—several seconds went by before I could retrieve that name from my memory. It was the name of Shawn Mornane in Maintenance.

“Yes, I know him,” I replied.

“Is he a member of your club?” the detective asked.

“Yes, what about him?”

“He killed someone.”

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