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Hiroshi Yamamoto on THE STORIES OF IBIS

by nickmamatas

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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9 Responses to “Hiroshi Yamamoto on THE STORIES OF IBIS”

  1. I cannot understand why students and scientist like this robot mechanics this much.I really don’t like it personally. I believe that human is creating himself the weapon against the human society. I might be wrong but this is my thinking and for sure i will not buy any automatic mechanics software at least in my house.

  2. Egjen Skis says:

    Wow!!! What a delightful book. I think Hiroshi Yamamoto’s “The Stories of Ibis” was a brilliant work of science fiction. I greatly appreciated the care and integration of hard science into this remarkable story. As bookstore shelves succumb to the flood of fantasy fiction and vampire pulp, I am most grateful when I find a book like “The Stories of Ibis”. I can’t wait to read more by this author and learn more about hard science fiction writers who do not live in North America or Europe.
    With respect and my deepest appreciation,
    Egjen Skis

  3. nickmamatas says:

    Great! Please tell your friends, and I’m looking to publish more Yamamoto soon, so keep an eye on the site for announcements…

  4. Andrew V says:

    I just finished the novel and came back to read this interview. It’s nice to hear Yamamoto’s own thoughts on the authors and stories that informed Ibis. Is it too much to hope for “God Never Keeps Silent” in English?

    Thanks for your hard work bringing Japanese SF to English-speaking audiences!

  5. Danny B. says:

    I was glad to see someone shed a good light on human/AI interactions. This is one book I’ll be passing along whenever I get the chance.

  6. Honey says:


    A great book. The best book I’ve read in five years and I do a lot of reading. I like it better than Quantum Thief, House of Suns, a Quiet War, The City and the City, Anathem, Dervish House, amd Surface Detail and many more. I’ve mentioned it favorably twice on SF Signal and wish it would be in the voting for best book of the year. I also think this book lends itself perfectly for classroom discussion in a general lit. class or SF lit. class because of the topics it discusses and the way the chapters are framed. Hiroshisan, I’d love to read more of your work when Mamatasan or whoever gets it translated and published. Keep up the great writing!

  7. nickmamatas says:

    Glad to hear you liked the book so much, Honey! You might be interested to know that indeed THE STORIES OF IBIS is required reading in at least one college classroom—an English course on science fiction—already. I’d love many more to adopt the book as well.

  8. DrScientist says:

    I’m a scientist and enjoy some scifi, but the only authors I actually read much and enjoy are Stanislaw Lem, Philip K Dick, and William Gibson, because they have something to say behind the stories that is sometimes deep, and are written with great intelligence (but not great ego). Now I can add Hiroshi Yamamoto to this too-short list. Stories of Ibis is one of few scifi books worth re-reading and saving on the bookshelf for a long time. Thanks for bring him to us Non-Japanese reading readers.

  9. […] “a tale of love,” (or “a tale of AI” or “a tale of I”–the author likes the pun) and you could say the novel is a love story between man and machine on a grand […]

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