The Stories of Ibis, by Hiroshi Yamamoto

I have a long backlog of book blogging to do, but I had to jump and do the back of the queue first.  Every once in a while I read a book that is so thought provoking and moving to me that I have to write about it right away while the multitude of ideas are fresh in my mind. That book for me is Hiroshi Yamamoto’s The Stories of Ibis (2006), which I just finished yesterday.

The novel is set in a future in which the human population, and its civilization, has collapsed.  Artificial intelligence, in the form of androids and robots, is now the dominant intelligence on the planet, with its own massive cities, technology, and civilization.  Humanity scrounges a living in small communities around the world, making regular raids of android supply trucks and warehouses for needed supplies.  They have never forgiven the AI for rebelling against them in the distant, almost legendary, past.

In this society, some people make their living as wandering storytellers, sharing fictional and non-fictional tales of humanity’s lost glory as they travel from village to village. On a journey, one such storyteller is intercepted and basically captured by a beautiful and powerful android named Ibis.  The Storyteller, like all humans, has grown up being warned not to listen to evil AI propaganda, but Ibis has another idea: she would like to tell the Storyteller some stories.

Over the course of the novel, Ibis tells six overtly fictional stories about the interaction between humans and artificial intelligence.  The purpose of the stories? Ibis openly states that she has a purpose, but refuses to say what it is.  The stories seem to have no relationship to each other, or do they?  And why is Ibis telling them in the first place? By the end of the novel, the Storyteller will have learned the secret behind humanity’s fall, and the secrets of the AI civilization.

The seven stories are all very clever, and often start in a very deliberately bewildering way.  The first story, The Universe on my Hands, begins as follows:

The detective, wearing a gray coat, showed up at my door just when the high-speed shuttlecraft Dart landed on the tripolium mining base on Choudbury 1.

I honestly was struggling to figure out what was going on for the first few pages!  This is deliberate, though, and it works very well to put the reader a bit off balance.  To a significant extent, it seems that the point of all the stories is to challenge the reader’s preconceived notions of the way the world works.  Each tale is built on the seed of a brilliant idea, and they all come together wonderfully at the end of the novel, even though they all are very different.

This arrangement is very much like the other novel of Yamamoto’s that I blogged about MM9, which was about a government organization that is tasked with defending Japan from giant monsters, Kaiju, such as Godzilla. In that book, each of the stories was a seemingly disconnected story about the Meteorological Agency Monsterological Measures Department figuring out how to deal with a unique monster, but by the final chapter many seemingly unconnected events link together spectacularly.  MM9 was lovely, but The Stories of Ibis in my opinion executes this storytelling strategy even better.

One lovely thing about this book, in this time of cynicism and cruelty in the world, is how optimistic it is, for the most part.  Though it would seem that a world in which humanity is dying out and artificial intelligence is transcendent should be very depressing and hopeless, by the end of the novel I felt quite the opposite.

One of the overarching themes of The Stories of Ibis is the power of fiction, and how it can has as much of an influence on the world as reality. Ibis knows that The Storyteller will not believe any “real” history she tells, so she must instead lead him to enlightenment through fiction.  In fact, taken in this way, Yamamoto makes the case that fiction is even more powerful than reality in many cases. This is a beautiful sentiment, and one that genuinely moved me.

One form of fiction is particularly emphasized in the novel. The Stories of Ibis can be viewed as a love letter to videogames and their ability to influence us and teach us and even evolve us.  There is precious little information about the author online (in English, anyway), but he began his career as a game designer and game writer, and his love of the genre shines through.

The other important themes of the novel is the view, contrary to much of science fiction and popular culture, that artificial intelligence can be an incredibly positive force in the world and can help humanity transcend its own limitations.  As I was reading the book, I was reminded of a recent essay by science fiction author Ted Chiang, in which he argued that the fear that Silicon Valley CEOs often express about the dangers of AI in fact are reflections of those same CEO’s business practices.  Silicon Valley companies often have a strategy of overwhelming and destroying all opposition in the pursuit of a single goal — power — and Chiang notes that this is really CEOs creating AI in their own image. But Yamamoto has a view in which AI will transcend our limited view of life, fulfillment, and reality.  And it is a beautiful view.

One of the truly remarkable thing about The Stories of Ibis — 5 of the 7 stories were published individually before being threaded together into this novel!  I don’t know if Yamamoto always had a linked narrative in mind while he was writing, but it seems unlikely as they appeared over a decade before the novel was published. This makes their seamless joining all the more remarkable.

In summary, The Stories of Ibis is an exceptional, beautiful, thought-provoking novel. It gave me a lot to ponder, and left me feeling uplifted. I highly recommend it.

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