Really, you shouldn’t put too much stock into the Amazon recommendation system. You would think I’d have learned that lesson after it offered to help me buy Hunger Games and Twilight after marking down that I liked The Black Company. Even so, when The Stories of Ibis by Hiroshi Yamamoto showed up in my recommended list, a book in which an android goes around telling tales written by a Japanese author, my interest was piqued.

The cover can not convey how much “Super Anime Time” is contained within.

What lead me to pick up this book was simple, it was free. To me at least. I had gotten an Amazon gift card from completing something at work and so I had to spend it. I had just recently finished several other Japanese books, Confessions of a Mask among them, and seeing a highly rated book from Japan that was not connected with any kind of anime, I became interested. I got the book based on a cursory glance of the summary and decided “I like books of Japanese tales, a sci-fi slanted book sounds up my alley.” After I received the book, I put it in my gaming bag so I would take it with me somewhere and read it. I say somewhere because I promptly forgot about that bag for a year. That is, until this weekend when I found it again and made up for lost time.

The Stories of Ibis is a fairly straight forward book and slightly deceiving. Though touted on Amazon as a novel (when I bought it), it’s more of a light-novel in which several other stories are inlaid, à la, 1000 Arabian Nights. The main plot follows a young man, a storyteller, in what is described as a post-human-robot war earth. His occupation means that he travels from colony to colony spreading stories and entertaining the remnants of humanity, dodging the machine world as much as possible. One day, he meets an android named Ibis who says she wants only to talk with a fellow storyteller. Wary and incapacitated by his fight with her, he listens as she tells him stories leading up to the truth behind what happened when the androids rose up against humanity.

It is not, unfortunately, about a robot bird that tells stories to a future Japanese man in Heian dress, no matter how much you may prefer it…

As far as it goes, this plot makes up the overarching narrative of the book, or the “Intermissions” as they are called. The remainder of the book is devoted to the tales Ibis tells the young man. Several of the stories had been written before the novel had been planned and had been published in various science fiction magazines in Japan. Only the last two of the seven tales are original to the novel.

So what did I think of it? Meh? Despite being quick to read and somewhat engrossing, the book is riddled with problems, mostly related not to content, but with presentation. I’m not sure if it was the translation from Japanese to English, the author’s style, or the fact I had been reading Book of the New Sun before reading Stories of Ibis, but the writing style throughout the book is consistently written as though it were a fanfic.

The amateurishness of the writing is almost overwhelming at times. Of the seven tales, only the last two, the stories written for this novel, were actually very good. The remaining five could be easily confused for twenty page anime pitches. Outside of, I have never seen such a huge amount of anime and cultural clichés in one place. For example, the stories are all about humanity interacting with AIs or androids. The people interacting with these things, usually the protagonist, are all “normal”. Anyone who is described as having worked on the AIs or build the androids are basically the who’s who of geek tropes. You have the overweight NEET with glasses, the skinny and gaunt anti-social, the pervert, the guy that prefers artificial females to real ones, sometimes more than one at once, etc. The plots as well are the most predictable things you’ve ever seen. Each of the first five stories, if you’ve ever seen an anime or sci-fi show, can be figured out in the first few pages even though the author is obviously trying to obscure the facts until the big reveal at the end.

Based on the description in the book, Ibis looks about like this. The future is here and it is a Vocaloid.

This writing style also gets bad marks for not fully immersing the reader. The entire novel is written in one form. There is no variation between the intermissions and the stories. They are written with the same sentence structures, the same tones, the same mannerisms. Needless to say, the stories are all written the same way as well, this despite that, save for the final story, Ibis reads not from memory but from a book. Each story is also written in first person, as are the intermissions. Switching between them is slightly difficult since the atmosphere doesn’t really change. Tonal shifts could have easily given each story its own unique little world for the reader, but it sacrifices these for the promise a twist at the end of each. Along the same lines, during the intermissions, the boy or Ibis will refer to one of the stories that has been read already by referencing not only the character (which are all unique) but also the story’s title. It could just be me, but each time they did this I felt the immersion break. No one references characters or ideas like that in my experience.

Though I’m hard on the execution of the book, I did enjoy the last two stories. These were the originals for this novel and happen to be the two longest, both being about a hundred pages each. These are less anime pitches as they are long discourses on human and android relations. The first is about an android that must learn to be a caregiver for the elderly by being trained by a human. The second is Ibis’ own story of her life and that of Earth after the creation of AIs.

I can’t give too much away, but suffice to say, it’s not a Matrix style interpretation of how relations between humans and thinking machines will play out. The author really uses the format to voice his strong opinion in favor of pure rationalism as a way to achieve world harmonization and his strong opposition to ideology and to religion (Christianity in particular). Ibis’ story in particular points not only to humanity’s failings in the realm of morality, but also towards the inescapable destruction through our own actions (or inactions). It’s a very Japanese sentiment that goes back to at least the early twentieth century and is echoed in all kinds of literature: We must all try to help one another get past our differences, even though it will all be for not in the end. That’s not to say that the philosophy underlying the sentiments of Stories of Ibis is well grounded. It too suffers from an amateurish approach to the will, religion, individual motivation, and the meaning of death. In fact, one could argue that the constructs the author uses to convey his ultimate vision of humanity’s destiny is nothing but a collection of straw men with utterly simplistic and negative views about any philosophy not rooted entirely in logic and morality not stopping to think they may, at times, be mutually exclusive. Actually, that’s not fair, he does discuss this topic briefly from an android’s perspective, but the conclusion is that true morality is purely logical.

I think, aside from the stylistic changes, I would have liked to have seen a lot more content about the androids’ creation. Not so much how they came to be, but how they view their existence. The book is mostly about how androids and humans feel about each other in relation to one another. However, it would have been interesting to see how, from this Japanese nihilism standpoint, how the androids feel about themselves as themselves. What do their consider “alive”? Why is their purpose the way it is once they break free of human will? What are their goals as individuals? Do they have them? These questions are not really answered, though some are discussed quickly in passing. To me, while the rise of the androids story was certainly a page-turner and pretty unique, it didn’t really challenge any conventions or raise any new issues, just a different twist on an old story.

All in all, I’d say Stories of Ibis was alright. It could do with some polishing and some more thought, but its episodic nature made it easy to keep reading and the two stories at the end made it worth my while. I’d recommend borrowing it and giving it a weekend to read.

Rating: ★★★☆☆


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