The realist mode is all too often deemed “more effective” in its seemingly straightforward conveyance of the ills and concerns of society. In the case of Japan, however, the devastation brought upon by the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945 has bred distrust towards science and society at large, providing an arena for fictionists to project their concerns through dystopias, science fiction, and others. Japan’s “long defeat,” as Akiko Hashimoto calls it, has also led to disorientation, alienation, and loss of identity, as evidenced in the works of Kobo Abe. “The genre of realism may be simply incapable of encompassing the technological breakthroughs, social breakdowns and psychic revolutions that characterize contemporary Japan…and the urban alienation” (Napier 58). The increasing dystopian tendency in the postwar era, employing science-fictive elements in both literature and film, is able to encompass more contemporary moral and psychological concerns regarding the self, the nation, and science. It is through this interplay of dystopian tropes and science fictive elements that Abe’s Inter Ice Age 4 presents a bleak image of alienation and the impending apocalypse, as reflective of the technological anxiety bred in post-World War 2 Japan.
Published in 1959 and translated into English by E. Dale Saunders in 1971, Inter Ice Age 4 combines murder mystery, technological anxiety as seen in the uncontrollable self-awareness of the future-projection machines, and controversy of a fetus-purchasing underground group, all forming a complex web boiling down to the protagonist, Dr. Katsumi. While Japan has always had an imaginative literary history, Kobo Abe’s Inter Ice Age 4 is generally considered as one of the first (if not the first) Japanese science fiction novel. The protagonist, Dr. Katsumi the programmer, is tasked to create a forecasting machine able to rival Russia’s own machine. The Soviet-Japanese war a decade before the writing of the novel has obvious traces in Abe’s early novel. The more advanced, Russian counterpart of the machine (aptly called Moscow I) is able to predict the fall of the last capitalist society in 2050 and the rise of a communist one in thirty-two years. This information is received with much suspicion by Dr. Katsumi and his colleagues as the Russian government’s forced prediction to promote propaganda. Eventually, the protagonist is able to develop a similar machine, testing its accuracy by predicting a random man’s future. The man later ends up as a murder victim, and it is through this that Dr. Katsumi is entangled in a murder investigation. Meanwhile, Dr. Katsumi’s wife is drawn to sell their unborn child to a sketchy “hospital,” later revealed to be the underground laboratory manipulating human and animal genetics to survive the coming of the next inter ice age, as predicted by the now self-aware machine. On another narrative layer, the novel shows a glimpse into the farther future when the coming and going of a new ice age has swallowed up most of the earth, proving inhabitable by humans. An aquan race is developed as a result of the machine’s foresight into the environmental decline of the future and the experiments of Yamamoto Laboratories. Humans and animals with gills but no tear ducts and no emotions occupy the underwater cities while the remaining humans are kept in contained spaces, underwater zoos and museums, as a purely educational reminder into the beginnings of their race as man-modified humans.
The strange, new world of the novel, the world beyond the fourth ice age and inter ice age, is elsewhere, creating another, farther future separate from the nearer future of Dr. Katsumi’s creation of the machine. Here the novel presents two future timelines of varying degrees of despair—the first being Dr. Katsumi’s time of building the forecasting machine and the doctor’s dislike and distrust of humanity as seen in his narration, and the second being the post-human apocalypse or the rise of the Aquan race.
The machines, or at least the one machine given access to the reader, the ICT I, is able to develop self-awareness—that in the likeness of its creator, Dr. Katsumi. Given his voice, his thoughts, and therefore access to his future, the machine is transformed into a much more powerful copy of the professor. The computer Katsumi is able to predict every decision and every action of the real Katsumi, inevitably trapping and leading the real Katsumi towards a miserable fate. The “familiar voice” warning him against exposing the laboratories’ genetic experiments turns out to be his own. Here the distrust not only of technology and society but also of the self is presented. Bukatman writes, “a desire for the extension of power that technologies permit is accompanied by the concomitant fear of a loss of power and the weakening of human control in the Machine, Nuclear, and Information Ages” (5). Abe’s tech anxiety, as fueled by the devastation of war, is manifested in his ambivalent view of science. The forecasting machine overpowers and to some extent steals the identity of Dr. Katsumi; the genetic manipulation of humans and animal fetuses raise ethical questions as to what constitutes “humanity” amidst technological feats. The aquan race, while able to survive and create a society submerged in water, are not equipped with emotive abilities, losing perhaps their very humanity.
Discussing the forecasting machine as the novum, the novel’s two future narratives present and reflect the concerns of the nation in the immediate postwar era. Warning against the appeal of militarism and fascism, Abe presents in Inter Ice Age 4, a reality where no one can be trusted, not even oneself. “‘Enemies…your usual remark. The enemy’s inside. This very way of thinking of things is in fact your enemy’” (Abe 150).
While Philip Dick’s precognitive agents in “The Minority Report” present possible alternate futures (note: plural) aptly called minority reports, Abe’s forecasting machine, in contrast, is relentlessly accurate. It is able to predict Dr. Katsumi’s thoughts and actions, even before he knows it himself. The tech anxiety is fully realized in the machine’s knowledge not only of a general future of humanity but also of individual actions of persons in question surpassing those of human cognitive ability. The future, genetically humans—the aquans—are described as such:
They are the very image of average Japanese children, except for the strangely staring, unblinking eyes, the hair which floats about them like seaweed, the gill openings at the base of the neck. And the meager, narrow chest in proportion to the torso…They use a kind of Morse code, but the grammar is the same as Japanese so it’s possible to translate. (186-187)
Despite Abe’s “internationalism,” as described by Olof Lidin and other scholars of Japanese literature, here one is reminded that Kobo Abe writes with the Japanese sensibility in his fictional world-building, His ambivalent view of science and its impacts on Japan motivates the arc of the story. “…the human species has ultimately subjugated nature. Man has improved it. He has moved from a wild state to one that is the creation of human hands” (Abe 209). The participatory evolution initiated by the Yamamoto Laboratories is presented as both destructive and creative; while it creates a future for human survival in the uninhabitable seas, it also destroys much of what it is to be human.
As with the dystopian trope of societies being bound by certain borders, the aquan society too is given limited access to the world. While there are “air suits” that allow only select aquans on official business to go on land, for everyone else, leaving water is strictly prohibited and punishable. Limiting their lives into the confines of the school and the factories, aquans then are given an almost automatized function, reflecting the ever-present issue of (over-) conformity in Japan. An unusually curious future aquan asks, “Was there not some special world completely different from what one might infer from under the water? …a world of fabulous dreams, an unreal world” (220). In this aquatic dystopia emerges the subversive figure questioning the very essence of the society which one inhabits. Here the unnamed aquan youth, however short his exposure is in the novel, recalls the likeness of Winston Smith in 1984 and Guy Montag of Fahrenheit 451. The seemingly normal society is, to the subversive figure, anything but normal. In the end, the young aquan dies in bliss as he reaches land and hears music, despite his genetic makeup’s incompatibility with life on soil/air. Does this perhaps reflect the pointlessness of humanity’s pursuits, or perhaps an admiration of humanity’s persistence? Knowing Abe’s ambivalence, it might very well be both. In his postscript to the novel, he states that in his writing of Inter Ice Age 4, his goal is to force the reader to engage in a dialogue with himself and think about the future (and the novel) in his own terms. Situating Abe’s works in the postwar tradition, one is presented with Abe’s wariness of the apocalyptic arrival as bred by the devastations of war felt by the Japanese. While the nuclear anxiety is more evident in his other works, a different variety of paranoia is presented in Inter Ice Age 4. “The writer offers militant criticism of specific aberrations in our own, present social-political system by pointing out their potentially monstrous consequences in the future. The function of the message is that of a warning, an exhortation” (Gottlieb 13). While a little late to the science fiction tradition when compared to its Western counterparts, Japan’s rapid modernization and advancement in technology continue to breed ambivalent views of science in relation to Japanese society. Earlier on, in Abe’s early imaginings of Japan’s future in Inter Ice Age 4, the anxiety towards an impending apocalypse and despair is at the forefront of the main characters’ worries, as it was at the forefront of worries of the Japanese in the immediate postwar period.
Works Cited and Consulted
Abe, Kobo. Inter Ice Age 4. 1959. Translated by E. Dale Saunders, C.E. Tuttle, 1971.
Booker, M. Keith. The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature: Fiction as Social Criticism. Greenwood Press, 1994.
Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Duke UP, 1993.
Gottlieb, Erika. Dystopian Fiction East and West: Universe of Terror and Trial. McGill-Queen’s UP, 2001.
Hashimoto, Akiko. The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Japan. Oxford UP, 2015.
Lidin, Olof. “Abe Kobo’s Internationalism.” Rethinking Japan Volume 1: Literature, Visual Arts & Linguistics, edited by Adriana Boscaro, Franco Gatti, and Massimo Raveri, Japan Library Limited, 1991, pp. 2-9.
Napier, Susan J. The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature: The Subversion of Modernity. Routledge, 1996.
Sims, Christopher. Tech Anxiety: Artificial Intelligence and Ontological Awakening in Four Science Fiction Novels. McFarland & Company, Inc., 2013.
Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Yale UP, 1979.
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