Kobo Abe's Inter Ice Age 4 (and Game Design)<Inter Ice Age 4 by Kōbō Abe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Relation to Pitfall, duplicate identities
The obscurity of systems (hospitals, committees)
After finishing this I wanted context so I found a few Kobo Abe essays about Science Fiction from the early 1960s. Here's a quote from one 1962, written 3-4 years after IIA4 was serialized (1958-59). In particular I like his use of the word 'hypothesis'.
(Also important context, but if you read his other essays, you'll find that he had a pretty cogent analysis of Americans and ideology in the 1950s. In that sense I think that reading his work merely as "Kafka-esque" or "Absurd and wacky" is doing him a disservice!)
In literature, proximity to discovered facts is far less important than adherence to the internal laws of discovery itself. In other words, it’s a question of forming a hypothesis and then seeing to what extent you can erect a new system of rules, utterly different from the existing rules of our everyday lives.
Maybe what we call the everyday is just thought without hypotheses. Or rather hypotheses exist, but they cling so stubbornly to phenomenal reality that they have already lost their function. When a fresh hypothesis is brought in, the everyday is suddenly destabilized and begins to take on strange new forms. It becomes activated, objectified, and our consciousness is roughly shaken.
From Kobo Abe's essay The Boom in Science Fiction (1962)
The idea of the "hypothesis" reminds me of game design. Core to a lot of games is picking "core game mechanics" (movement, shooting, whatever) and see how many things you can do with it (levels) without straying too far from the core. But to me, as a game designer, where things get interesting are when you bring that 'hypothesis' into the realm of narrative and spatial potential: creating meaning by slowly introducing variation in where the mechanical ideas take place and the narrative context they take place in. Then, sure - you have the classic, formal 'game' core of solving little puzzles or combat encounters, but they're woven in, used as the pacing device for the transformation of the game's world, creating something that goes beyond the game being described as its composite parts. It goes beyond textual definition and has to be played to be understood. And in doing so I think "...the everyday is suddenly destabilized and begins to take on strange new forms.". Or to be more clear I think that's how you get interesting games... and books, maybe.
Spoilers below -
(For context, the plot: A scientist is making a future-prediction machine to compete with Russians, but due to political pressure and bureaucracy of his lab, he has to stop. To solve this issue he somehow decides to kidnap a person and use their brain to predict that person's future. That goes awry, and eventually the scientist finds out that his lab has secretly been working in conjunction with a Japanese conglomorate creating aquatic humans (Aquans), who take unborn fetuses from women getting abortions (there's a bit of a murder mystery plot tied into all this). The scientist's future-predictor can actually create 'copies' of human consciousness, and it turns out that he's been guided by a copy of his own consciousness, who has been conspiring with the scientist's labmates. The future-predictor also predicts the downfall of mankind and the transition to a society led by the Aquans with only a few land-dwellers living in undersea buildings, and the book ends with the scientist being killed (because he can't stop himself from leaking the secrets about the human engineering, due to his wife having unknowingly given up a fetus for it.))
There's probably similarities in what Abe's talking about and later examples of "surrealism" or "magical realism" (especially the Japanese author You Know Who - don't say his name!) but I feel like considering his essay in context with those terms (which I don't know enough about) will lead me in circles, so:
I get the sense that IIA4 was Abe working on a "hard SF" novel, but then in the years to come (probably from being in the midst of the SF community, given he serialized IIA4 in a large SF magazine), he took issue with the trends within writing and criticism in SF and was looking outwards. His later novels often have some scientific research to them but it's not overfocused on.
The least interesting parts of IIA4 are the Hard SF parts of it. Scientifically-sound (at least to me) paragraphs explaining things that I was fairly happy to accept as plot devices without seeing their logic worked out. To me they read more like a coat of paint applied to the novel so it could be included in the SF magazine. From other reviews I hear the devices are similar to some classic SF authors (although I've never looked into them). The plot moves around topics sort of scattershot but it gets tied together satisfyingly for me, so that's fine.
There's similarities to his later work - duplicate identities (see (view spoiler)[the movie Pitfall (hide spoiler)]), bureaucratic struggles (Secret Rendezvous), surprisingly vast spaces hidden just below the surface of the familiar (Ark Sakura), etc.
I found it interesting to see the book set in a hypothetical contrast of the USA, Japan and Russia. Japan is anxious about losing a race to Russia, all three are hiding research from each other, and the scientific committee bureaucracy is worried about working on a future-prediction device due to political implications with the USA. One of the lead scientists' (not the protagonist) true beliefs are so nebulous that even Abe isn't sure what he believes, but I feel that's true to life (especially with powerful capitalists like that scientist).
The device of the Aquans (and the (presumably) classic SF trope of "speculate really far into the future to when humanity goes extinct" stuff) didn't come off to me as a contrast between races. The Aquans (who are aquatic humans succeeding us land-dwellers) judge and analyze why us humans did what we did, even some of them aspiring to be more like us as they visit "Aeriums" to see what land looked like.
As Abe mentions in his postscript, to me that feels more like the "future of humanity" judging our present. Or on a smaller timescale, to me it feels like it's asking us to explore the ways in which our life paths can depart from the normal social scripts we're given to follow. Rethinking relations to work, family, gender, etc. The Aquans have adjusted to the flooded world, we haven't.
How can one "be an Aquan" more? How can one adjust more to the actual reality of our present day (and nearing future?) As a previous Asian-American (who now lives in Japan) I've been having various cycles of depressing thoughts about Americans' response to the pandemic 'being over', the seemingly endless cycle of American social media only having attention for one world issue for one week (before moving to the next), as well as the similarities between Japan and the USA's responses.
In any case, I'm glad I read this because I have a sense for what Abe meant by "hypothesis" and moving book plots away from natural realism, and why he was interested in stranger settings and plots.
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