Abe – Inter Ice Age 4


Abe Kobo.  Inter Ice Age 4.  Trans. E. Dale Saunder.  New York: Knopf.  1970 [1959].

I know, I hear you.  “You promised regular blog posts about SF!  What gives?”  I honestly just haven’t known where to start with this book.  Maybe I shouldn’t feel bad.  Included in this edition is an afterword by Abe in which he says that he himself didn’t really know what to think of this book.  He says that, by the time it finished serialization in Sekai (in 1959, having started in ’58), he’d posed a lot of questions to which he simply didn’t have any answers.  Knowing Abe, that could just be another layer of performance that he’s folding into the book, but I’m going to take him at his word for now, if only to make myself feel better.  I still don’t know where to start, but I’ve already started writing, so let’s see where it takes us.  

Inter Ice Age 4 (Dai yon kanpyouki 第四間氷期) often gets pegged as the first “true” Japanese SF novel in histories of this sort of thing.  Surely, that appellation can be contested, depending on your definitions, but Abe’s position within the literary canon means that SF partisans can claim ready-made legitimacy as their bulwark against SF’s detractors.  Call me a cynic, but it seems to me that those concerned about SF’s place within cultural hierarchies of value were delighted to hitch their wagon to Abe – already renowned following his Akutagawa Prize win in 1951 for “The Wall: The Crimes of S. Karma”.  That Abe made regular contributions of essays on SF to publications like SF Magazine was all the better.

The novel concerns, on the one hand, the invention of a forecasting machine that allows a group of computer scientists to predict the future and, on the other, the secret development of cows, dogs, humans, and other mammals genetically engineered to live underwater.  These two halves are brought together around the mystery of a salaryman’s murder that asks the reader to consider whether society has more responsibility to prioritize the future or the present.  In Abe’s usual fashion, there is meticulous narrative attention to physical detail that, in much the same way as an ordinary object viewed under a microscope looks entirely alien, conversely serves to defamiliarize everyday reality.  Realism is surreal.  That said, compared with some of Abe’s work from the ’60s and ’70s, this novel is stylistically more conventional, letting the strangeness of the narrative take center stage rather than drawing more attention to the narrative apparatus itself.

Inter Ice Age 4 was created during a time when Abe’s relationship with the Japanese Communist Party was becoming strained, and one feels it in the narrative.  If we read the novel as a political allegory, it’s easy to see how the computer science research lab, run by a committee incapable of committing to any kind of radical action, might represent the JCP, whereas the experimental biologists devoid of morals who are creating the aquan creatures at the behest of shadowy business investors would represent something closer to global capitalism (there are nuances in both these sides, however, that I think complicates that reading a bit).  Unsurprisingly, neither of these factions is painted in a light that would lead the reader to think they represent the “right answer” to the questions Abe’s novel poses.

But I want to try to read this as more than just a reflection of Abe’s life and his political career.  How is it as SF?  Specifically, what does it have to say about embodiment?  These are much harder questions, but perhaps not impossible.  The central question of temporality and responsibility provides one entry.  Interestingly, the stakes of that question are always bodily.  If we choose to prioritize the future, as the biologists want, then we are forced to give up our rights as currently living citizens, prioritizing instead all the potential future subjects we might create or support.  This point is vividly illustrated in the source of human “stock” for genetic engineering being fetuses that are taken from women who believe they are having abortions, one of whom is the computer scientist narrator’s wife.  The women are duped into thinking they’ve had the abortion when in fact the fetuses are taken to the biologists’ secret labs, where they are genetically altered and raised in artificial wombs.  What’s more, by the biologists’ way of thinking, anyone that might stand in the way of the future represented by the aquan children must be killed.  This is what happened to the murdered man, his mistress, and (it is suggested) the narrator in the end.  Since the production of aquatic mammals and the development of undersea factories where they are to work would likely be stopped by the government in the event the genetic alteration program is brought to light, anyone that would reveal it is considered to be an existential threat and is killed.  In other words, considerations of the potential future productivity of these underwater sites of production takes precedence over rights in the present to one’s own life and reproductive control.

Important here as well, I think, is the fact that the future is represented by an evolution of the human body, with the forecasting machine’s final prognostication envisioning a future society composed almost entirely of aquans, rising ocean levels having wiped out much of land-based humanity.  The relationship between aquans and air-breathing humans has gone from that of two sovereign cultures to one in which land-based humans are kept almost like zoo animals in museum-like facilities underwater for the aquans to gawp at.

On the other hand, the alternative seems to be an eternal present incapable of moving into the future.  The government committee that oversees the narrator’s lab in charge of the forecasting machine essentially prevents the machine’s use, citing the risks involved in making forecasts that are “political” in nature.  But of course, anything can be read as political, and so the narrator grows increasingly frustrated in the early portion of the book as he tries to concoct a proposal for a prediction to which the committee will not object as being too politically charged.  They specifically reject a number of seemingly innocuous predictions because they might call into question the status quo surrounding (for example) land rights or other governmental policies.  In their view, it seems, suggesting that certain policies might be improved is tantamount to a wholesale invalidation of the governmental system itself.  Thus, any orientation toward a potentially better future must be quashed in order to preserve the present and its balance of power (a term I use in reference to the explicit invocation of the Cold War in the narrative).  And at least from the frequent descriptions of how oppressive the narrator’s lab space is, how little sleep he’s getting, and how he seems to sustain himself entirely on coffee and cigarettes, the present that is being preserved isn’t a particularly happy or healthy one.

Is there a middle ground?  Perhaps a third way?  The first place I can think to look would be for any mention of the past, but unless we give a really generous reading to the symbolism of evolutionary time and ontogeny, pastness is entirely absent.  I’ve never known Abe for being one for half-way measures, either, so the idea of striking a balance between the two ideological extremes seems doubtful.  Still, given his fatalistic portrayal of those extremes, it begs the question of whether the reader can imagine a way to split the difference.  Which way does responsibility lie?  Are we in the present obligated to live our lives oriented toward a brighter future, or does our present freedom override the future, which is ultimately only theoretical?  Abe himself claims not to have the answer, but I wonder whether his point is actually that we each have to find the proper balance to strike for ourselves.  Inherent in the two factions in Inter Ice Age 4 are two ideas of destiny: computational (the forecasting machine) and genetic (the bio-engineered aquans).  Perhaps we can think of this book’s point as refuting the validity of unilateral declarations of destiny as doubly problematic: the present imposing a shape on the future, and that future dictating the direction of present action.  I’m not sure yet.

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