Tobi – Jisei no yume


Tobi, Hirotaka. Jisei no yume [Autogenic Dreaming]. Tokyo: Kawade Shobo Shinsha. 2016.
Link to Publisher’s website

This is a post I’ve been working on for a while, but held off on publishing because I was presenting some of this material at a recent conference (which was lots of fun!). As far as I can remember, I haven’t written about Tobi Hirotaka here before, despite absolutely loving the stories of his that I’ve read.  This began when I first read the eponymous short story of this collection, “Jisei no Yume” in Haikasoru’s collection The Future is Japanese (where it appears in English, translated by Jim Hubbert, as “Autogenic Dreaming: Interview with the Column of Clouds”).  That story, as well as the companion pieces Tobi wrote for it after it won the Nebula (Seiun) award in 2009, are collected with a few others in this collection, which I picked up at a talk event with Tobi back in July.  There’s a lot to talk about here, and I’m not really sure where to start, but let’s leap before we look and dive in!

First, the practical bits.  This compilation is anchored by the four stories that make up the “Jisei no yume” tetralogy: “#ginnosaji” (#silverspoon), “Kouya ni te” (In the Wastes), “Jisei no yume” (Autogenic Dreaming), and “Yasei no shisou” (The Savage Expression).  “Umi no yubi” (Seafingers, which can be found in this collection in English), “Hoshi mado remixed version” (Star Window, remixed version), and “Haruka na hibiki” (A Distant Echo) round out the contents.

At the aforementioned talk event, Azuma Hiroki commented that we have to approach Tobi’s oeuvre encyclopedically before  we can start to grasp it and appreciate it, and for once, I agree with him.  Tobi’s works are riddled with cross-references, allusions, and literary homages to a gamut of works, both his own and others.  “Kouya ni te” brings to mind “Umi no yubi,” which in turn resonates with “Hoshi mado,” and on and on.  And Tobi doesn’t seem to be making these connections out of narcissism or a simple impulse to move outside the bounds of a given work; reading all of them together, it becomes clear that these stories share, if not a common diegetic setting, a set of common concerns.  In each, Tobi is working through ideas of the writing subject and its Others in the digital age, asking what it means to write – and write creatively – in the contemporary moment, and what it means if a computer does the same.

Specifically, the phrase Azuma used in describing Tobi’s writing style was “GEB-like,” a reference to the Google stand-in that makes up the background of the “Jisei no yume” stories.  GEB is Jorge Luis Borges’s “Total Library” instantiated – the digital archive of all of human experience, translated, tagged, and cross-referenced to the point that a sufficiently sophisticated query of the database can create digital reincarnations of writers long dead.  This is the image Azuma has of Tobi’s poetics, and by extension the ideal reader of his works.  This seemed to hold true in my own experience, in that when I first read “Autogenic Dreaming,” it felt very dreamy and atmospheric in the narrative meanderings from scene to scene.  The main characters (digitally recreated avatars of two dead writers), cut from digital environment to digital environment in a way that makes the whole setting feel very unmoored, like Ahab’s ship floating through a foggy Atlantic night (which in fact appears a few times).  The effect was striking, but as I read the other stories that went together with “Autogenic Dreaming,” I came to see an increasingly nuanced, complex picture of this setting and its denizens.  Each piece stands on its own as a beautiful example of atmospheric, ambient storytelling, but it’s in knitting these pieces together (though never tightly enough to create a hermetically sealed narrative space) that we can start to glimpse Tobi’s larger concerns.

Tobi uses the life and death of Alice Wong – wunderkind protege poet working in the medium of AI – as the center of gravity for this textual solar system.  Orbiting around Alice are a number of meditations on the different forms a writing subject might take, what forms of subjectivity are afforded to them by their material conditions, and what sorts of expression might emerge as a result.  We move from a largely anthropocentric vision of human artists wielding new technological tools in the form of GEB and the AI text agents that can access it, to one in which humans and AIs are members of a kind of cross-cultural artistic movement, their exchanges finding significance in transit between the digital and physical realms.  Most interesting to me is the fact that, while Tobi identifies real threats in this interaction that summon specters of Terminator narratives of human redundancy and extermination, he doesn’t locate the source of these threats in medium/subjective model.  The problem is not that machines are expressing themselves, it’s that we can’t understand them and aren’t giving them the proper space to do so.  The problem of human-machine interface is a cultural problem, a breakdown in cross-cultural understanding between human and machine cultures.

Similarly interesting to me is Tobi’s consistent use of creative space itself as a central component of his stories.  Where do ideas come from, he seems to ask, and how can we exist in that space?  GEB is one answer to this question.  New ideas are composed of intertextual play with some element of pre-existing human experience, which are then re-enfolded into that archive to be linked up with everything else.  There’s something very cybernetic in Tobi’s idea of milieu and our becomings with it, and it makes these AI stories much more interesting in my mind than other stories that simply ask whether or not AIs are people, thus forcing a false equivalence between two very different kinds of subjects, rooted in very different milieux.

Another notion of creativity that I quite enjoyed came from “Umi no Yubi”/”Seafingers,” in which the creative unconscious is literally an ocean.  Looking rather like a sea of television static, we’re told that this ocean appeared and swallowed much of the Earth when human physical and cultural productions were turned into pure data, pure potential.  Now the waves of this ocean menace the seaside town that serves as the setting for the story, threatening to engulf it and break everyone and everything in it down into a kind of creative plasma, dissolving their specificity in the process.  Occasionally, this ocean will spew forth some manner of object (a building, a statue, an airplane), which town workers rush to scavenge while the ocean is held at bay by projecting sound at it.  At the story’s climax, we see that the ocean is also a kind of collective unconscious, from which past traumas can spring to confront us.  The act of pulling something new into being here, then, is loaded with peril, the fear that we might either lose our selves within the static or come face to face with repressed elements of society or the individual.  Whereas the creative field of GEB is already (more or less) safely concretized as text, here it is liquid, formless, and it seems, inevitably destined to consume us.

In sum, then, Jisei no yume is a collection that works over, again and again, the question of what creativity is, how we (or someone else) can interact with it, and what it can do.  The stakes of these questions are high for Tobi; the ghosts of our cultural milieu are threatening to destroy us, and the only way forward is to find out how we can coexist productively.  If Alice Wong and the sound engineer of “Seafingers” desperately playing the piano to keep the sea at bay are any indication, the answer may lie in creative collaboration with those outside ourselves.

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