Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

Inter Ice Age 4 by Kobo Abe

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When I was a kid I was very into Existentialism; having read somewhere that Kobo Abe was an important Existentialist type of novelist, I would go to the 8th Street Bookstore in the Village and grab as many of his novels as I could (at that time they were published by New Directions).  When I wrote this cringe-inducing article for Patsy Moore in 2008 I was well over my Abe period.







Kobo Abe's Inter Ice Age 4



                                    There are a few universal features of outstanding fiction that most readers will readily identify as providing the most pleasure and satisfaction, that make the reading experience a fulfilling one.  Some of these will likely be: subtlety and nuance of characterization; skillful plotting; vivid descriptive writing; insightful communication of feelings; excellent facility with language.  Any fiction that contains a majority of these is likely to be of quality.  Interestingly though, it is not necessarily the case that a novel almost totally lacking in any of them will be a poor one or one disqualified from major status.  It is possible that a novel can contain wooden characters, plotting that is just OK, be emotionally aloof, and writing that is merely competent and not much more, and still, in spite of all that, force us to put our ear to the wall of infinity and listen for the music of meaning.  Inter Ice Age 4 by the great Japanese author Kobo Abe is just such a book.  Its power comes from the fact that  it is a virtual intellectual explosion, and a prescient one.  Written under the guise of science fiction, this tale foresaw - in 1959!!! - the eventual importance that issues such as cloning, genetic manipulation,  and global warming would take on for the human race; it also anticipated - and this is pretty incredible - important work in late twentieth century  analytic philosophy done by thinkers such as Thomas Nagel in What Is It Like To Be A Bat? and John Searle with the Chinese Room experiment.  This in and of itself is fascinating, since  virtually every piece of reference material available in English about Abe goes out of its way to stress his interest in Continental philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Jaspers, which is in many ways the completely opposite tradition.
                                    Yet we can see that it is so.  Abe is often compared to Kafka, probably because the work of both is greatly concerned with the loss of individual identity, but I think that where Kafka approaches this question by means of psychological probing, Abe puts a different spin on it - he's totally about the increasingly dominant role science and technology are assuming in human affairs.  Abe had a scientific background, being an M.D., but he never had any interest in practicing medicine.  He seems to have gotten the degree out of a sense of obligation to his father, who ran a hospital in Manchuria after Japan was destroyed in World War 2 (Abe once wrote "I will never forget that my adolescence began amidst death and ruins.")  In retrospect, from the perspective of 2007, we can see that Inter Ice Age 4 is not science fiction at all, though that would not have been possible to declare in 1959.  Amazing!  And the fact that it isn't points to Abe's ability to wed his capacity to foresee how science can both help and harm humanity with an overall pessimistic, materialistic view of human life itself.  (He believed in discredited ideologies like Marxism and Socialism.)  At one point the narrator, Professor Katsumi, tells us:


                                                            However, the more we worked, the more we realized how few areas were unrelated to politics.  If, for example, we attempted to predict the extent of arable land, then that involved the problem of the specialization of the farming class.  If we tried to investigate the distribution of completely paved roads
some years from now, then we became entangled in the national budget... I was thoroughly disgusted.  It was like a spider's web: The more we tried to avoid politics, the more we became entangled in them.



                                   
                                    Earlier I mentioned some characteristics of great fiction and stated that this novel has none of them.  However, there is one that I left out, and it does have that one, in excess - imagination.  In truth the sum total of Abe's novels shows that  his imagination was inexhaustible.  The book that made him famous all over the world, The Woman in the Dunes, illustrates  that nicely.  There, a scientist falls into a hole in the ground on a beach and encounters a community of people who spend their entire lives fighting against the encroaching sand.  There is a minutely detailed synopsis of the plot of Inter Ice Age 4
at this website   www.ibiblio.org/abekobo/synopses/daiyon.html    Without being quite so thorough, I'll outline it here just to fortify the point about imagination (remember - this is 1959):
                                    A computer scientist named Katsumi and his assistant Tanomogi are working on a computer that has the ability to predict the future..  As it happens, scientists in Communist Russia have developed a similar machine which, after making extremely accurate predictions about world events, foretells the global triumph of communism over capitalism.  Katsumi is ordered to have his computer try something on a smaller scale - to predict the future of one individual human being.  He and Tanomogi pick a man at random and follow him.  The next day, the man turns up murdered.  His mistress, confessing, is arrested for the crime.  Katsumi's machine had already been able to download the contents of the man's mind, and in these "memoirs" the dead man had observed that his girlfriend frequently seemed to have amounts of money in her possession that were out of all proportion to her quotidian job.  Confronted with this, she tells a fantastic story to account for the cash - when she was pregnant some people from a hospital had approached her to abort the fetus and hand it over to them in exchange for seven thousand yen. Moreover, each time she provided a referral of another pregnant woman for the same purpose she was paid an additional two thousand.  No one believes the story, and in short order she commits suicide.  Eventually Katsumi's wife, herself pregnant, is approached and offered seven thousand yen for her fetus.  Clearly this is no coincidence, but Katsumi is unable to make sense of it all.  Tanamogi keeps making covert suggestions about organizations that do work on animal fetuses to breed new species.  Katsumi at first brushes this off but eventually he comes to uncover a situation that is quite sensational - an effort to breed human babies with gills, able to survive underwater, because the polar ice caps are melting and Japan will soon be entirely submerged.  The fish children, called "aquans", are cultivated in a breeding farm; Katsumi has the unpleasant experience of seeing his own child, whom his wife sold, in the "birthing room."


                                    There are many details of plot that I'm electing not to get into here because, honestly, while the plot is involved it's not especially exciting or suspenseful.  The ideas that Abe takes up are what make the book so richly stimulating.  The whole idea of being able to look into the future, for example, raises questions about free will and human freedom that have been debated for thousands of years.  This rather long quote examines the question of free will, how knowing the future would affect it, and, at the end, a view of abortion that you'll never see advocated, for example, in American politics:


                                                            "While we're at it, I wonder if you'd use me as a sample case and forecast my future."That would be interesting.  If she had been a sample case, I would have known about the affair with Tanamogi and been able to avoid all this fuss.
                                                           
                                                            "I'm serious," she said, running her long fingernails slowly around the edge of the machine.  "There's no rhyme or reason why someone should have to go on living."

                                                            "Come, come.  It's usual enough...with someone."

                                                            "By 'with someone,' I suppose you mean getting married."

                                                            "Oh, anything you like.  It's not that we live because everything can be explained.  We want to
explain things because we're alive."

                                                            "Everybody talks like that.  But I really wonder if one would want to go on living after having his
future told."

                                                            "Are you saying you want to know your future expressly to put the proposition to the test?"

                                                            "Well, what about you, sir?"

                                                            "What do you mean?"

                                                            "Since you don't know what your future will bring, you can live now.  If living is all that important, how is it possible to abort children who should be born?"

                                                            I swallowed hard and shrugged.  Back of my ears there was a sound of something breaking.                                                      Wada had spoken in a terribly casual voice.  Of course, it was the combination of                                                                                  happenstances.  I said:"There's no reason to treat something that has no conscience yet the same as a human being."

The suggestion that the only reason to carry on with life is the state of being in love with another human being ("It's usual enough...with someone")  is, like much of the dialogue and many of the ideas, almost clinical, aspiring to be objectively detached and scientific, but we notice here that it's put forward as a rebuttal to the idea that knowledge of one's future would cancel one's desire to keep living, which is an interesting idea in and of itself.  And the suggestion that humanity, or personhood, is contingent upon the existence of a conscience is a startling hypothesis to say the least.  Of course, it's impossible for most of us to study, or to talk about, these subjects in a calm, aloof way.  They stir up our deepest emotions.  This dichotomy comes up again and again, in almost every conversation in the novel.  At one point someone says, "Murder is not bad because you deprive the victim of physical life, but because you deprive him of his future."  At another juncture Yamomoto, the head of the aquan project, tells Katsumi just before he shows him the breeding farm, "I should like you to take an intellectual rather than factual interest in what you're going to see."  The clash of knowledge versus emotion, of intellect versus feelings, never stops.
                                                            I want to briefly touch on an idea that underlies the whole tale, which is that the human mind is essentially a very sophisticated computer or, if you like, that computers can emulate human thought exactly, or, in yet another formulation, the question of whether or not a computer can be said to have consciousness and thoughts in the exact same way that a human being does.  These questions were first seriously proposed by the English mathematician Alan Turing in the 1940s, and they have obsessed scientists and philosophers every since.  In popular culture some of this usually surfaces under the term AI, for Artificial Intelligence.  This issue is nowhere near as familiar to the average person as global warming is, but its inclujsion by Abe in a novel composed in 1959 is just as astonishing.  The computer that lies at the center of operations strives to be like the one in Moscow, about which it is remarked "Until now computers have had to be fed by humans.  But Moscow I has apparently advanced to the stage of being able to self-program."  These are big questions that reach way out of the scope we have here, but serious readers should be aware of the issues being raised.

                                                            Inter Ice Age 4 is one of the most provocative novels by one of the most provocative authors in twentieth century world literature.  The questions it examines are among the most important of our time, and it examined them many years before they became widely shared concerns.  As an introduction to Abe's fully mature, fully realized novels like The Box Man and The Ark Sakura it is highly recommended.  This is a book you can read with profit every year or so for a lifetime.


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