Automatic Eve by Rokurō Inui

Haikasoru, 2019, 315 p. £10.99. Translated from the Japanese Jidō ibu (自動イブ,) by Matt Treyvaud. Published in Interzone 284, Nov-Dec 2019.

 Automatic Eve cover

How necessary is it to suspend disbelief in order to appreciate, or perhaps persevere with, a work of fiction? Conventional wisdom suggests it is at least a necessary condition. Automatic Eve suggests that might not be the case.

The plot of Inui’s novel hinges on the existence of elaborate automata. Not toys, not merely small things like crickets, but better than android–like simulacra of human beings. Things of convincing, warm, outer human appearance but internally consisting of metal, cogs, gears, wires – each with a pendulum for a heart. Yet the automata here are effectively so realistic that they appear to be completely human to everyone involved, even to the extent of being able to have sex convincingly, to inspire love and devotion, and to experience these things for themselves. Even capable of being convinced that they themselves are human – until, perhaps, they find otherwise. And that’s a leap that’s a big requirement to ask of a reader. (This one always had nagging doubts.) Yet, to carry on, to keep faith with the story, said reader has to take this on trust. (And, maybe, later, write a review.)

It is a mark of Inui’s writing, and his translator’s ability to convey it, that the necessary perseverance isn’t a problem. The story here is engaging enough to keep you turning the pages. It helps that the central concept is introduced fairly gradually.

The setting is a little odd though. The characters know of Chemistry, electricity and clockwork, yet the society in which they are embedded has a mediæval feel. It is obviously closely based on Japan, but not a Japan which ever existed. Yes, we have sake, bathhouses, sumo, cricket fights, meticulous gardening (albeit also a cover for spying,) a certain pleasure in fine objects, finely wrought – not to mention the goings-on in the building known as the Thirteen Floors. There is, too, intrigue between an Imperial court and a shogunate, but the divine figure is an Empress, and the succession goes through the female line, to a female. It is a Japan tweaked just so, to enable the story. A fantasy, then.

Would-be Sumo wrestler, Geiemon Tentoku, has fallen in love with the Eve of the title and selflessly seeks to release her from her indenture in the Thirteen Floors to restore her to the man he thinks she loves. Kyuzo Kugimiya learned all he knows about the construction of automata from Keian Higa, who had plotted the overthrow of the system before being executed after his plans were betrayed to the authorities. Under the instructions of the Imperial Gardener (really a spymaster) Kihachi Umekawa, the shogun’s spy, Jinnai, is investigating Kigimiya’s activities. All these are actors in the overall plot, which concerns the contents of the Sacred Vessel, a sealed container within the Imperial Palace.

The existence of convincing automata leads a couple of characters to question the nature of humanity. Kyuzo thinks, “A pregnant woman’s body was home to not one soul but two. Where did the life in her womb come from, and when? If souls came from elsewhere to reside in the human body, was it not possible that one might take up residence in the infant automaton they were building?” Later, Jinnai wonders, “Where did the soul come from? Where, in the body or brain, did it conceal itself while a human still lived? …. Automata like Eve showed human behavior [sic] as a response to the care and love they received from humans.”

Such metaphysical considerations are invited by the subject matter – and are arguably the raison d’être of literary fiction – but Inui doesn’t let them bother the thrust of his story for too long.

There is a slight flaw to the book’s structure, however. Rather than a novel it is a succession of seven shortish novellas, albeit featuring ongoing characters. That the narrative viewpoint changes between these sections is not a problem but certain repetitions of information suggest that they may not have been conceived or written as a whole but subject to a later fix-up. And Automatic Eve herself is more like an absence than a protagonist. Though she does appear in them all she is neither the focus nor viewpoint character in any of the seven segments.

None of that, however, takes away from the overall effect. It may lack innovation in its central idea but Automatic Eve is still a well-written, solid piece of fiction.

The following did not appear in the published review:-

Pedant’s corner:- “none were too explicit” (none was too explicit.) “The master of accounts were responsible for” (the master … was responsible.) “None of these new revelations were the answers Kakita sought..” (None of these new revelations was the answer ..) “none of them understand the situation” (none of them understands the situation.) “None of the spies were supposed to know” (None … was supposed to know.) “The attendant’s quarters” (attendants’ quarters.) “The group made their way…” (The group made its way,) “‘I gather that neither of those fates await those who are careless?’” (neither of those fates awaits those, plus the sentence isn’t really a question.) “Mounts of leftover soil and worktools ..” (‘Mounds’ makes more sense.) “‘The palace has decided to keep the news to themselves for now’” (to itself is more grammatical,) “for this automata” (for this automaton.) “These question had always bothered Jinnai.” (These questions.)

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