When I thought about it, I felt wretched. In Russia, the forecasting machine towered high, a great monument of the age; but in Japan, it was merely a miserable rattrap to pursue a murderer, and the technician himself was writhing and struggling with his leg in the rat’s teeth.
Kōbō Abe is a writer with a fascinating history; he came of age in Manchuria during the turmoil of the Second World War, only exempted from conscription because he was studying medicine. After the war he took the stance of an intellectual pacifist, and joined the Japanese Communist Party to organize laborers in the slums of Tokyo; the Soviet invasion of Hungary disgusted him and caused his split from the Party. In the meantime, he’d become a poet and playwright, and wrote a several well-regarded and award-winning novels in the 1950s and 1960s. After the success of his 1962 novel The Women in the Dunes, most of his novels were translated into English, such as Inter Ice Age 4 (serialized from 1958-59 and published in English in 1970). Many of his novels had absurdist/surrealist themes that drifted into the fantastic or science-fictional, and Abe is considered one of the founders of Japanese science fiction.
In the near future, Japanese scientists have developed a new type of forecasting computer capable of predicting the future. When a similar device in the Soviet Union makes some bold predictions about political changes which threaten the Cold War balance of power, the Japanese team headed by Dr. Katsumi is ordered not to use its powerful prophetic abilities on something as world-shattering as social, economic, or political predictions. Instead, Katsumi and his scientists secretly decide to have the machine plan the life of a single individual. With the aid of his lab assistant, Katsumi thinks he’s found the perfect target for his machine—and instead finds himself investigating their target’s murder.
Already we have enough plot-points to make up a full-length novel, but Inter Ice Age 4 continues to impress with its bewildering plot developments, taking the characters into the greatest scientific conspiracy of their age. Reading the book is a strange and surreal experience; it switches from being a lite Raymond Chandler murder-mystery to a Philip K. Dickian conspiracy that includes: the political ramifications of clairvoyance, using the machine to collect the murdered corpse’s memories, black-market fetus smugglers, catastrophic climate change, and genetically engineering lifeforms for aquatic existence. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to review this novel—it jumps from one mind-blowing WTF moment to another, consistently raising the stakes and progressing from one insane plot-point to another. That and I don’t want to detract from its surprise and wonder. Looking back, they become a bit over-the-top quite quickly, but when I was reading it felt like a natural escalation of the weird and surreal. (Weird Fiction from ’60s Japan, maybe?)
With translations, I never know whether to blame the translator for bad prose, or thank them for salvaging a text that was forced to adhere to another language’s structure and flow. Here, the prose is distant and emotionless, that often lapses into the protagonist (Katsumi’s) internalized pondering. The characters show very little surprise or emotion, and there’s little use of imagery or description. On the one hand, it seems to fit all the stereotypes of Japanese culture, all stoic and distanced; on the other hand, it makes the book a bit of an awkward read, with little to grasp onto save for the plot-threads which grow in scope and weirdness. More shocking is that while its first English translation was in 1970 (during the New Wave), it was penned in 1958—that explains some of its prose structure and Cold War themes, but puts the book well ahead of its time as a cerebral, experimental novel flirting with Philip K. Dickian themes of oppressive conspiracy and technological hyper-reality.
What to make of Inter Ice Age 4, then? It’s an admittedly weird book, an artifact of Japanese science fiction history that feels alien compared to American and British novels from the same era. It feels distinctly Japanese in its quiet, studied lead-up to a climate-change apocalypse, with more long discussions than fistfights or chases, and it probably won’t please readers expecting the equivalent of an Ace Double. But it has an intriguing premise, one that retains your interest through labyrinthine complications dripping with prescient weirdness. This is science fiction deconstructed, a postmodern hybrid of sci-fi and Weird fiction that uses its strangeness to great effect as it examines human adaptability and how humanity impacts its environment. I wouldn’t recommend it to every reader, but those interested in a smart postmodern novel will love it. At the least, it’ll be like no SF you’ve ever read before…
Title: Inter Ice Age 4
Author: Kōbō Abe
Publisher: Berkeley Medallion (March 1972 ed)
What I Read: paperback
Price I Paid: part of a $12 eBay lot (15 worn books)
ISBN: 0399505199 (out of print)
First published: 1958-59 (magazine serial)