The truly great thing about manga is the sheer variety. You can get manga about pretty much any topic you can think of. The number of different genres under the cat manga umbrella alone is astounding. Want to read about New York cops? Sure, we got you covered. Looking to delve into traditional arts? No problem. What about the experience of being a foreigner in Japan? Oh yeah. Pancreatic cancer? You bet. Alternate universe Anne Frank? Ballet? Sex cult mini golf? Coming up! Sometimes I wonder how the market can even support some of these books. But then I remind myself that even as the publishing industry is also shrinking in Japan, the population of that country is like five times that of Canada and it is a nation of readers. There are lots of people out there to buy all the weird books.
So it is no surprise that there would be a book on artificial intelligence in human form. But it is a surprise to see such a book coming from Brain favourite Ikebe Aoi, known for quiet portrayals of human relationships. The moment I heard about this one, though, I couldn’t wait to get it in my hands and start reading. Because I could immediately see the possibilities for such a premise in Ikebe’s skilled hands. Plus that title! It makes me swoon somehow. It feels so full of possibilities and heartbreak, especially combined with the cover, that girl looking straight into your soul.
If you like your SF hard, you should probably look somewhere else. While there is machinery in this book in the form of Waon and her fellow human-shaped AIs, there is little to no discussion of how all of this works. Ikebe just tells us that there are these AIs who live and work among us, and then she moves on with her story. Which is something I appreciate. I generally don’t care about the tech or how it works. I want to know what we do with it and how it affects our lives. (Yes, hard SF is generally a hard pass for me.) The only time Ikebe gets into the tech side of things is when the creator of these AI comes onto the scene, but rather than delve into how he did it, the focus is on his relationships with the AI and his coworker at the time.
Waon lives and works at a quiet little café on the outskirts of town after being found at the dump by the elderly Tone, a fortune teller and the owner of the café. She diligently observes the people who come and go from the café and then settles down each night to write her reports, to whom we don’t yet know. Just down the road is a clothing company where hyper-competent Taoka supervises the call centre for returns and other customer issues. Lily and Hiro are on the phones, while Hayashida works as a security guard at the gate into the company compound. There’s also a bus driver on the route that goes by the compound and the café every morning, and Tone’s pal who comes over to complain about the smell of this sweater she ordered. From greese, of course. Yes, this is one of my favourite kinds of stories, people moving in and around each other’s lives either peripherally or more centrally.
It’s so human and natural, and Ikebe recreates that rhythm perfectly here. The bus driver has a chat with the courier guy as he packs up his truck in the morning before stepping into his bus to start his route. Hayashida gets on the bus, like he does every morning, and the two greet each other in the way that you do with someone you see every day, but don’t actually know. When Hayashida gets to work, Taoka drives up with snacks for him before driving off through the gates to the call centre and the day’s work that lays ahead. Ikebe gives us only snapshots, moments out of these long lives, but even so, she makes us feel the years behind each moment in the comfortable way the characters interact.
Each chapter focusses on one of these characters, but that focus is rather loose, since all the other characters are always wandering through every chapter. They are connected to each other by dint of living in each other’s spheres, however peripherally that might be. And there is a larger story at work, but like with most of Ikebe’s books, the story is less of the point. It’s the empathy she creates and the curiosity about our humanity that she has shown in all of her work. Through the lens of AI, this curiosity is even more clearly defined. Waon wonders in her reports what it is that makes human beings shine the way they do, even as she is prepared to cheerfully die for them.
The big question that Ikebe asks is what do we owe these things that we create. And what do we owe each other? What kind of responsibility comes with life and with giving life? As always, she asks these questions in the quietest, most sensitive way, with panels of thoughtful silence and surprisingly lovely moments in the natural world. She knows how to stick the backgrounds in there when she needs to. Otherwise, her panels are minimal and her linework clean and soft, basically perfect for the stories she wants to tell. I never imagined Ikebe doing a science fiction story, but after reading her science fiction story, it makes so much sense. She’s always done what all great science fiction writers do—asked us to look at ourselves.