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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

Automatic Eve

by
Inui Rokuro


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Automatic Eve



Title: Automatic Eve
Author: Inui Rokuro
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 314 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Automatic Eve - US
Automatic Eve - UK
Automatic Eve - Canada
  • Japanese title: 機巧のイヴ
  • Translated by Matt Treyvaud

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Our Assessment:

B : neat, colorful automata-novel

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       Automatic Eve is set in an undefined historic period in the past in Japan, an alternate shogun-era reality where technology is not particularly advanced -- except in one area: the engineering of incredibly refined and lifelike automata. The technology is not widespread -- indeed: "Everyone says that only one man could build something so intricate: Kyuzo Kugimiya". An assistant -- a somewhat loose and undefined position in the hierarchical shogun-era world -- at the shogunal refinery, he has his own large compound where he works on his creations; he was a student of the original (but fell-into-disfavor) master Keian Higa's, at his Institute of Machinery.
       Automatic Eve is a five-part novel, each chapter fairly self-contained but also with some continuity across them -- a Matryoshka doll of a novel, with additional layers revealed in each successive chapter. The first chapter -- 'Automatic Eve' -- already begins with a clever, full-fledged story. It centers on Nizaemon Egawa, who turns to Kyuzo after learning of his artistry -- by discovering a mechanical cricket, of all things. Nizaemon is in love with Hatori, a kept woman he wants to buy free -- even as he knows she won't remain with him once she is free. Kyuzo would seem to offer the possibility of satisfying them both, by creating a perfect -- if mechanical -- double of Hatori. He gets to work (itself a drawn-out and rather invasive procedure) and eventually presents Nizaemon with what he apparently commissioned -- but things are not exactly what they seem in a neat twist that upends assumptions and expectations. (Shiraishi Kazufumi's Stand-in Companion plays similar games)
       The second chapter, 'Hercules in the Box', centers on a young sumo wrestler, Geiemon Tentoku, who doesn't take a fall in a bout which a local gang wagers a great deal of money on. Winning the bout gets Tentoku an offer from a prestigious sumo stable -- but the gang's retaliation for his not going along with their plan threatens his future. He is saved by Kyuzo's (automatic) Eve -- and proves to be an opportunity for something that Kyuzo has never tried before: joining "a human body to an automaton".
       At Kyuzo's, Tentoku sees -- among many other mechanical wonders -- a disembodied head. Kyuzo reassures him: "She has the form of a human, but she is not ensouled" -- and this is one of the issues that runs as a thread through the entire novel, the extent to which a mechanical being can be 'human'. As Kyuzo had pointed out:

What is the difference between a person and something identical to a person in every way ? [...] Faced with an automaton made perfectly like a human -- one that behaves, cries, and laughs like a human on the surface, giving every impression of a rich inner life -- I am sorry to say I would not be able to tell whether all of it was truly born of humanlike emotions or simply performed by an arrangement of springs and clockworks and gears. This is a problem of great interest.
       The question also has political ramifications in this particular world, a matrilineal society -- at least on the imperial-succession level -- where the empresses own identity is carefully hidden from too-public view. A 'Sacred Vessel from the Age of Myth' is also key to much here, as Inui builds up his creative background, a world in which automata are rare and exceptional -- but also, where they exist, almost indistinguishable from humans (or the other life-forms they are built in imitation of, such as the occasional cricket). Inui also plays with their nature, from Tentoku finding that the part of him that is mechanical has something of a will of its own, to one prominent automaton that, after being: "deprived of maintenance for many years" is vulnerable.
       The Automatic Eve of the title, Kyuzo's creation cum daughter cum assistant, is one of the common elements across the episodes -- an echo also of Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's classic automaton-tale, L'Ève future.
       Inui is good with place, and place often figures prominently here, most notably with the Thirteen Floors, the (hierarchical) house of pleasure which plays a significant role here. But other locales are nicely captured as well, from the bathhouse where Tentoku works to what amount to the laboratories, and then especially the palace and the room where the empress resides.
       The staggered unfolding of the novel, with its almost independent episode-chapters, does work quite well -- including in offering a series of climaxes, rather than just one story arc -- but clearer continuity might have been more welcome. As is, Automatic Eve is an enjoyable, colorful, and often quite exciting historical fantasy, with some very good ideas and scenes (though certainly also the fundamental ideas and issues could have been worked out much more fully).

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 October 2019

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Links:

Automatic Eve: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Inui Rokuro (乾緑郎) was born in 1971.

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© 2019 the complete review

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