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Science Fiction as Thought: Cybernetic Dystopia in Abe Kōbō's Novel "Inter Ice Age 4"

Published onMar 10, 2017
Science Fiction as Thought: Cybernetic Dystopia in Abe Kōbō's Novel "Inter Ice Age 4"


In contrast to the sinking importance or, as some would even argue, almost complete absence of future-oriented counter-realities in the field of politics or social and philosophical thought in recent times, the relatively rich and productive science-fictional field of Japanese literature and popular culture continuously produced utopian or dystopian imaginations that are worth revisiting. ABE Kōbō (1924–1993), one of the most prolific literary figures of postwar Japan, is a writer of SF who is capable of criticizing the current (political, social, cultural, and scientific) conditions from the perspective of narrating a speculative but scientifically possible future extrapolated from the present. ABE’s novel Inter Ice Age 4 (第四間氷期), written under the influence of an intensifying Cold War conflict at the end of the 1950s, and thus also at a time of a great popularity of cybernetics and the early stages in the development of computer technology, tells the story of a scientist who is involved in the development of a forecasting machine which can predict events in the immediate future. ABE's novel unfolds as a severe criticism of this heightening belief in the cybernetic and computational predictability of the future. In particular, he alerts his readers of the fact that prognoses potentially entail the danger of monopolizing the future, irrespective of the political system, because any prediction (be it a presumably “inculpable” statistical forecast or a political or economic simulation game) already “influences the future”, as one of the protagonists states in his novel at one point. ABE warns that authoritative prognoses (in planned economies as well as–theoretically–free-market economies) are in danger of eventually turning into supposedly inherent constraints; that is to say, they become a political necessity, to which an alternative, a “different future” is then hardly imaginable any longer. From this perspective, one could read ABE's work also as an implicit but brilliant criticism of Japan's realpolitical foreign policy of the 1950s and 60s, which was almost unilaterally focused on the USA. 

Japan's Postwar Decades: From Ideals to Fiction

Japan's first five postwar decades are often divided into three periods–a ‘period of ideals’ (1945-60), a ‘period of dreams’ (1960-75), and a ‘period of fiction’ (1975-90). MITA Munesuke (1992), a well-known Japanese sociologist who first coined this periodization, understanding ideals, dreams, and fictions as a generally shared social consciousness, namely a common mentality or zeitgeist of a future-oriented “counter-realities” (半現実) opposing the given contemporary reality of the respective period. In the first period, the period of ideals, the future-oriented “horizon of expectation” (Erwartungshorizont) standing in opposition to the “space of experience” (Erfahrungsraum) of the present and the past–to put it in the terms historian Reinhart KOSELLECK (2004) has coined in his book Futures Past–was the divide between the ideal (maybe one should rather say “ideology”) of a liberal democracy modeled after the one of the USA on the one hand, and the ideal of a future communist society on the other. This divide between these two opposing ideologies overshadowed particularly the political and intellectual atmosphere from the years of US-American occupation until the ANPO unrests in 1960. Despite it was eventually the former of the two ideals that prevailed in Japan, the latter–at least for a brief moment in Japanese history–was considered a realistic political and social alternative to liberal democracy, particularly at the time when KATAYAMA Tetsu was elected as the first and, for the time being, only socialist prime minister in Japan in 1947. The subsequent period, the period of dreams, refers to a period when counter-realities were more and more limited to the consumerist dream of an American Way of Life full of electric appliances such as washing machines, refrigerators and television sets. The growing affluence of the 1960s was substantiated and propelled by the drastic economic growth of Japan's postwar economic miracle and political stability, initiated in 1955 by the beginning of a more than forty-years lasting rule of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party in Japan. In the last of the three periods, the period of fiction, this development towards a consumer society developed into a postmodernist hyper-consumerism based on the artificial demand created through advertising and a highly speculative real-estate bubble. After the oil shock of 1973, the tangible consumer dream of household appliances was gradually replaced by the consumption of intangible goods and lifestyles created by the tremendously grown advertising businesses, then capable of even transforming whole urban quarters into ultra-consumerist stages of conspicuous consumption, such as Shibuya, successively advertising super-futuristic housing projects like Tama New Town close to Tokyo, or co-organizing the outright postmodernist Ōsaka Expo of 1970.

It is MITA's (1992) key assumption that with the shift from ideals to fiction, these ideational counter-realities gradually disconnected themselves from social reality, in the sense that the “[m]entalities of living out Ideals and living out Fictions are opposite ways of confronting reality,” since whereas “[t]he Ideal seeks realization, and the urge to confront ideals is an urge to confront reality,” in “the spirit that seeks Fiction there is no longer any love of reality,” MITA (1992) writes in his Social Psychology of Modern Japan. What MITA (1992) tries to say here is that people living in the first two periods–particularly in the period of ideals–had a greater awareness of the social and political “reality”, because reality was yet considered as something that could be changed towards a (“better”) counter-factual ideological ideal. Naturally, one can understand this argument only if one accepts MITA's (1992) claim that the two ideological ideals of the first period, i.e. communism and liberalism (namely the marriage of capitalism and liberal democracy), share the characteristic of being based on a strictly teleological imaginations of future-oriented progress towards an ideal of a better future (“class-less” or “liberal”) society. Moreover, if compared to the period of fiction and despite the fact that the realization of consumerist ideals took place only on a very individual level and was completely disconnected from any form of a commonly shared social utopia, even in the age of consumerist dreams a realistic (or materialistic?) stance towards reality was still tangible, since democratic equality was often equated with consumerist equality (in the sense of equal access to the same basic consumer goods). Eventually, this, however, changed into an almost indifferent stance towards reality during the craziness of the hyperreal and self-sufficient postmodern period of fiction in Japan in the 1970s and 80s, according to MITA (1992). The economic growth that triggered the consumerism of the period of fiction was mainly based on fictional stock exchange trading and rapidly rising real estate prices. It is said that at the peak of the real estate bubble in the late 1980s, the 1.32 square mile of Imperial Palace grounds in the center of Tokyo were already worth more than all real estates in California combined.

Beyond Fiction: Science Fiction as “Thought”

In opposition to the sinking importance, or as some would even argue, the complete absence of future-related counter-realities in the field of politics, social, and philosophical thought after the period of fiction (some call this period the “Two Lost Decades” (失われた20年) of Japan's most recent history; Japanese sociologist ŌSAWA Masachi (2008) even describes these decades as the “period of impossibility” (不可能性の時代). One might particularly consider the rather rich and productive science-fictional field in Japanese literature and popular culture as an intellectual field that continuously produced utopian or dystopian counter-realistic imaginations, which are thus worth revisiting. Science Fiction has a rather long history in Japan, with the so-called “Golden Era of Science Fiction” in Japan taking off relatively early, namely at the time of the launch of Japan’s two most important and popular SF-magazines, Cosmic Dust (宇宙塵, 1957–2013) and Hayakawa’s S-F Magazine (S-Fマガジン, 1959–) at the end of the 1950s, reaching its climax in the 1970s and 80s. Since then, it was not works of classical literary any longer, but rather visual media formats such as anime and manga that took the lead in the production of serious science-fictional–dystopian or utopian–imaginations of the future.

However, before one can consider Science Fiction as valuable source of critical utopian/dystopian social thought, it is inevitable to agree upon a definition of philosophically or politically valuable SF, namely a yardstick to decide which works of SF should be considered worth revisiting as critical thought. Put differently, what one would need is a precise definition of not only “serious” Science Fiction, but also of SF as “thought”. Thought (思想), in the Japanese language, is neither congruent with the meaning of philosophy, nor simply referring to the act of thinking in a very broad sense. According to the Japanese dictionary Daijisen, thought can be defined as the “consistent thinking or opinions […] regarding human existence or society, with political or social views being most frequent.” (人生や社会についての一つのまとまった考え・意見。特に、政治的、社会的な見解をいうことが多い). Japanese historian Tetsuo NAJITA, in his book Japanese Thought in the Tokugawa Period, 1600–1868 co-edited with Erwin SCHEINER (NAJITA and SCHEINER 1988), defines thought as “self-reflective statements about the character of the social universe“ and thus explicitly includes thought coming not only from within philosophy or academia, but also from literature, movies, or any other form of popular culture.

From this perspective, SF qua thought needs to be sharply differentiated from other subgenres of speculative fiction in so far as it (a) deals almost exclusively with the “future”, and that it is (b) “scientific” in a broader sense of the word. If one understands SF in this narrow sense as a literary genre that produces speculative, but scientifically realistic projections of the future in the sense of extrapolations of the present, works including elements of the fantasy- and mystery genre are naturally excluded from being thought in the abovementioned sense. SF falling within this very narrow definition is often described as hard-SF, which is commonly defined as a “form of imaginative literature that uses either established or carefully extrapolated science as its backbone”, as SF-critic Allen STEEL (1992) writes in his essay “Hard Again”. According to Dietmar DATH (2012), another SF-critic and SF-writer himself, defines SF from his perspective thus as a genre of literature that “prolongs certain facts and tendencies of aesthetic, social, economic, or political contemporary life” into the future, and thereby “unfolds spaces of possibility in which one is enabled to narrate imaginable but unreal stances towards reality (‘fiction’). Furthermore, and this is important, it does so “by extensively drawing on existing scholarship (‘science’) dealing with this reality.” Other than Soft-SF, encompassing more lofty utopian visions of radically different “blueprints” of a future better (utopian) or worse (dystopian) than the present, Hard-SF, due to its claim to be based on sound scientific facts, tends to produces more probable future imaginations. 

Based on the aforementioned definitions of “thought” and “hard-SF”, I will define Science Fiction from the perspective of “science fiction as thought” as self-reflective or critical thought regarding a possible future of society which is extrapolated from the actual (political, social, cultural, and scientific) conditions of the present. Accordingly, by providing scientifically probable (utopian or dystopian) futures potentially emanating from our own present, SF as thought confronts us with “what is scientifically true” in the future, as David G. HARTWELL states in the anthology The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF, co-edited by Kathryn CRAMER (HARTWELL and CRAMER 1994). It is in this vein that Marxist literary critic Fredric JAMESON (2004) argues that the speculative, but scientifically realistic narrations of possible futures represented in SF are able to cause what he calls a “disruption (Beunruhigung) of the present” in his book Archaeologies of the Future.

Japanese writer ABE Kōbō, one of the most prolific literary figures of postwar Japan and long-time candidate for the Nobel Prize, despite being known to the general public more for his existentialist writing, is also the author of a number of novels and short stories belongint ot the hard-SF genre. He, very much like JAMESON, considers the disruption potentially caused by SF, pulling its readers out of their dull routine of everyday life by reminding them of the possiblity of radically different future and thus of its contingency, as the most interesting and important moment of SF. In the postscript to his SF-novel Inter Ice Age 4 (第四間氷期), which I will discuss in detail in the remaining part of this essay, ABE states the following:

The future gives a verdict of guilt (有罪の宣告) to the usual continuity of daily life (日常的連続感). I consider the problem an especially important theme in these critical times. Thus I decided to try to grasp the image of a future that intrudes on the present (現在の中に闖入してきた未来), a future that sits in judgment. Our usual sense of continuity fades away the instant it faces the future (未来を見た瞬間). In order to understand the future, it is not enough simply to be living in the present. We must be clearly aware that the greatest of all sins (もっとも大きな罪) lies in the very commonplace order of things (平凡な秩序) we call everyday life. (ABE 1970 [1958/59]: 226-27)

To ABE, SF has the capacity–as JAMESON (2004) put it–to not only confront us with “‘images’ of the future” and thereby to “defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present,” but also “to demonstrate and to dramatize our incapacity to imagine the future” in general, namely of “the imagination of otherness and radical difference”.

Cybernetic Dystopia: ABE Kōbō’s novel Inter Ice Age 4

ABE's novel Inter Ice Age 4 could be considered a brilliant example of science-fictional critical thought in the sense of the abovementioned definition of SF qua thought. The novel, which was originally published as a series in the intellectual leftist journal Sekai from 1958–1959, appeared in the socio-political context of the transition from the period of ideals to the period of dreams, and is therefore strongly influenced by the opposition of the liberal-democratic and communist ideals in Japan, itself being embedded into the global geopolitical constellation of the Cold War. Under the Post-Leninist doctrine of a “friendly co-existence” of communism/socialism and capitalism–a term first used by KRUSHCHEV around 1955–the Cold War at that point had already assumed the shape of an economic and technological proxy war in the second half of the 1950s, fought out particularly on the battleground of nuclear technology and unmanned and manned spaceflight, the latter making it into the history books under the title “space race” between the UdSSR and the USA. This was also the time of “big science” conducted at non-governmental but government-supported think tanks or universities, and also the rise of information theory and cybernetics, which derived directly from the military-industrial complex of strategic and weaponry war research during WWII. Moreover, cybernetics at that time had already crossed the disciplinary border between the sciences and the humanities in the 1950s, then considered by its proponents on both sides of the ideological and disciplinary curtains as the new universal science able to bridge the widening gap between the natural sciences and the humanities. By applying concepts such as feedback, control, and information not merely to machines any longer, but also to all kinds of social organizations, from companies or societies to the macro economies of whole nation states, cybernetics, which had originally started out as a subfield of mathematics and statistics, turned into something more than just an applied science, becoming a certain and generally accepted paradigm infiltrating disciplines from a spectrum as wide as sociology, linguistics, urban planning, architecture, economics, or the political sciences. At its core laid the assumption that the behavior and actions of any allegedly closed system (humans, groups, societies, economies) is not only exhaustively observable, but also predictable and thus controllable, if one only could obtain enough information about the possible outcome of certain actions. One of the most influential social psychologist at that time, Kurt LEWIN (1947: 150), defined the “control” of social groups as something that was based on a “feedback system which links a reconnaissance branch of the organization with the branches which do the action […] so that a discrepancy between the desired and the actual direction leads ‘automatically’ to a correction of actions or to a change of planning.” The cybernetic goal was thus to keep systems (groups, companies, societies, states) in a homeostatic condition, and thereby minimize, or even negate, entropy or contingency. In Japan, the most important works of the founding father of cybernetics, Norbert WIENER, were translated into Japanese almost instantly upon their original publication in the second half of the 1950s by IKEHARA Shikao, a former doctoral student of WIENER at M.I.T. back in the 1930s.

Beyond Ideology: Global Communism vs. Submarine Capitalism in Inter Ice Age 4

ABE’s novel begins with a prelude describing a giant tidal wave heading for the Japanese coast. However, the meaning of this threatening natural disaster of gigantic proportions–in fact being the harbinger of a flooding of the whole world–is only revealed towards the end of the book. The protagonist, professor KATSUMI, is an engineer involved in the development of a so-called “forecasting machine”, which is to be built in direct response to the completion of the Soviet supercomputer Moscow I, a machine far ahead of the times being already able to predict events in the immediate future (e.g. weather forecasts, economic prognoses). From this one can tell that the computers in ABE's novel already resemble the supercomputers of our days, being able to perform high-performance computing. However, computers in the real world of the 1950s where in fact mostly computers of the first generation, namely large vacuum tube calculation machines which were “programmed” by reconnecting wires and fed with data from punch cards. In Japan, at the time ABE was writing his novel, it was in fact the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (NTT) which had just completed the second Japanese computer of this earliest kind, called Musashino No. 1, a machine which ABE actually even went to see when conducting research for his book.

While still being in the test phase of their own forecasting machine, the narration of the novel takes a sudden turn when the Soviet Union announces the development of a new and even more powerful computer, Moscow II. One of the first predictions of this new machine is of great political explosiveness since it forecasts the–from a Soviet perspective unbelievably accommodating–collapse of the last of the capitalist states in exactly 84 years. The government of the United States, Japans closest ally in reality in the 1950s as well as in the novel, responds to this revelation by condemning this kind of political instrumentalization of scientific resources and by announcing that they will refrain from using its own computers to predict political events. In a statement by American and Japanese scientists in reaction to the prognosis of a lurking Communist world revolution, they frankly denounce the Soviet forecast as immoral, deterministic, indoctrinating, and anti-humanistic. One of the younger Japanese scientists is quoted saying:

Perhaps […] it is natural that only Communists, who try to fit everything into a preconceived form, should have a future predictable by a machine. Yet, for those of us who create our future through the exercise of free will, such predictability doubtless serves little purpose. Even if one insists on projecting it, isn’t it as transparent as glass. I fear more than anything that belief in prediction. (ABE 1970 [1958/59]: 10)

A bit later in the novel, the same person states that he finds it even downright “ridiculous” if “the future has to be lived according to [an ideology].” (ABE 1970 [1958/59]: 14) The official response by the US government the day after the Soviet Union announced the completion of the supercomputer Moscow II and its first prediction actually confirms the concerns of the Japanese scientists:

Prediction and divination are fundamentally different. In the first place, only that which has a moral basis can rightfully be called prediction. Putting such power in the hands of a machine can only be a denial of humanity. (ABE 1970 [1958/59]: 14)

At first sight, ABE’s SF-novel thus appears to be a rather straightforward criticism of the ideological nature of Communist ideology and the steadfast belief in the predictability of whole societies in the Post-Stalinist Soviet Union in particular, because the supercomputers of the Soviets in the novel seem to be simply predicting the kind of future that Communist ideology foresees anyhow–namely the dawning future of a communist world revolution. It might be interesting to add here that in reality cybernetics and information theory, despite first being rigorously refused as a “bourgeois science” in the Soviet Union, posing a threat to the status of Marxism-Leninism as the universal science, particularly undermining the idea of the “five-year plans for the development of the national economy of the Soviet Union”, which were rather being (often unrealistic) goals formulated by the State Planning Committee (GOSPLAN) than scientific prognoses of a likely development, eventually found the acceptance of the Socialist and Communist scholarly world, being since then considered not only as an accurate method for the measurement and calculation of the outcome and computation of five-year-plans, but were also well-received within the humanities and social sciences as well, most and foremost in socio-linguistics. 

In fact, however, ABE’s novel goes far beyond the simple critique of the Post-Stalinist Soviet Union, but rather belongs to a much more multi-faceted work of SF, comparable to the oeuvre of the STRUGATZKY brothers, which–as Jameson (2004) asserts–“moves in a space beyond the facile and obligatory references to the two rival social systems,” and instead criticizes both the “Western notion of infinite industrial progress of a nonpolitical type” and “the Stalinist notion of socialism as the natural ‘development of the forces of production’.” This becomes particularly clear towards the end of ABE’s book, when it is eventually revealed to the protagonist that the image of the wave running towards Japan depicted at the beginning of the book is in a fact part of a prediction made by the computer KATSUMI invented, which had been secretly used by others to predict Japan's own future despite the government's official ban on this kind of predictions. According to the Japanese prediction, the earth was not facing the Communist world revolution but rather a fourth inter ice age evoking the flooding of most of the Earth’s surface, including Japan. As the reader learns towards the end of the book, it is a biologist called Professor YAMAMOTO who is behind this secret plot against KATSUMI. YAMAMOTO, together with a group of other scientists including KATSUMI's own research assistants, not only secretly used the computer developed by KATSUMI to predict the future, but who has also been working on a genetic engineering project to develop mammals suitable for working in undersea colonies as a response to the prediction, using premature fetuses from abortions to create these genetically enhanced submarine transhumans with the aim to prepare humanity for a life under the see once the flooding has submerged Japan. Furthermore, at some point it is also revealed to KATSUMI that YAMAMOTO's project has never been sanctioned by the Japanese government, but is run by a group of businessmen and lower bureaucrats whom had founded the secret Society for the Development of Submarine Colonies in order to prepare Japan's post-apocalyptic survival.

At this point it dawns upon KATSUMI that the ability of computers to predict the future encroaches on freedom and individuality not only in an allegedly outright ideological system such as the Soviet Union, but also in the supposedly free world of a capitalist liberal democracy, such as Japan, since the bright and lofty picture of the future predicted by the Japanese computer–depicted in a very prosaic tone in the middle of ABE’s novel–namely a world of happy and satisfied submarine humans called “aquans”, differs significantly from the future actively brought about by the aforementioned Society for the Development of Submarine Colonies, which was founded for the purpose of a ruthless genetic engineering and colonization of the sea, an enterprise undertaken by a conglomerate of scientists, members of the lower bureaucracy, and capitalist entrepreneurs, who in fact wanted to make “a lot of money on this,” as KATSUMI’s antagonist admits at some point (ABE 1970 [1958/59]: 193). When being shown the “humans” created by YAMAMOTO's genetic project for the first time, KATSUMI realizes that they had created nothing less but a “human zoo” of genetically engineered underwater “slaves” having “neither their own government nor statesmen” (ABE 1970 [1958/59]: 210). Moreover, in the process of their genetic manipulation, the aquans created by this cruel enterprise have turned into machine-like creatures due to a transmitted genetic defect, having a significantly altered inner emotional life, basically being incapable of laughing and crying (ABE 1970 [1958/59]: 188). Moreover, these aquans are not only forced to work in submarine factories, their education is also limited to classes in science and engineering, explicitly excluding educational subjects that would teach them something about their own identity and origin, such as “history, geography or [social studies]” (ABE 1970 [1958/59]: 204). The future vision of the group of scientists, bureaucrats and capitalists–a combination strikingly similar to the structure of the so-called iron triangle of ministerial bureaucracy, LDP-politicians, and large enterprises in Japan that produced Japan’s postwar economic miracle in a rather state-guided, some critics would even say in an almost socialistically planned manner–is thus in fact a purely utilitarian one, playing off the short-term sacrifice of genetically manipulated aquans, used as slave workers, against the long-term benefit of the project for the Japanese society as a whole. Eventually it becomes obvious that from the perspective of the evil conglomerate of businessmen, scientists, and bureaucrats, the rather utopian prediction of the Japanese populating the sea could only be brought about in the shape of a permutated version of the original utopian prediction presented by the computer, namely in the shape of a dystopian “submarine capitalism”, necessitating the creation of a “new human” in order to implement and thus realize the computational prognosis. The computational Utopia, to put it differently, was thus turned into a social dystopia as soon as it was touched by the hands of humans. Thereby, however, we are reminded by ABE of the fact that in Communism, due to the specific circumstances of each country, could be realized only in a comparably permutated form as well, namely in a–as pleonastic as it may sound–“actually existing” (realexistierend) form. This was considered true particularly for countries where the Marxist idealistic demands and empirical reality diverged, namely in the German Democratic Republic, Poland or Cuba.

In the book itself, this becomes more than obvious in a dispute between KATSUMI and his colleague TANOMOGI. In a pages-long dialogue, TANOMOGI explains to KATSUMI that a merely mathematically computed “quantitative” prognosis of the future necessarily needs to be translated back into “qualitative reality” through praxis, meaning that forecasting the future in fact still necessitates to actively pursue action in the predetermined direction. The future, to TANOMOGI, hence does not realize itself but needs to be actively induced according to a “blueprint”, a plan or a prognosis, in a liberal-capitalist system just as in an authoritarian communist system. TANOMOGI is quoted saying:

[P]rogramming is simply the operation of reducing the qualitative to the quantitative. If you don’t once again synthesize quantitative into qualitative you’ll never grasp the future. […] You [KATSUMI] could only consider the future as a mechanical [linear] extension of quantitative facts. As a result you were able, conceptually, to take great interest in forecasting the future, but you were quite incapable of standing the real future. (ABE 1970 [1958/59]: 170)

KATSUMI responds by harshly criticizing that a “monopolization” (ABE 1970 [1958/59]: 171) of the future of this ilk would in fact negate even the possibility to think of “different futures” (ABE 1970 [1958/59]: 218). At this point, ABE brilliantly turns the criticism initially directed uniquely towards the authoritarian Soviet forecast of a future world revolution at the beginning of the book against the functioning of predictions in capitalist democracies by letting KATSUMI say this kind of fait accompli realization of a submarine capitalism in fact is nothing but “fascism”, equating the statesman with a “divine power” (ABE 1970 [1958/59]: 171). What ABE wanted the reader to realize at the time he wrote his book was that even in a country of the presumably “free world”, the realization of an utopian “aquatic” existence–if left to the hands of capitalists–could be easily turned into a dystopia, and thus becoming as immoral, determining, indoctrinating and anti-humanist as the totalitarian announcement of the coming of a world revolution. One might thus argue that the core idea of the dystopian narrative of ABE’s SF-novel lies in what JAMESON (2004) described as the capacity of SF to confront the reader with “a radical and systemic break” with the “predicted and colonized future",” being nothing but “a prolongation of our capitalist present.”


It should have become clear that ABE in his novel criticizes the fact that prognoses in general inhere the danger of their monopolization, irrespective of the political system they are originating from, since any prediction (be it a statistical forecast or a political or economic simulation game) “influence[s] the future” (ABE 1970 [1958/59]: 17), as the protagonist states already at the beginning of the book. Authoritative prognoses (in planned economies as much as in theoretically free-market economies) embody the danger of eventually turning a prognosis into supposedly inherent constraints, and hence a “realpolitical” necessity to which an “alternative” or “different” future is then hardly imaginable. As one of the protagonists states: “political prediction itself is political in nature” (ABE 1970 [1958/59]: 21). From the perspective of ABE's critique, political or economic prognoses are nothing but “fictional expectations” or “imagined futures,” as sociologist Jens BECKERT (2016) describes the meaning of the various kinds of forecasting, namely a blueprint of a future upon which actors act “as if” the future would unfold in the predicted way. However, one might argue that if one can predict–or can plausibly contend that one is able to predict–with certainty the outcome of certain events, such a power would not only curtail drastically an individual’s choices but would also set a limit to a liberal moral system based on free choice and responsibility–and thus shake liberal democracy to its conceptual foundations. Interestingly, it was at about the same time ABE published his novel that Leftist intellectuals in Western Germany raised their concerns regarding the contemporary popularity of cybernetic future studies or futurology of US-American origin, describing it as an “apology of the present,” namely as a “method of social engineering,” which, however, in fact leaves “things the way they are by hiding behind the veil of the ever new” (KOCH 1968: 13).

ABE's novel is an ideal example of serious SF, criticizing cybernetics at exactly the historical moment in time when it was becoming a decisive “thought style” (Denkstil). Cybernetics, namely the idea of regulation and feedback-induced control, not only influenced various applied technological fields–ranging from robotics, the automatization of industrial production and distribution, Toyota's Just-in-time-System of the 1960s or the introduction of the Point-of-Sales-Systems in convenience stores in the 1980s, but also became the theoretical backbone for infrastructural sectors such as automotive traffic regulation or the automatization of train ticket sales and inspection. Moreover, cybernetics particularly influenced the emergence of the paradigm of the “information society” (情報社会) in the 1960s, with the concepts of information networks based on feedback control and man-machine interaction playing a key role in the conceptual repertoire of the information society discourse. The fact that one only rarely finds direct references to the original works of the founding fathers of cybernetics in the main works that shaped the information society paradigm, could be considered as an evidence for the fact that cybernetics in the 1960s have already turned into a generally accepted “point of view” (WILDEN 1979) beyond any specific scientific field. The marriage of information society discourse, cybernetics, futurology and science fiction had its heyday in Japan at time of the Osaka EXPO in 1970, which turned out to become an even more efficient cybernetic control machine and information and entertainment machine than the Montreal EXPO three years before, presenting to its 65 millions visitors the organizer’s version of a utopian future of a mixture of multi-media spectacle, popular culture (SF), and cybernetics (cf. BORCK 2008: 129).


ABE Kōbō. Inter Ice Age 4 (Translated by E. Dale Saunders) (Tuttle, 1970 [1958/59]).

BACKERS, Jens. Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics (Harvard UP, 2016).

BORCK, Cornelius: 'Der Transhumanismus der Kontrollmaschine: Die Expo ’67 als Vision einer kybernetischen Versöhnung von Mensch und Welt‘. (pp. 125-162) In Michael HAGNER & Erich Hört (eds.) Die Transformation des Humanen. Beiträge zur Kulturgeschichte der Kybernetik. (Suhrkamp, 2008).

DATH, Dietmar. 'Im Sturm der Unwirklichkeit.' In Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (2012, Oct 30) (

JAMESON, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. (Verso, 2004).

HARTWELL, David G. and Kathryn CRAMER. The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF (Tor, 1994).

KOCH, Claus. Kritik der Futurologie. In Kursbuch 14, 1–17. (1968)

KOSELLECK, Reinhart. Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (Columbia UP, 2004).

LEWIN, Kurt. 'Frontiers in Group Dynamics.' In Human Relations 1(1) (1947).

NAJITA Tetsuo and Erwin SCHEINER (eds.). Japanese thought in the Tokugawa Period, 1600–1868: Methods and Metaphors. (University of Chicago Press, 1988).

MITA Munesuke. Social Psychology of Modern Japan. (Routledge, 1992).

ŌSAWA Masachi. 不可能性の時代 (The Age of Impossiblity). (Iwanami, 2008).

STEEL, Allen. 'Hard Again'. In: New York Review of Science Fiction, (1992, June)

WILDEN, Anthony. 'Changing Frames of Order: Cybernetics and the Machina Mundi.' In Klaus Krippendorff (ed.): Communication and Control in Society. (Gordon and Breach, 1979), 9-31.

Further Reading

JAMESON, Fredric. ‘Progress Versus Utopia, or Can We Imagine the Future’, Science Fiction Studies, 27: 147-158 (1982).
JAMESON, Fredric. ‘The Politics of Utopia’, New Left Review (25): 35-54 (2004).

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