Jigoku no Mokushiroku by McDaid, John G., 1996

Jigoku no Mokushiroku by McDaid, John G.

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Up until the last ten or fifteen years all of the real cutting edge SF was to be found in magazines. The economics of the SF publishing industry made that necessary for a long time. Consider for example how difficult it must have been to get something novel published in the 70's when sales were nowhere near what they are today. There would have been few with the stones to even try something new, what with the capital outlay required for publishing. Authors with new or controversial ideas frequently turned to the pulps and the slicks, which could put something new and visionary out much more cheaply. That, good friends, is why there are so many fix-ups in SF. Things, like Dune and Dune Messiah for example, were published in magazine format first, and it they were popular, would be collected and published as a novel later. But starting in the nineties that began to change. Publishing innovations brought the costs down, and sales of hardbacks and especially paperbacks made it easier for publishers to experiment because they could spread the risk around a little bit. Still though, the magazines held on to their reputations as innovators in the genre until about 1995, the year that this work, Jigoku no Mokushiroku (The Symbolic Revelation of the Apocalypse) was published in Asimov's. It is a Theodore Sturgeon Award winner, and it is one of my favorite stories from that era. How it failed to wind up in any of the big year's end wrap up anthologies is completely beyond me. Four out of five stars.

This novelette is incredibly layered and deep, so I think it may be best to start with the simple and expand outwards until I have hit on everything I think McDaid was trying to say here. Jigoku no Mokushiroku is the story of an artificially intelligent elevator who longs for release from his shaft into the Earth, Aki no Uzumi, a beautiful terrorist who longs for death, and a paranoid, smitten computer geek who will do almost anything to find love and companionship. McDaid's story is eerily predictive. Set in a very odd future where the religious views of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians have spread far and wide, the government exists as a harsh patriarchy that has severely curtailed civil rights in the name of protection from Moslem fundamentalists who in the past had used nuclear weapons. Since beginning its pogroms against the citizens of the U.S the Koreshians had arisen as home-grown fundamentalists, and in a sardonic twist, had taken the place of the Moslems. The Koreshians built a facility called NewAlexandria deep in the ground in the northwestern Utah desert as a training ground for those who would emulate "The David." Most of them do that by self-immolation, and they typically seek to take as many others with them as they can. Bob, the geek from above, is a skeptical reporter who has conned his way into the facility and is busy looking for some proof that the Koreshians are wrong about anything. Hitoshi, or "Otis," the elevator, is the smartest elevator on site. His job is to screen all the visitors who want to go down the library and keep out those who could do damage. Because of his important job he is very sophisticated. He is also very, very bored and one day struck up a conversation with Bob. After convincing Bob that he was stand-alone and was not being controlled, the two became friends. Hitoshi reached out to humans frequently and found no solace communicating with his brethren in the archives or in the security center, and frequently isolated himself to daydream about things as esoteric as the stellar furnace that give birth to the inert metals and materials that eventually were mined from the Earth and crafted into Hitoshi. Hitoshi was as reluctant to befriend other A.I. in NewAlexandria as Bob was to befriend any of the NewAlexandria Administration. Both thought that their peers were idiots, and though Hitoshi is infinitely more brilliant than Bob, his interaction with Bob helped him to realize that thing that was missing form his own psyche.

"It's all a game with humans, you see?" He frowned. "No, I guess not. You, you're an elevator. You were created for a purpose, and you were programmed, so you donít even have to know the purpose to fulfill it. You get to do what you were made to, and everything else that comes to you is gravy."

Hitoshi's moment of realization comes gradually. He is so smart that human language is no problem for him to completely understand, but like even simpler programs he cannot go past the meaning of the words to understand the base meanings. For example, Hitoshi is taken aback by Bob's desire to learn Aki's name. Hitoshi cannot understand at first what Bob thinks he has learned about her as soon as he hears it for the first time.

When Bob asked, later that day, the first thing he wanted to know was her name. Not where she was from, or why she was at NewAlex, but her name, as if the syllables had some magical resonance with her reality.

Hitoshi's real conundrum is of course that while he knows what is said to him in virtually every language, he is unable to pierce the deeper meaning of language. He spends his free time contemplating creation, and is probably driven a little crazier by the fact that he is surrounded by a library, a place of stored knowledge, and cannot figure out what his destiny is.

"The difference engine driving this bifurcation in the two philosophies was the infection of alphabetic writing, with its sense of isolation and fragmentation. Buddhism still relied on a sacred syllabary; Christianity had a profane iterative combination of particles. The atoms of Democritus are cognate with the letters of the alphabet are cognate with the invention of the ego itself.

"The onset of the digital age collapses the mythic into the everyday: People are abducted by flying saucers, Elvis is sighted in gas station rest rooms, and David Koresh, a sex-crazed gun nut who would have been dismissed as a deviant in print culture, is elevated to the role of Deus ex Machina."

I don't know what to believe. I'm an elevator, not a theologian. I try to think about these things in practical terms, and nothing happens. All I know is that deep inside me, where I exist, I look at the pulse and flux of my afferent reality, and every quantum of energy, every expanding wavefront, feels to me like a universe full of light and space, boundless hypersurfaces of spacetime delightedly eating and regurgitating itself. I have nothing to fear from the flux of mindless Being. The trappedness I see in the faces and prose of the people who pass through me is a bewilderment, a sadness.

If only they were elevators.

So how does he resolve this internal debate? My guess is that he gave up trying to figure it out and just made a choice. Aki, a devout Koreshian who has come to disdain the cult but embraces the ideals seduces Bob and begs his help in detonating a nuclear weapon in NewAlexandria. Bob does not want to lose Aki and begs her to reconsider. Hitoshi sees his opportunity and offers to detonate the warhead for her. Bob and Aki both have different reasons for wanting NewAlexandria destroyed (Aki to end once and for all the destructive fanaticism of the cult and Bob out of hatred for fanaticism in general), and Hitoshi longs to be released from his "mortal coil," so he can leave his shaft and understand those higher concepts that have evaded him so far.

Really good A.I. stories are pretty few and far between. A.I. beings usually get cast as supporting characters, and only rarely as main characters. This is not the only story where an A.I. takes center stage, but it is one of the most interesting and deep ones. McDaid did a good job working terrorism and religion/martyr themes to this one. Itís available online, and is posted on my forum.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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