Modular futures, black robots in Showa Japan




…aaaand, below is the audio, in MP3 format. 3 versions–collect them all!

Text and audio from scratched talk @ UCLA, for a conference in June 2015 on robots, called Machine Dreams. It was a great event organized by Margaret Rhee with tons of poets, art people, scholars…a great event I was supposed to participate in, over these high wires. As it turned out, I got sick, for the first time in–15? 20?–years, and the new software and hardware I was learning to record the talk for broadcast only came together at the very last minute (neighbor’s dog going off during recording, my stupid dyslexification of the actual time difference, everything happening sooo slowly), and I showed up an hour late to my 2am time slot. I ended up delaying the whole thing, as they waited patiently, and then never gave the thing. So I blew it. BUT, it’s still a good summary of a book chapter I just published, and pulls in some current events from Japanese diplomatic use of robots, and is a decent archive.



This week the first in the series of retro robot stories I am translating and publishing on Expanded Editions came out. Titled “The Man-made Baby,” it came out as part of the “robot boom” that hit after Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis was screen to wide acclaim in Tokyo.

“The Man-made Baby” is available on Amazon. Here is the copy that accompanies it.

What is science to love? “The Man-made Baby” (1928) is Hirabayashi Hatsunosuke’s answer to this quandary. In the early twentieth century, science offered a host of new words to describe the experience of being caught up in love. Is love best described in the words of seismology—as an earthquake? As an electrical jolt? A mysterious perfume? Is science even adequate to the task at hand? Inquiring minds want to know!

Hirabayashi investigates this question in the sympathetic story of a moga, a modern girl living in 1920s Tokyo. Fusako is steeped in urban culture and yearns for the new new thing. She falls for and clashes with a cool, collected and very married scientist as they jointly investigate the “black box” of love.

“The Man-made Baby” is the first popular work in Japanese to place the theme of a robot at its center. The robot, translated more precisely as “artificial human,” is a scientific enigma that poses the questions, “what is love to science” as well as “what is science to love?” As a robot more human than the metal-clad beings we have come to know and love in later sci-fi, the artificial baby is a mysterious project hatched between a scientist and his young assistant, this modern girl. The plan to conceive, publicize and début the artificially created baby lures in enthusiasts as well as skeptics—namely, the scientist’s wife. Hirabayashi’s story is a rare treatment of the modern girl as a creature of conflict— not quite vamp or siren, not quite feminist icon, she crosses a number of lines that lead her into an unchartered future…

About the author
Hirabayashi (1892-1931) was a leading journalist and critic in 1920s-30s Tokyo, published in all the “right” places. He had a special passion for the independent cultures of working people, and for women’s rights—a startlingly bold position for his day. Although he is known as a journalist, a writer on Hollywood’s long shadow in Japan, his short stories drawing on cinema genres such as melodrama are less known. “The Man-made Baby” was published in one of the most popular and genre-bending venues of its day, a monthly magazine that gave a home to modern detective stories, gothics, and the budding genre of science fiction.

More stories on the Vintage SF imprint will follow this fall/winter.