Building a Dystopian Novel with a Train Station

A few weeks ago, I was at a Barnes & Noble, just looking through their speculative fiction section when I came across Yokohama Station SF by Yuba Isukari. It was a slight, green book with an intriguing cover, and I was surprised I’d never heard of it before.

Naturally, I bought it, and let me tell you, it’s only a bit longer than 200 pages, but it has more depth, tension, and mystery than some books three times its length.

It’s a lighthearted dystopian novel, if you can believe that, and it should definitely be on your 2021 reading list, and here’s why:

Yokohama Station SF is One of the Best Dystopian Novels I’ve Read

The premise for the novel is quite simple. A sentient train station takes advantage of human weakness after Japan is ravaged by the Winter War, and gradually grows to take over the islands of Japan. Life inside the station is regulated by the station’s ‘Internet’-equivalent, SuikaNet, and its robotic enforcers, the turnstiles.

The characters must find a way to stop the ever-growing station from destroying the rest of Japan.

It’s a neat idea, to be honest. The whole conflict is mostly internal for the characters, aside from the occasional row with the turnstiles.

 Yuba Isukari pairs a dry narrator voice with a semi-dire plot, and throws in some humor for good measure. All while inside a sprawling, replicating, self-healing, omniscient train station. It’s pretty cool.

However, the structure of the novel is a tad confusing. It jumps a bit back and forth between narratives for long stretches of time, leaving us wondering about the other characters. And the ending only resolves a few of our character’s dilemmas, again leaving us wondering about the other half of the characters, of which there are no mentions.

Perhaps it’s a consequence of translation, or perhaps the story’s meant to jump back and forth. Regardless, I didn’t find the transitions too jarring, and was able to power through a few confusing pages.

dystopian novel cover yokohama station sf

Top-Notch Characters

The main character, Hiroto, is quiet and laid back, resembling an observer more than an active participant in his own life sometimes.

A lot of the things that happen to him throughout the story aren’t of his own doing, and he merely perseveres through everything that’s thrown at him.

He does portray a keen sense of duty, however, which defines him as a character. He ventures into the station to find the leader of the Dodger Alliance, and in the end, to reach Exit 42 and find answers—answers to what, he’s not sure.

The notion that Hiroto just decides to go into the station on a mission he clearly doesn’t understand—or really care about, it seems—just speaks to the kind of character he is. He’s sociable, curious, and compassionate. He’s ‘go with the flow’ until he finds something that piques his interest, then he’s all in.

Hiroto contrasts with another of the main characters, Toshiru, who has an intense dislike for people. Toshiru is Hiroto’s shadow, but with a clearer purpose, and clearer desires. This isn’t to say that Toshiru is a bad person, quite the contrary, he’d just rather spend time with machines than with people.

Plus, there are a couple of quirky AI companions for both Hiroto and Toshiru along the way, and they act as foils for the two character’s most endearing qualities.

Dystopian Setting

The whole sentient train station vibe is pretty cool, and it creates an of air of danger and mystery while reading. Hiroto walks through the halls of the station, literally in the belly of the beast.

However, there are parts in the story where Yuba Isukari’s sparse prose does not lend itself well. I wish there had been more descriptions of the interior of the station, like what the halls looked like, the cities, the people, etc.

A lot of those details are left up to the reader’s imagination, which is fine, I guess, but I’d have liked the author to solidify the world in which we’re immersed.

For all we know, the inside of the station might be clean and white and sterile. Or, it could be dark, dingy, and really embody the dystopian tropes. But I’m not sure what it looks like exactly, aside from a very brief description at the end of the book where the walls are described as “white concrete”.

About the Dystopian Novel

So apparently, Yokohama Station SF was originally a manga published in Japan from 2016 to 2018, called Yokohama-eki Fable, or Yokohama Station Fable. I learned this after researching the book when I’d finished reading it.

The manga started as a popular web comic by the author, who was trying to wind down from work with a creative outlet.

The novel that I read was translated by Stephen Paul, published by Yen Press in March 2021, and marketed to English readers. The manga has yet to be translated into English.

Regardless of the history of the novel, it stands as a great addition to dystopian sci-fi. It’s short, quirky nature makes it stand out from the ranks of grim, brooding dystopian novels double its size.

If you’re looking for a short, fascinating read, I give Yokohama Station SF an 8/10.

A Post-Impressionist Look at Popular Sci-Fi Films

In our ever-advancing modern age, art takes on new life. Sometimes, the forms of that art were previously impossible. Like the combination of historic paintings and popular sci-fi films.

Combining historic art forms with modern methods isn’t unpopular. Quite the opposite.

The 2017 film Loving Vincent uses the visual aspects of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings to craft a wonderfully vibrant story.

But what about re-imagining live-action films in the styles of long-dead painters? Does the combination of modern film and 100-year-old paintings give the film a new meaning?

Let’s explore Post-Impressionism and modern sci-fi films in their weird, yet accurate marriage.

Understanding Realism, Impressionism, and Post-Impressionism

To truly understand the Post-Impressionism movement, we first have to take a glimpse at what came before it.

Impressionism started in France in the late 1800s, and broke away from the previous line of artists, the Realists. While the Realists, as one can ascertain, were focused on creating the most realistic, lifelike art physically possible, Impressionists emphasized painting as an art form, not just a mode for creating hyper-accurate renderings of real life.

Impressionism was all about the paint, the environment, the effect of light on the subject. Instead of trying to capture the subject exactly—which were often scenes of nature or landscapes—they took the liberty of experimenting with the scale, depth, and texture of their paintings.

Artists that dominated this era included:

  • Claude Monet
  • Camille Pissaro
  • August Renoir
  • Mary Cassatt

What is Post-Impressionism?

So, Post-Impressionist art turns the values of Impressionism on their heads. The Impressionists placed a lot of importance on how light is portrayed in scenic, often pastoral, paintings.

Well, that didn’t jive with the Post-Impressionists, and neither did the intense focus on color. The Post-Impressionist largely placed an “emphasis on more symbolic content, formal order and structure…believing color could be independent from form and composition as an emotional and aesthetic bearer of meaning.

Post-Impressionist art is marked by the idea that the meaning of the piece is more important than the piece itself. Art is created for a plethora of reasons, and evokes a plethora of feelings, which take precedence in Post-Impressionism.

Well-known artists from the era included:

  • Vincent Van Gogh
  • Paul Gauguin
  • Henry Rousseau

A Tasteful Pairing: Post-Impressionism and Popular Sci-Fi Films

When you think about popular science fiction films, like Blade Runner, for instance, does your mind jump to famous Post-Impressionist works of art?

Probably not. But for Bhautik Joshi, it was.

A few years ago, Joshi, who is an avid photographer and artist, reproduced scenes from the 1982 Blade Runner film in the style of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Plus, keeping with the theme of sci-fi classics, he reproduced parts of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the style of Pablo Picasso. While Picasso was often referred to as a Cubist, Cubism was a sub-section of Post-Impressionism.

Starry Night/Blade Runner

2001: A Space Odyssey/Picasso Cubism

Sci-Fi Films and Post-Impressionism Characteristics

What struck me about Joshi’s decision to pair classic sci-fi films with post-impressionist art was, well, that pairing.

On the surface, such a combination might seem innocuous. It even looks good! The delicate swirls and deep color of Starry Night matches almost seamlessly with Blade Runner’s already-compelling aesthetic.

However, if we think about post-impressionism’s meaning – the aestheticism of color, the symbolism of the content, a focus on structure and order—pairing it with popular sci-fi films was a genius move.

Blade Runner is a cyberpunk classic, often noted as one of the first cyberpunk films. The cyberpunk genre is known for portraying societies in various stages of social, economic, and technological collapse. It’s grungy, dark, and unforgivingly violent.

Post-Impressionism was a breakdown of Impressionist beliefs—a movement that placed more value on the meaning and symbolism of art than the piece of art itself.

Cyberpunk as a genre—specifically Blade Runner—can be seen as largely symbolic. The use of neon colors contrasted with dark, rainy alleyways portrays the artificiality of modern societies. Nature in cyberpunk worlds borders on nonexistent, replaced instead with the ‘formal order’ of vast cityscapes and power grids.

Blade Runner evokes both feelings of awe and despair. Awe at a world with flying cars, advanced technology, and an extreme melting pot of ideas, people, and lifestyles. But also despair at the inevitable breakdown of societal righteousness, the disregard for human, animal, or plant life, and the commonplace corruption of technological icons.

Joshi’s take on the popular 1982 film, while only a few seconds, puts into broad prospective the connection between artistic themes. Post-Impressionism and the cyberpunk genre fit together hauntingly well.

Opening a World of Possibilities

Joshi accomplished his snippets with deep neural networks, feeding them pieces of art to pair with popular sci-fi films. That was in 2016.

Now, artificial intelligence is so advanced it can create realistic human likenesses by combining characteristics from thousands of photographs of real people. These non-people are called deep fakes, and to any casual observer, they are near indistinguishable from actual photographs or videos of real people.

AI and neural networks are great tools for creating art. We can create entirely new actors, giving them a face and a voice and viewers might not even know the difference.

If we wanted to, we could make a film with every character played by Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson. Not a great idea, but it’s a possibility.

But at what stage does the use of AI for art cease to be an artistic endeavor? When does it become a crux for creation, a necessity rather than a convenience?

Years before Joshi released his Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey projects another artist was experimenting with classic art forms and modern film.

Anders Ramsell released Blade Runner – The Aquarelle Edition in 2013. He hand-painted over 12,000 watercolor paintings and combined them into a 35-minute rendition of the Blade Runner film. His labor of love took 2 years to create.

Ramsell’s project shows us that amazing art is possible without the help of artificial intelligence. He had full control over every painting and every scene because he made them with his own two hands.

Anyways, I’ve rambled on for long enough. Hope you found this interesting!

The Robot Definition & Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.

Nowadays, the term robot has come to mean a few different things, whether that’s Terminator, a Roomba, or the industrial robots used on manufacturing assembly lines.

Robot means, according to Merriam Webster, “a machine that resembles a living creature in being capable of moving independently and performing complex actions.” Or, on a rudimentary level, “a device that automatically performs complicated, often repetitive tasks.”

But, to really get to the source of the robot definition, we have to take a trip back to 1920, Czechoslovakia.

(Spoiler warning for R.U.R.)

Robot Precursors

Automatons and mechanical human facsimiles have been a part of literature for thousands of years. In Homer’s Iliad, Hephaestus is described as having two golden handmaidens who possessed “intelligence in their hearts.” The handmaidens’ purpose was to hold up Hephaestus’ old, frail body, and not much else.

And we’ve seen a slew of automatons in literature since the classic Greek days. Frank L. Baum’s Tin Man might even be considered an automaton!

But in 1920, the Czech playwright Karel Čapek published his seminal work, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) and effectively solidified the word ‘robot’ into the human lexicon.

R.U.R. In a Nutshell

The premise of Čapek’s play revolves around the idea of a disposable workforce. The main, human characters, work in a factory that produces lifelike robots that are used for all kinds of tasks. Much like our 21st century use of robots—for industry. But, as the play continues, the robots overthrow humanity and essentially become human, capable of thoughts and feelings.

Broken down so simply, R.U.R. reads like the science fiction version of Marx’s Communist Manifesto, with the robots standing in as the proletariat workforce. But, that’s a topic for another time.

Robot Definition as Laid Out by Čapek

The term originated from the Old Slavonic word rabota, meaning “servitude of forced labor,” and in Czech is roboti.

While robot has come to mean a whole slew of things in the modern English language, it’s still rooted in the old Slavonic roots: servitude. Many of our modern robots—the Roomba, for example—don’t have the semi-sentience of Čapek’s robots.

Despite the depictions in the performances of R.U.R.—which show the robots as coated in metal armor with stiff, calculated movements—there are various places in the play where they are said to be near-human, the products of advanced biotechnology.

In the first act, the factory’s general manager, Domain, describes it as the place “where people are made.” And later, one of the characters is revealed to be a robot with much surprise because she was indistinguishable from her human counterparts.

Čapek’s robots are much more advanced than vacuum-bots; in the age of science fiction, we might better describe them as androids. But, the playwright did far more than introduce a popular term into our language, he also pioneered the modern idea of acquired humanity.

rur 1939 production poster
Poster for a production of R.U.R. in 1939
Photo from Wikipedia

Years Ahead of His Time

So Čapek gives us the robot definition, but he also presents the notion that artificially-created humanoids might have feelings and the potential for human thought processes. By the end of the play, the robots have taken over the world, but are unable to reproduce or construct new robots.

The big reveal occurs when the robot based off of the human character Helena, and another robot named Primus, come to the conclusion that they “belong to one another,” having somehow discovered emotions and fallen in love. Earlier in the act, the robot Radius explains that the robots have attained humanity, or an accurate imitation of humanity, because they “have read books. We have studied science and the arts. The Robots have achieved human culture.”

As intriguing and advanced as this might have been in 1920, the notion that biologically or mechanically engineered entities can become capable of emotion and human thought is a reality in the modern age.

Great strides in computing have led to deep-learning artificial intelligences that cannot only create their own problem-solving algorithms, but can learn to mimic human emotion.

Mark Riedl, a professor from Georgia Tech with a specialization in AI systems, has been gradually teaching AI common sense and ethics using stories. Much like R.U.R., Reidl is utilizing culture instead of code to teach AI.  

Reidl says “When we talk about teaching robots ethics, we’re really asking how we help robots avoid conflict with society and culture at large…. The more an AI system or a robot can understand the values of the people that it’s interacting with, the less conflict there’ll be [and] the more understanding and useful it’ll be to humans.”

And yet, teaching AI and robots via culture poses the question: “Who’s to say that the wealth of sci-fi media that portrays AI as evil won’t bring about our downfall?”

It happens in R.U.R., the culture of “slaughter and domination” precipitates the robots to destroy mankind. Will the human obsession with robot overlords condition our technology to become just that?

Final Thoughts on Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.

We have Čapek to thank for the proliferation of the term ‘robot’, but more importantly, he raised questions about the ethics of robots, androids, and AI.

As we move forward in our pursuit of science, it’s critical that we take a moment to consider the morality of our experiments. That’s why science fiction is such a powerful tool.

R.U.R., Blade Runner, Terminator, etc. show us scenarios of what might happen in the future if we’re not careful today.

Even though the robot definition is steeped in the mindset of servitude, we should strive to create an environment of collaboration, not isolation. Putting the debate over born-humanity and acquired humanity aside, we can make conscious decisions to change the mindset around AI to one of respect and partnership. Who knows, your Roomba might remember the time you kicked it and is harboring a deep resentment, biding it’s time to strike.