Is there really a safe place to unleash dark, exploitative fantasies that would cause many societies to recoil in fear? There was such a place in the world created by Hirotaka Tobi.
In 2002, Hirotaka Tobi wrote Grand Vacance, a dark science fiction novel of AI’s living in relative harmony on their virtual resort for the past thousand years. Each AI has moved beyond its original programmed role and has developed its own life, memories, and emotions. Until the spiders came and ruthlessly destroyed it all. The surviving AIs do what they can to defend and save themselves against the spiders who take on all forms and can destroy in a myriad of violent ways.
Released on June 19, 2019, the novel has been translated into English by Matt Treyvaud with the new title, The Thousand Year Beach. Now, English-speaking readers can experience the novel that was nominated for the Nihon SF Taisho Award.
After reading this novel, I can honestly say that I was not mentally prepared for The Thousand Year Beach. My expectation upon seeing the description of “AIs fighting against Spiders” conjured up campy science fiction shows. However, thoughts of adventure and action disintegrate upon the first few paragraphs. This was not a novel that made things easy to coast along and enjoy the ride. This was a novel that challenged and tested the mental perimeters of humanity, decency, and pain.
What was already an interesting concept to grasp was that the inhabitants of this world were AIs who were very self-aware that they were AIs and that this was their virtual resort. The last human “guest” to visit the resort was a thousand years ago. No one knows why the humans disappeared or how this virtual world has still kept operating. Yet it does and they keep on living. Each character on the resort during human days had a “role” that was designated for it to perform for its human guests. Sometimes it would be a “family member” or just any helpful character to add to whatever story the guest desired. Through the fragmented recollections of the AI and re-surfacing of suppressed memories, the human guests were free to perform anything they wanted on these AIs. There was no sexual, violent, or deplorable act that was denied. The AI would not only remember the act, but it would remember every emotional and mental trauma associated with it. They were all programmed to do whatever the human guests wanted and to react and to feel. That alone is such a horrifying realization to the AIs. What the humans did lingered.
The spiders in the novel are varied in their looks and sizes but are centralized in their quenching need to satisfy their hunger. What they hunger for or why is not explicitly known, but the AIs can feel it. The spiders reminded me of mechanical viruses that can take any form that is needed, just as long as they get to their target to destroy.
The AIs have one method of offense, and that is to use the mysterious orbs of power called the Eyes. Each eye is different and also varies in power. Some eyes can shoot fire, some can shoot ice, and others can make ever growing grids. They try. They all try so hard to fight. There are victories, but the pain and struggles that come from them are aching.
As the battle for survival progresses, something begins to unravel in the reality of the situation. Something bigger, something horrible, something questionable is behind the spiders, guiding them to the resort’s demise. All I can say is that I am stumped by the book’s ending. There is a whole level of abstract form of thinking that I struggle to understand. There seem to be hints of other virtual resorts fighting against an even bigger enemy, and they are using this resort as a sort of sacrifice or any means for a weapon. Intermingled with that is the ever deepening sadness and pain that beats within the characters. Certain truths come out, and they are truly hard to stomach through. These poor AIs and what they had to go through, what they do day to day. This was not a happy ending. Not a happy ending at all.
It took a few days of mental rest after reading the novel for me to put some final thoughts together. I have not read a book like this before. I have never heard of a book like this before. This is the kind of book that really highlights the genre’s perimeters. This was an absolute challenge to almost every aspect of reading. Even though there was deep trauma to work through, I can see how this novel was nominated for an award. It is innovating in its exploration of pain and the will to survive. The reader becomes able to handle the rising levels of violence and pain as we are reminded that these are just AIs. They are not real. Yet, at the same time, we are reminded that these AIs create memories and they feel. It is essentially a constant sense of detached unease and disgust that we experience as we are reading the novel.
I would recommend The Thousand Year Beach as a book club read. It would take a group effort to analyze and work through the after-book trauma of it all. Plus, the novel is rich is talking points. One word of advice: This is definitely not a good book to read over a meal.
The Thousand Year Beach is available now wherever books are sold (also available eBook edition for the Amazon Kindle, and in Apple’s iBooks Store, Barnes & Noble’s Nook Book Store, the Kobo eBooks Store, and the Google Play Store) or check out https://www.viz.com/the-thousand-year-beach.