An up-and-coming sumo wrestler adopted by a couple who run a neighborhood bathhouse. A pleasure quarter where the wealthy are entertained and deals are made. Disaffected samurai, second and third sons, all trying to make their way in the world. Shogunal intelligence agents, monitoring the jockeying between domains and helping the shogun negotiate power with the empress and imperial family, who are based in an older capital in a faraway part of the country.

Automatic Eve, by Rokuro Inui.
Translated by Matt Treyvaud.
320 pages

Rokuro Inui uses familiar elements of Japanese culture and history to build the world of his 2019 novel “Automatic Eve” (originally published in Japanese in 2014), but he quickly makes it clear that this is not Tokyo and Kyoto, this is Tempu and Kamigata, and not everything is as it appears to be.

A cricket at a cricket-fighting tournament is exposed as a mechanical replica and not an actual insect, and the Institute of Machinery is experimenting with human automatons based on traditional Japanese karakuri puppets. The empress is dying, but can she be … repaired?

Inui’s brilliantly original novel is told in a series of five interconnected short stories. The first three wind up his world and work as stand-alone tales — a samurai convinces the head of the Institute to make him an automaton double of a woman he loves but can never have; Geiemon Tentoku, a young sumo wrestler, is drawn into the underworld when a gang leader asks him to throw a bout; and intelligence agent Jinnai Tasaka investigates what the Institute is up to and ends up falling in love with the mysterious Eve in the process.

Inui winds his intricate plot tightly and then lets it play out over the final two stories: Tasaka learns about the Institute and the secrets of the empress, including Eve’s true nature, and as the shogun delves into secrets of the imperial family, his thirst for power may earn him unexpected retribution.

Inui is a skilled storyteller. His narration is concise, his control over the passage of time impressive and his originality shines: Readers will want to return to this world. Matt Treyvaud’s translation is seamless, and his language seems to draw from the cyberpunk and historical novels that Inui is clearly inspired by.

If there’s any weakness, it may be Inui’s characterization of women. The automatons in the story appear to be given life by the romantic desires of men in the novel. On the other hand, however, Eve is the most fully formed character in the novel; Tasaka and Kugimiya feel like stand-ins for the reader and are not as fully fleshed out as they could be.

This does not detract from the fun of the novel. The action scenes are crisply executed, the locations are as monumental as Hokusai’s “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” prints and the deeper questions the novel addresses are as curious as any science fiction novel.

“Where did the soul come from?” Tasaka asks at one point as he considers the humanity of the titular Eve. “Where, in the body or brain, did it conceal itself while a human still lived?”

Inui allows the reader to dwell on these ideas in his world, which he has filled out as a trilogy in Japanese, with the second volume set in a fictional Chicago of 1892 and the third in Japan of 1918. Readers should cross their fingers that they get English versions of these as well.

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