translated by J. D. Wisgo
August 1, 2018
check out the translator’s posts on his site, “Self Taught Japanese,” about his work on this novella
A short but intense novella, Two of Six: A Captain’s Dilemma (６分の２) considers how far an AI will go to safeguard the life of its “owner,” and how much responsibility a ship’s captain should take when faced with a life-or-death situation.
When the spaceship Matchlock mysteriously malfunctions while taking six humans on a pleasure trip in space, Captain Eiji Kurashiki quickly determines that the only way to save anyone is to pick two people to use the escape pod. His discussion with Elise, one of the ship’s androids and the only one still functioning, quickly turns to how those two people should be chosen. Elise dispassionately dismisses the captain’s claim that he shouldn’t be chosen, since she operates according to Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” and the captain’s life is her top priority.
Each brief chapter then includes discussions that the captain has with each of the passengers- after, that is, he locks each of their doors and sends them a message about their dilemma. The usual questions regarding who has more of a “right” to live are debated, with each passenger reacting differently to the highly-stressful situation. Should the people with families be spared? The youngest passengers? The passengers who are keeping it together better? What are the “correct” criteria for a decision like this?
Ultimately, Elise decides to trick the captain into taking the escape pod, but he sees through her ruse and shuts her down, making the final choice himself.
This translation of Two of Six was clear and crisp, and J. D.’s decision to make this a bilingual text will be much appreciated by students of Japanese.
Of the story itself, I wanted a more nuanced discussion of these ethical issues, and perspectives that were more original. And yet, Elise’s attempts to trick Captain Eiji by telling him that the whole ship malfunction and subsequent crisis was all part of a Turing Test was actually pretty compelling. She thus tries to convince Eiji that it’s ok for him to use the escape pod because he’s actually the only human on board and therefore his life is more valuable. Ironically, Elise is extremely valuable to Eiji, since she serves as his sounding-board and offers advice when he is overwhelmed by the magnitude of the decision he must make. They speak to one another casually and comfortably, calling into question what exactly differentiates the two when it comes to reasoning skills and dealing with tense situations. Obviously, Elise operates according to strict parameters, but she does come up with multiple solution scenarios, none of which Eiji accepts because of his staunch belief that the captain should go down with his ship. And with her usefulness to the captain and her volumes of information concerning the ship and perhaps even the malfunction, shouldn’t she get a place in the escape pod?
This highly-interesting piece was quickly dropped, though, which was pretty disappointing. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this debut of an author who had never been translated into English before, and I look forward to reading more by him.