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I am currently reading through Haikasoru’s wonderful collection of short stories The Future is Japanese. The collection is a blend of Japanese-style short fiction written by both Japanese and Western authors.  I’m four stories in so far, but the first one to really impress me is Project Itoh’s The Indifference Engine (2007, 49 pages, translation by Edwin Hawkes). A basic synopsis for those interested:

The fictional African nation of Shelmikedmus is in a state of civil war. The sides are divided along ethnic lines, the ruling Hoa and rebel Xema. The civil war is a bloody one, with both sides committing genocide against the other. The Americans and Dutch intercede in the war, negotiating a ceasefire between the two armies. With them, they bring an invention, the indifference engine, that will bring peace to the country. However, the invention isn’t necessarily what you say…completely ethical.

A full synopsis (warning: spoilers), and discussion after the jump.


The narrator of the story is an unnamed Xema soldier that has been fighting against the Hoa since he was a boy. The only emotions he can express towards any Hoa are anger and hatred. He is only too willing to accept the propaganda that the Hoa are subhuman monsters, incapable of feeling pain or empathy. In combat, he is ruthless, gleefully participating in the extermination of Hoa villages as retribution for what a Hoa army did to his village.

After years of bloodletting, (in no small part aided by American military gifts to the Shelmikedmus government) Dutch negiotiators manage to implement a ceasefire, bringing the war to an end. To aid in the reconstruction of a country, the Americans and Dutch introduce a mind-altering injection of nanomachines to the people of Shelmikedmus, casually referred to as “the indifference engine”. The effect is to render former Xema and Hoa soldiers unable to distinguish one ethnic group from the other, the first step in permanently ending the war. Not only are soldiers given the treatment, but also merchants seeking microcredit to get businesses up and running. However, the full details of the treatment are kept under wraps. For those receiving the treatment, the only details they are given is that it is an injection that will help reintegrate them into normal society.

The narrator is one of the first to undergo the procedure, and ends up at Brave New World, a school for educating soldiers with a previous educational background or of high intelligence. These students will be the first wave of Shelmikedmians to lead the country to a new era of prosperity. It is here the young Xema soldier first recognizes the effect of the indifference engine on him. He makes a friend, Ezgwai. They become close friends, forged from their common hatred of the enemy. However, Ezgwai soon finds out that the narrator participated in the massacre of his village. With the realization that he can no longer tell Xema and Hoa apart, the narrator flees the academy in horror and begins a life in the streets.

Out in the streets he faces starvation andregular beatings by gangs of Hoa orphans. Along the way, he becomes disillusioned with his former life as a soldier after a chance meeting with a former commander turned drug lord, an American soldier, and the realization that the foreigners had failed to disclose the shortcomings of the indifference engine not just to Shelmikedmus, but to their own governments as well.

The last section of the story serves as a coda to post-integration events. The narrator leads an army forged from ex-soldiers and formerly functional citizens living as outcasts due to their inability to tell one ethnic group from the other. They prepare to make their final drive on the capital of Shelmikedmus, swearing to destroy the peace that the troubled country has managed to build.

Justice is Blind; Blindness is the Solution to Injustice

What immediately strikes me is the inability of the narrator to put aside his hatred. Over the course of his story, his anger does not abate. It simply shifts from one target to another. Unchecked, it spreads from the people who killed his family, to the entire Hoa people, and finally to the entire world. By the end, he is a bitter, burnt-out shell, pledging destruction on the country that destroyed him.

This isn’t a big surprise. When the doctors come into the country wielding the indifference engine, they come with the expectation that the treatment itself will cure all the problems. For them, the war is simply rooted in discrimination. In their belief, getting rid of the ability to discriminate will end the war.The American soldier provides the explanation behind the thinking behind the plan to transform Shelmikedmus:

It’s a popular school of thought in Europe and America right now. The idea that all the world needs is for people to stop treating different races differently and then we’d have a perfect world where harmony and equality prevail. And once people believe in an idea strongly enough, they’ll do anything to make their ideology become reality.

However, the story shows that this is a massive oversimplification. It ignores years of tit-for-tat massacres of villages, and the resentment that the war fostered. Instead of using the ceasefire to work towards a just solution to the problem of tit-for-tat, the foreigners come in with a band-aid and assume that it will stop shock from setting in.

At first glance, it comes across to me as a direct allegory of the invasions of Afghanistan or Iraq, and the inability to plan for the consequences of interference. The end results, both fictionally and historically, are the same: violence rooted in deep-seated divides in society that have nominally been smoothed over by intercession.

Overall, a case for nonintervention seems to be the point of this story. It points out that both the American and European models for solving the problems of post-colonial Africa (military support and negotiated peace, respectively) are both futile, at least without comprehensive planning to deal with the problem on multiple fronts.

Also skewered are Western loans to these areas, both on a national (IMF loans) and individual scale (microcredit). Besides leaving a country saddled with a large amount of foreign debt and an obligation towards serving a foreign power’s financial interest over that of its own citizens, the story also seems to imply with the presence of ex-merchants serving under the narrator at the end that local merchants themselves become alienated from their own culture by jumping through the hoops necessary to obtain credit.

Nanomachines, or, Slouching Towards Singularity

Now, for the more science fiction elements of the story: the nanomachine treatment. The Indifference Engine serves some parallels with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (to the point of reference within the story), in that it examines the effects of social engineering through the use of drugs. Whereas BNW is the end point of a society engineered through the judicious application of drugs, Indifference Engine is perhaps a look at its beginnings.

According to the American soldier that the narrator talks to, undergoing treatment with the indifference engine is a career move. In the American’s words:

There are plenty of people who will point out that there is still a sort of low-level discrimination that hasn’t completely disappeared, though. And it’s usually those people who put themselves forward for the mind-altering surgery. So they can make a dramatic statement to the world. to tell us they are not prejudiced – to wear the fact like a badge of honor. And it works. It helps these people get ahead in life, get a promotion at work….all while keeping a meticulous log of their social virtue so they can brandish their good citizen credentials at a moment’s notice.

There are also hints that the indifference engine is applied differently depending on one’s social role. The soldier also mentions getting a form of routine treatment to perform his job. For the soldier, the application of nanomachines allows for a soldier to be aware of a wound, but not to feel it. The narrator’s description of the American’s tone also seems to imply that there may also be a function of the surgery that causes a clinical detachment from one’s emotions – perfect to perform the functions of a soldier. Although the routine treatment suggests that the effects of treatment are only temporary for soldiers, it isn’t hard to see this step being applied in a permanent manner.

Perhaps, then, the indifference engine is the first step in the creation of the castes seen in Brave New World. While society has not advanced anywhere close to the dystopia imagined by Huxley in The Indifference Engine, it’s probably a good first look at the first steps that would be taken in a modern envisioning of BNW.

The Indifference Engine refers either to Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine (sometimes known as the difference engine), or to the Gibson/Sterling collaboration The Difference Engine. Like the mechanical computer that serves to revolutionize the world in one of the seminal stories of steampunk, the miniature computers that make comprise the indifference engine are the first step in revolutionizing the world, for better or worse.

It’s interesting to note that the title may be a reference to a William Gibson story. Known for his early, genre-defining cyberpunk stories, Gibson writes about a world in the early stages of the Singularity, the complete merger of man and computer. It can be argued from Gibson’s writings whether this is a good or bad thing, i.e. the individual is both empowered for self-advancement if the cards are played right vs. becoming a pawn of massive corporate and government entities.

In Itoh’s story, the idea of technological singularity is a negative issue, as it points out entirely realistically that humanity is too short-sighted to manage a revolution such as the Singularity responsibly. Instead of embracing the idea that technology is a cure-all quick-fix for society’s problems, Itoh angrily explains through the narration that this mentality will only serve to amplify existing problems.


I found The Indifference Engine to be an immensely thoughtful, if explosive read. It is an interesting glimpse into the short-sightedness of social engineering told from the unusual perspective of a soldier of an impoverished, war-torn nation. It pushes the idea that technology is not a quick-fix for societal problems, especially when underlying causes for those problems are overlooked. The Indifference Engine runs counter to the idea espoused by futurists that the Singularity is a great leap forward by humanity. Definitely a must read for those with an interest in the near future, viewed in a speculative fiction setting.