Given how many incarnations there have been of Ghost In The Shell, from the original 1991 manga to the 2017 live-action film, a collection of short stories based on the characters and situations of the franchise is right in line with everything we've already had. This anthology, with stories contributed by five A-list creators in light-novel, Japanese SF, anime, and manga circles, is not the first exclusively literary Ghost project; for one, we previously had the anthology novellas based in the Stand Alone Complex universe, and the very fine novel Ghost In The Shell 2: After The Long Goodbye.
This GITS project, however, breaks from a long-standing tradition with the franchise in that most every previous iteration of it was a standalone effort. You didn't need to read the manga to watch the movie, and you didn't need any previous experience with the franchise to watch the TV series or take in the live-action film. But this collection makes heavy use of references to its predecessors, and that's both the best and worst thing about it. Best, because it enriches the goings-on, and allows some of the stories to operate as scene-setters or side stories (gaiden, as they might be called in Japan); worst, because anyone who doesn't know the people or the territory going in will be scratching their heads.
For me, the biggest draw of setting anything in the Shell-verse is to make use of its characters, and the centerpiece character in the franchise has always been Major Motoko Kusanagi, the government dark-ops agent with a cybernetic body housing a human soul. She figures most prominently in three of the stories here, although each story employs her in radically different ways — and sometimes not so much her as the idea of her.
In the first story, Toh EnJoe's "Shadow.Net", Motoko is not so much a character as she is a point of reference for the main characters — her partners, who are still coping with her disappearance (ostensibly after the conclusion of the events in the film), and the unnamed narrator, a human being now becoming a new kind of emergent consciousness borne from a world where machines spend most of their time talking to other machines.
In the second story, Gakuto Mikumo's "Heterochromia", Motoko is an object of obsession. A woman who had her life saved by the Major once upon a time comes to identify with Motoko's synthetic eyes, obtaining a similar model for herself to replace the one she lost. Her obsession with the Major becomes a way for others to exploit her, and to try and pin their crimes on the now-absent Major — although the rest of the team (chiefly Batou and Togusa, as with the previous story) are able to puzzle out the clues before disaster strikes.
It isn't until the fourth story, "Soliloquy", by Yoshinobu Akita, that Motoko figures in as an actual character. And even then it's in a highly abstracted way, where what appear to be two different aspects of her personality engage in an elaborate intellectual fencing match while the Major is in a dream state, or possibly a coma. (The resolution for this is a nod to the conclusion of the original film and comic.) Thematically and spiritually, it's right in line with the way GITS has operated at its peaks, where the characters and storylines served as arenas for the ideas and themes of the franchise. But it goes on for far too long, and to too little end, and begins to feel like navel-gazing instead of introspection.
With Kafka Asagiri's "Soft And White", the longest work in the anthology (nearly twice as long as any of the others), the focus shifts to a tertiary character for the franchise, one of the key characters in the Stand Alone Complex: 2nd GiG TV series. He has been summoned to a synthetic island paradise to investigate a breach of security there, and his detective work eventually brings him face-to-face with a key character from the first half of Stand Alone Complex, the Laughing Man himself. Where Motoko appears at all, it's again only as a memory, an influence at a distance.
By the time we reach Tow Ubukata's closing story, "Springer," the original characters have been all but left behind entirely. This story focuses instead on the possibilities enabled by the technology of the GITS setting, in particular the morally questionable ones. Here, it involves the way human and animal minds are forced to inhabit each others' bodies as part of a criminal plot. The plot itself takes a backseat to some hard-boiled musing on the part of the narrator, and the closing lines are appropriately grim and faithless.
Japanese SF is normally quite dry in its prose, but a few of the authors here do their best to change that up. EnJoe and Mikumo in particular try to bring some poetry to their stories, and Akita's dreamtime rumination demands language along those lines. I suspect that's one of the influences visited upon this material by the shade of Mamoru Oshii and the 1995 film; if his movie had a novelization, it might well have read in part like some of the passages here.
At the rate it's expanding, the Ghost In The Shell franchise is starting to exhibit the kind of bewildering sprawl I normally associate with franchises like Gundam. In both cases, people ask: Where to begin?, only to find you can begin most anywhere, as many points of entry to the franchises tend to be self-contained. With this anthology, though, you're best off starting with another major incarnation of GITS — the 1995 film, the Stand Alone Complex TV series — to give yourself the best possible grounding with it. Then come back here and consider, as with any other part of the franchise, how much of what we've been shown is "the future", and how much of it has been unfolding around us when we weren't looking.