My father, for being someone who is pretty non-intellectual, seems to dig Stanley Kubrick’s movies. I remember when I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey. My father had rented it and sat me down, saying “This is better than your Star Trek.” I was 12 and, as kids are wont to do at that age, I thought he was a complete gibbering idiot for making such claims – Kirk, Spock, and McCoy and that glorious ship, they were science fiction as far as I was concerned. Still, the old man and I rarely did anything together, as he travelled quite a lot on business, so we sat down and watched it on a Saturday night.
I was captivated, as he knew I would be. This was what science fiction could be. I was taken from the Dawn Of Man to a Pan Am flight into orbit to the Moon to Jupiter. While there were only 40 minutes of dialogue in the 139 minute running time, I knew I had been told more than any words could possibly convey. The wonderful pauses that let the viewer absorb those moments of scale – the languid movement of the spaceliner going into dock at the space-station, for instance. This what what visual storytelling was and it probably set my taste in a way that has left most “hard” science fiction, including the work of Arthur C. Clarke, who was half of the movie’s creative team, cold to me.
Planetes from TokyoPop is more about the mundanity of space and human nature than the philosophical and existential underpinnings of 2001, but they share same many of the same tropes. The idea that we, as a people, should be out there is a central theme to both works as is the nature of our interactions with space. In this future, it’s commonplace to take a spaceliner flight from Tokyo to London. There’s an established series of bases on the moon and mankind has managed to litter Earth’s orbit with the detritus from thousands of rocket launches. Of course, with space being so busy, it’s up to a fleet of orbital garbage scows to make sure that a nut or bolt doesn’t cause a catastrophe when it runs into a passenger vessel moving at escape velocity.
Planetes focuses on one such crew and their various attempts to grapple with their job’s trials as well as trying to have lives separate from the work and maintain relationships with their families back on Earth. The leader, Fee, has a husband and young child on Earth, a smoking habit that only gets rare moments of satisfaction, and the unending stress that work in space causes people. Yuri’s damaged as a result of an accident in space where his wife was killed and is dealing with the tragedy by not dealing with it at all. His character arc is central to the first volume, as is the final crewmember’s. Hachimaki is young, reckless, and has dreams of owning his own spacecraft – he views this duty as just a means to an end.
It’s telling that when we see our crew back on Earth due to Fee’s rather impulsive (and lifesaving) action against a terrorist group, they seem slightly out of place among their families and friends. Hachimaki forgets that Japan in January is not climate-controlled like the environs he normally works in, complaining to Fee about the very idea of seasons as they exit the spaceport to visit his family. This visit also provides closure for Yuri, who had spent the past few years dealing with the tragedy that drove him away from humanity and into the insular world he now works in, but it’s not the stereotypical idea of going back to your roots that triggers a change in him. No, it’s when Yuri meets Hachimaki’s younger brother and helps the engineering student successfully launch a rocket, bringing another into his world while expunging the last bit of sadness he associates with space that he finds some sort of peace. Space calls to these people, and you can’t help but feel a slight tug yourself.
The psychological and physical effects of working out there helps provide vermisilitude and touchpoints for the reader in a way that’s rarely explored in science fiction. Fee’s smoking habit fuels one story in an unusual way, for instance, while Hachimaki’s psychological struggles after an accident leaves him abandoned on the dark side of the moon helps the reader relate to the stresses these people endure every day.
The most obvious difference between the movie mentioned and this manga is here – where 2001 avoided human nature whenever possible – the dialogue delivery is stilted and the most interesting character is a computer – Planetes is driven by what makes us tick. The parallel of space flight and man’s need to go beyond Earth’s grasp, though, is heavy in both works. In many ways, Planetes is what I wanted out of Yokinobu Hoshino’s 2001 Nights, the anthology-style title wherein man’s role in the universe was explored in a hamfisted, completly unsubtle manner that was more of a fifth-generation photocopy of 2001 than anything that built upon the same themes that explored its own corners of character and story. It’s refreshing to have science fiction exploring humanity instead of technology, especially in the comics format. The craft in Makoto Yukimura’s storytelling shows in how deliberately, yet effortlessly, he paces a story to let you occasionally savor what space is while never having you flipping pages, waiting to get to more plot.
Click here for a preview. It’s done in the “slightly nonintuitive for the web even if it works in the real world” right to left format, so make sure you read from page one, which is at the far right of the top row and make sure you pay attention to what is “next.” There’s also something to be said for the value here – I was reading the first volume for an hour this morning, twice as long as I’d spent on the three $3 books I’d read over my first cup of coffee. The second volume’s sitting in my bag and I’m sure I’ll succumb to the temptation tonight, even if it means I’ll have to wait a few days before getting the third book and the two-part fourth and final volume that finishes this remarkable work.
Then, who knows, maybe I’ll send them to my dad with a note telling him that I’m returning the favor.