Stardust Memories is a short story compilation of human beings in the distant future where we have traveled deep into space. Each story describes a moral dilemma that people traveling in space may experience which is something that we have yet to determine in the current world.
Stardust Memories talk about such problems as the implications of having people travel for years, even decades, in the cold, quiet and endless universe. A different story tells on how human presence in a foreign galaxy will affect the environment. The topics the author decides to write about are interesting and makes you wonder about the future.
Science fiction has long been a mainstay of the anime and manga industries, with the number of tales that have some relationship to it running into the hundreds. It's surprising then, that such a well established and lucrative genre is still lacking in certain departments.
Consider for a moment the titles that you know to be science fiction, or that have used the genre in some manner (Aria is probably the best example of the latter). Many of those that might immediately spring to mind will probably fall into the category of popular modern science fiction. Now there's no problem with this, as it's something that's
very much in keeping with the changing face of technology, however one can't help but wonder if sci-fi anime and manga has hit a wall, especially as most of the titles released over the last few years are simply variations on a theme.
The question is, where has all the curiosity gone? At one time science fiction didn't simply tell you a story, but took you on a journey to realms unknown. There were travels to distant stars and planets, first contacts with strange, wonderful, and sometimes terrible lifeforms, utopian societies, dystopian futures, lessons to learn about oneself and humanity, and more besides. Unfortunately that type of sci-fi is slowly disappearing in anime and manga as the industries are more focused on delivering explosions, flashy visuals and skin-tight outfits than they are on delivering tales to make you stop and think.
There may be a ray of hope for fans of science fiction in the classical style though (and by that I mean Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Carl Sagan, E.E. "Doc" Smith, etc), and it comes in the form of mangaka Hoshino Yukinobu.
Now some of you may be familiar with the name as the author responsible for 2001 nights, a sci-fi manga that payed homage to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the story collection 1001 Nights (better known as The Arabian Nights). Parts of that series were adapted for anime in 1987 as Space Fantasia 2001 Nights, with a second adaptation of two chapters produced in 2009 under the name TO.
But we're not here to talk about that.
Stadust Memories is a collection of 13 short stories that ran from 1995 to 2003 and, like a number of Hoshino's other works, draws inspiration from classic Western science fiction tales. The only problem is that audiences these days aren't as receptive to entertainment that makes you think (as the success of Twilight has proven).
Now given that this is a series of individual narratives one could rightly argue that there would be little in the way of actual plot development, so it's to the mangaka's credit that the majority of stories have a well thought out, imaginative premise. Each is crafted in a specific manner in order to convey quite a broad range of perspectives and ideologies, all of which adds to the sense that one is not so much reading a story, but is instead gaining a brief glimpse into a possible future.
That said, there is an element of preaching about the manga which, strangely enough, actually has a lot in common with classic sci-fi, and although many of the tales are simple enough affairs, some can become overly moralistic. It should be pointed out though, that while this can sometimes be intrusive to one's enjoyment of the stories, more people will be put off by the unusually Western art style more than anything else.
That's right. Stardust Memories doesn't just read like a classic sci-fi, it looks like one too.
In terms of looks the manga is a strange mixture of interesting scenery, contrasting visuals, unusual creatures and imaginative spaceships. The characters are designed in a stylized Western manner that would normally grace the pages of a 1950's comic, but unlike those there is a greater degree of expression thanks to Hoshino's usage of more simplistic manga techniques. This combination of East and West is unusual as it can often be difficult to not only visualise characters, objects and scenery, but also to implement their creation. In all honesty very few mangaka make the attempt as it requires not so much the application of different techniques, but different thought processes, and this is one of the reasons why Hoshino has become so respected in science fiction manga circles.
Which brings up one small problem. Because this is simply a collection of short stories there is very little one could consider character development, a factor which may dissuade those who consider this an essential part of any story from giving Stardust Memories a try. There is another side to this coin though, as while that aspect may be lacking, the manga more than makes up for it by offering the reader something very different to the norm - a perspective on the human condition.
Each narrative is designed to ask certain questions not only of the characters, but also of the person reading the story. Granted these are simplistic, open to interpretation, and sometimes completely outlandish, but for the most part they tend to work fairly well along side the moralistic tone of the series.
Now I will be honest and admit that I quite enjoyed Stardust Memories, but then again I'm quite partial to classic sci-fi so I found many of the stories possessed a degree of familiarity. This may not be the case for the majority of people though, as the series isn't easy to read, especially as it's effectively a throwback to the science fiction of days gone by. That said, if you're looking for something different to the norm, or if you want something with more science and less fiction, then it wouldn't hurt to give this a try as it can be a very rewarding experience.
It's just unfortunate that both the anime and manga industries now view sci-fi as nothing more than a cash cow, and because of that much of the creativity and imagination that gave us original titles like Uchuu Senkan Yamato, Macross, Gundam, Patlabor, Ulysses 31, and even Top wo Nerae, is slowly being replaced by stories that will sell merchandise.
Have you ever read a collection of short sci-fi stories? Something with the works by the masters, Sheckley, Simak, Zelazny, Longyear, a preface talking about the eternal dream about stars and illustrations by the early astronauts – stuff that makes you believe in the purpose of humanity and long for space travel. If you have, you know what Stardust Memories is like – this manga is 100% such a book, down to the letter, adapted into a bit retro but surprisingly fresh handsome art.
If you haven’t… Well. *sigh* Ok. This brand of sci-fi is mostly philosophical, it treats space as a frontier the humans are
destined to brave, one that is vast, hides many secrets, challenges and tests humanity. Its moralistic side is especially prominent in short stories, where space travel serves as a sort of mirror that shows the best and the worst in humans as a species and as individuals and reflects it back, so the flawed get their due in the great scheme of things.
It’s not “hard” sci-fi of tech and numbers, as it’s often understood nowadays, nor social sci-fi or warrior space-opera. It’s a bunch of stories that muse over how humanity will face the greater Universe, its wonders and terrors, over the effects that space will have on humans, humans on space, space travel on lives on Earth. Not all stories here are similar in mood though. I’d say that along the course of this manga the stories evolved as the sci-fi in general. Stardust Memories starts with stating that facing space is inevitable for humans, follows with stories about exploration, devolves into a few Vonnegut-like subversions and vignettes, arriving to the state of worry over the unknown horrors of space – the point where science fiction sits now, with Watts in literature and Alien and Life in movies.
You shouldn’t go looking for characters into a collection of short stories about space, but there’re a few memorable characters, and, thankfully, each short story functions as a story with a proper main point and outcome.
The interesting part about Stardust Memories is that while its inspirations are fairly old literature by now, the manga ended in early 00-s, so it isn’t all that new itself, and some of the designs and concepts are retro, it doesn’t feel dated, because it’s so damn good and because our dream about space travel hasn’t really advanced in recent years. We may live big parts of our lives in the electronic web now, but the tech of space travel is still metal our governments haven’t been funding nearly enough for a while.
At the farthest point from modern design sensibilities lie the casual costumes of the characters: they tend to frolic on alien worlds in something from the 70-s fashion catalogue. Humans are drawn a bit unusually for manga – there’s a heavy influence of western comic visible, both in the composition and in the design (expect a lot of chiseled jaw in men). Faces are drawn in a few simple but expressive lines, but there’s a great range of types, and even old people are drawn realistically, which is truly a rarity. I’ve been delighted by the aesthetic of the human characters: big, long, lean worker/professional men with broad shoulders, older bearded scientists with eyes fixed on stars and, sadly only in earlier chapters, also big and broad-shouldered badass space women. It’s the lost beauty from 70-80-s, and it was very nice to see these marvelous architecturally perfect bodies paired with determined faces again.
Space suits are a mixed bag, though the real designs have been too, but spaceships don’t need any suspension of disbelief – they’re elaborate, graphic and majestic. Essentially, these are ships that are exactly like we envision ships, because they’re taken from works that made us envision ships in the first place. The environments – space itself, stars and planets, worlds – also feel just right, even though you won’t see much of alien life.
The most amazing thing about Stardust Memories is that it brings the feel and the logic of those old stories into the form of comic so faithfully and that, to my great surprise, the result doesn’t need much of concession to the art and the content. About 80% of time you can just get seriously immersed, with additional 10% being appreciation of the retro sci-fi style. Though, of course, that comes from someone who still loves those old books… I can’t unread them, so I can’t distinguish clearly, whether my admiration for Stardust Memories is nostalgia speaking or mastery being mastery. I do believe though that those ideas are still valuable and worth revisiting. In the times of petty strife causing so much suffering it is important to remember that there’s a higher purpose, a bigger universe and a long-held dream still available. It’s too bad, actually, that there hasn’t been a newer vision and the 70-s still ring true in the setting. But this manga freshens and reintroduces these ideas to new readers, does so well, and this is very good. It's a no brainer you should read Stardust Memories if you like or at least are able to enjoy sci-fi, and it looks that the same mangaka has a few other collections with the same mood for later.