In the sci-fi genre, there are few books that can generate excitement for the real possibilities of space travel. They reach into your chest and pull out something small and glowing that many of us felt during our childhoods while watching space shuttles go into orbit or seeing stock footage of men on the moon. These books draw out this pure sense of wonder that makes you want to put them down and look at the stars for a few moments. And as we remember the anniversary of man's first steps on the moon, they become more poignant-almost painful. Something catches in your throat, and your head starts to buzz.
Well, that's how I react, anyway.
Planets is one of those books, and one of the best.
After reading Planetes I got the urge to change majors and learn rocketry. It's that good.
Planetes is in a genre of science fiction called "hard sci-fi" (I know some sci-fi fans are going to kill me for not calling it "SF", or speculative fiction...well, whatever.). Hard sci-fi series are categorized by an almost scholarly dedication to scientific accuracy. Typically, there isn't any FTL (faster than light, not for the lose, smartasses) travel, there aren't giant charged-particle cannons, giant robots, beam sabers...
Starting to sound boring, huh? Well, a lot of hard SF novels *are* boring, or at least dry and didactic, and some (like Ben Bova's Mars, which I highly recommend, as it is otherwise excellent) waste too much time dwelling on political drama in an attempt to make the story more presentable. Planetes avoids this problem altogether, even though it's science fiction at its diamond-level hardest.
Being a manga, it manages to maintain some lightheartedness; for instance, Hachi's dad Goro peppers him with porn to snap him out of a nervous breakdown, and a lot of humor is played off of Ai Tanabe's cluelessness. Thankfully, the humor doesn't go as far as atmosphere-destroying face-faults and huge sweat drops...often. The human stories that play out are so interesting that space seems more like a backdrop for the exploration of themes rather than new sources of energy. However, the writer balances the drama and the sci-fi so deftly you'd think he was a musician, and he plays with the metaphysical while he's at it. The inky black expanse of space (and a few more hospitable locations on earth) serve as a backdrop for Planetes' bread and butter: a love story to existence.
Planetes is deep without feeling pretentious. It tackles some subjects even harder than its science: war and peace, environmentalism and economic disparity, and racism. As in real life, there are no simple answers; characters struggle to find the right thing to do, because even though the "right thing" might be apparent, it's never easy, and the consequences for their mistakes have real weight. Yes, I know what this sounds like, but it's all very accessible. The writer doesn't waste words or space; like a spacecraft in itself, the manga series runs at only 4.5 volumes and expresses its themes with imagery rather than huge blocks of text. The rare soliloquy is short, punchy, and leaves you with something for your head to chew on. When the main character, Hachimachi, talks to god (in the form of a white cat) they share only a few paragraphs, but they have power behind them. I also commend Takimura for looking at the world (and the universe) through a more international lens, rather than one that's wholly Japanese. One of the more touching background stories was about the uncle of Toybox's black female captain (wha? Foreign characters that aren't painful stereotypes, or fanciful half-Japanese hybrids?) Fee, and their summers in the Mississippi forests. It has everything and nothing to do about space and its development at the same time, and it's all the more richer because of that.
It's almost impossible to describe some of the scenes in Planetes with mere words. Sure, you can describe the objects in them: the space debris, an astronaut slowly floating back towards the fragile safety of his spacecraft, and a rose drifting behind him, embraced in an ethereal halo of light with the earth looking silently on in the background... But the image speaks so much more by itself. It's a two-page splash with absolutely no text, and it evokes the presence of sounds by the very absence of them. There's this raw emotion slowly flowing behind the ink on the page, and reading all that went on until that point... It's amazing.
Where other hard sci-fi books fall flat and dull- with their lengthy descriptions of plain white spaceships and speculative technology, Planetes entrances. You don't just read about the hull of the Toybox, you *see* it, and that seeing cuts to your insides instead of rattling in your head. It goes past the limitations of text that novelists face, and Yukimura's technical and detailed art does an excellent job in showcasing the power of comics as a medium. You can tell a lot of work went into crafting the future the books present, and it amounts to much more than typical sci-fi fluff. The characters themselves are very simple-looking (I confused Fee and Ai a few times) but they serve their purpose, emote when they have to, and do it well...sometimes too well. While the characterizations are solid, far too many of them wore on my nerves, such as Ai Tanabe's grating naivete and Hachimachi's harsh personality. Despite their flaws, you'll end up rooting for them all in the end.
What I took away from Planetes was a better understanding of how the universe worked, a better appreciation for it, and a desire to see humanity push deeper into her, and to expand its understanding along with our reach into the stars. I desperately want our governments to spend less money on weapons development and more on exploring Mars, and for our people to turn their ambition away from the dirt and towards the sky. At the same time, Planetes reminded me that even if I never leave earth myself, I'm already in space. We're *all* already in space together, on a spaceship called "Earth". Everything is within space: the blue skies, sandy beaches, icy wilderness, the people and animals and trees and buildings...it's all hurtling through space at frightening speeds. And I should be thankful for being able to experience that much.