Serious Science Fiction Manga
by McCamy Taylor
What exactly is "serious" science fiction? For the purpose of this review, it is futuristic fiction that takes the modern world and attempts to answer the question "What will happen if we continue on our present course?" It is at once a commentary on the way we live now and a series of forecasts or predictions about what we may become. While it may be entertaining -- or even wildly funny, in the case of the last of this month's titles -- it also aims to educate, and there is usually a serious message. The characters may carry big guns, but there is as much anthropology as "shoot 'em up." In particular, the economy of the future is well realized. Forget about space epics in which the sole motivator is a desire to kick some alien butt. In serious science fiction, we discover the material benefits (and hidden costs) of inter-stellar butt kicking. In serious science fiction, we have consequences.
Blame! by Tsutomu Nihei opens with the words "Maybe on Earth, Maybe in the Future." For a long time, that is all the exposition the reader gets in this ten volume manga about a young man named Killy with a Gravitational Beam Emitter attached to his right hand and a mission to locate something called "Net Terminal Genes". By the time the story is over, you will understand who Killy is and why it is so important that he find those genes, but the artist/author takes his time unfolding the story, which is told more often in images than words. A typical page has three panels. The first is a long shot of a structure so huge and complex that the reader almost fails to notice the black speck on the bridge or road. In the second and third panels, the mangaka zooms in on his human (or humanoid) subject (s). In this way, the ever expanding City becomes as much as a character as the humans, androids, cyborgs and sentient machines that inhabit it. We see its vast size, its chaotic design. Gradually, we uncover its secrets --
No, I am not going to reveal those secrets. If you want to know what happens in the manga, read one of the online spoilers. However, to really experience Blame! you have to follow Killy through his journey.
Planetes by Makoto Yukimura is another work of serious science fiction, though much lighter in tone. Unlike Blame! which is set in a future so distant that the Earth and it inhabitants have become almost unrecognizable, Planetes' setting is the near future, when economic forces have driven people to colonize the Moon. In this four volume series, the mangaka tells the story of the Debris Section, space garbage collectors whose job is to pick up thrash which threatens shuttles, satellites and other space craft. The story is character driven, but the author is careful to keep the technical details as realistic as possible. We see the effects of prolonged weightlessness on human bones. We learn about how seemingly inconsequential objects can produce terrible results when they rotate the Moon or Earth at a high velocity. The threat of a terrorist attack using nothing but orbital debris is explored.
Both of the above mangas have been published in the U.S. by Tokyopop.
The third title, National Quiz by KATOU Shinkichi and SUGIMOTO Reiichi desperately needs a U.S. publisher. Won't some one please adopt it? This is one of the funniest mangas I have ever read. It is also one of the most true. Picture a world in which Japan is the number one economic power. Picture a Japan which keeps its citizens under control by allowing them to participate in something called the "National Quiz", a game show in which the winner can literally ask for anything he or she wants -- and the losers are condemned to a life of hard labor in prison. Contestants ranging in age from children to adults compete for the right to have their husband's mistress murdered, their lost puppy returned, the Eiffel Tower relocated from Paris to Tokyo.
The show is rigged, of course. Make a wholesome request, preferably one that shows your pride as a Japanese national, and you are likely to win. Make a selfish request, and it's off to the slammer for you. That is how actor K-i K-ichi got stuck with the job of hosting the show. By day, he is Prisoner KK47331, locked in a tiny cell. At night he is the flamboyant impresario of the world's most widely viewed television program, one that shapes public opinion and forges national policy.
So, what do these three mangas tell us about the future? Blame! is about what can happen if we become too dependent upon machines. Planetes warns us of the risks of throwing our trash into outer space. And National Quiz is all about the dangers of watching too much television.
© 2009 McCamy Taylor
Bio: McCamy Taylor is Aphelion's current Serials and Novellas Editor (if you have a story longer than 7,500 words, or long enough that it would be suitable for publication in two or more installments, she's your girl... er, woman), author of many short stories and longer fiction, here and in other publications, and is now Aphelion torchbearer for the cause of Japanese graphic novels and animation.
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