PLANETES: Volumes 1-3

Click here to buy this book at Amazon.comMakoto Yukimura
Tokyopop ($9.99 each)

by Robert Boyd

Science fiction comics, like science fiction movies, differ drastically from literary science fiction. In the best science fiction novels, there are limits to how much you can bend the rules of science; plausibility is far more important, and the very best literary science fiction is not only believable, but emotionally involving as well.

Makoto Yukimura's Planetes is a manga series that reads like a great science fiction novel—no wacky aliens, no giant robots, no beautiful android maids. Set 70 years in the future, humans have conquered space as far as Mars, but the problems of Earth are very familiar. Having exhausted the Earth's oil supply, most energy is supplied by fusion powered by Helium-3, which has been discovered in abundance on the moon. This makes space-based industry necessary, but industrial civilization is still stuck with a finite energy source, a polluted world, and even garbage in outer space. Earth in 2074 is neither a utopia as in Star Trek nor a cataclysm as in The Terminator. Pretty much like Earth today, it's muddling through with short-term solutions to long-term problems.

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Hachi, Yuri, and Fee are astronauts, working as a debris clearers—high-orbit garbage pickers. Their job is to clear out floating trash left over from over 100 years of space travel, this debris being a hazard to navigation—which makes their job very important, if not especially glamorous or well-respected. Yukimura takes real care to make the environment of space as realistic as possible; these astronauts have to worry continuously about osteoporosis (caused by low gravity) and radiation-induced sicknesses like cancer. Yukimura also devises a kind of astronaut culture not unlike that of sailors or roughnecks, characterized by staying away from home for long stretches, having difficult relationships with their families, and glorifying their own peripatetic existence.

With three volumes so far, Planetes has plenty of space to tell all of its characters' stories, but by volume 3, Hachi has become the focus. He's the one who buys the mythology of being an astronaut more than any of them, shunning Earth and the complications of humanity. When a mission to Jupiter is announced, he is one of 20,000 volunteers for the 18-person crew; to make the cut, he pushes himself relentlessly, shutting out all emotion except ambition. He is impatient with anything less than perfection, and takes it out on his replacement of the debris-collection ship, a green astronaut named Ai Tanabe.

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Hachi is selected for the Jupiter crew, but becomes even more withdrawn, losing weight, zoning out, experiencing strange dreams. His crew mates worry about him, but what finally revives him is an unexpected love affair. This is the heart of Planetes—the struggle between the single-minded pursuit of one's goals, and the need for love and friendship. Yukimura seems to suggest that great achievements, like conquering space, are accomplished by people so dedicated and focused that they seem inhuman—but he also consistently undercuts this extreme view, showing the need for humanity underneath all that ambition.

Yukimura's art is beautiful, detailed when necessary and simple when it's appropriate. Compared to most manga, the style Yukimura employs in Planetes is quite restrained; there is a matter-of-fact quality to the art that helps give it verisimilitude without resorting to straightforward realism. His figures aren't heroically proportioned—they have an appealing normality which also helps the suspension of disbelief.

Planetes is an ongoing series. Presumably we'll see the Jupiter mission carried out with Hachi as part of the crew, as well as find out what happens in the lives of Yuri, Fee, and Tanabe. The only problem is that the story is so entertaining, the wait for future volumes is likely to be maddening!

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004