My very first science fiction experience came in the form of giant mecha anime. This was all the way back in the late 1980s; the Philippines had just ousted Ferdinand Marcos, and one of the many, many shows that returned to local television was of Voltes V, which had been taken off-air during the Marcos regime out of fear that it would encourage “revolutionary sentiments”. Whether or not Voltes V did indeed inspire the spirit that led to the 1986 People Power Revolution, is not the point; the point is that I was there to watch it again.
Over the years, Japanese sci-fi in the form of anime would continue to feed the interest kindled by Voltes V: Neon Genesis Evangelion, Gundam Wing, Dual!, and so many other shows whose names escape me now. Things changed as I grew older, however; Japanese sci-fi gradually lost some of its shine as I became more interested in Western sci-fi novels and the occasional television show. There is still plenty of sci-fi anime out there, but I have not had any particular interest in reengaging with it – at least, not until recently.
When I found out that an English translation of Yoshiki Tanaka’s Legend of the Galactic Heroes novels was coming out, my long-dormant interest in Japanese sci-fi was immediately piqued. I’d heard of the anime by the same title a few times while growing up, but I hadn’t had the time, the resources, or indeed, even the interest to really look into it. However, I supposed that with an English translation readily available, it was as good a time as any to find out what the series was all about.
Legend of the Galactic Heroes is famous (some would say “infamous”) for being a large, sprawling story: Yoshiki’s original version spans ten volumes, and the anime had 110 episodes. The first volume currently available in English, titled Dawn, lays down the very beginnings of this epic story. In the far distant future, humanity has spread itself across the galaxy, and divided into two major factions: the Galactic Empire, which functions much like Prussia in the late 1800s to early 1900s; and the Free Planets Alliance, which functions much like a democratic country of the late twentieth century. For centuries these two factions have been at odds with one another, but large-scale conflicts have not happened in quite a while.
That is about to change, however. Reinhard von Lohengramm, dubbed “the Golden Brat” by his superiors and peers in the Galactic Empire’s military, has set himself on a course to change the Empire from top to bottom. In order to set his plan in motion, he decides his first step must be to defeat the Free Planets Alliance, and bring them into the Imperial fold once more. Standing in his way is Yang Wen-Li, a tactical genius whose ultimate goal is to live a peaceful life. These two men will go head-to-head as they try to achieve their goals – one for the sake of ambition, the other for the sake of lasting peace – against a backdrop of epic space battles and subtle political intrigue.
One of the more noticeable things about this novel is its language. I cannot read Japanese, and therefore I have to trust in the skill of the translator (in this case, Daniel Huddleston) to convey Yoshiki’s words in a manner that is true to the original; even then, I am certain there is a lot of nuance that has fallen through the cracks. Nevertheless, I think that Huddleston has done a relatively fine job in capturing the tone Yoshiki may have intended for his work: a high, operatic style that gives the writing an almost cinematic quality. Take this excerpt, for example:
Beyond a gracefully curving wall made of specialized glass, a dense profusion of strangely shaped boulders jutted upward, resembling nothing so much as temple bells. Twilight was unfolding her wings without a sound across the backdrop of sky, and to those looking on, particles of arid atmosphere seems to have tinted the whole field of view with unplumbed depths of blue.
Among them were the twelve interceptor satellites that together formed “Artemis’s Necklace,” that giant engine of murder and destruction controlled by the Space Defense Command and Control Center, of which alliance military readers were given to boast: “As long as we have this, Planet Heinessen is impregnable.”
The voice of the star Amritsar was ever raised in a soundless roar. In its fearsome inferno of nuclear fusion, countless atoms collided, split apart, and reformed, and the tireless repetition of that cycle spilled unimaginable energies out into the void. Varied elements produced multicolored flames that erupted in dynamic bursts of motion measured in the tens of thousands of kilometers, painting the worlds of its respective onlookers in reds, yellows, or purples.
Given the quality of the language, I think it is reasonably clear that Legend of the Galactic Heroes is, in essence, a space opera – not in the same way that Star Wars and Star Trek are space operas, but in the most literal sense of the term: an opera set in space, with some elements from epic poetry thrown in for good measure.
The comparison to traditional opera and epic poetry is evident not only in the language, but also in the characterisation. Take this description of Reinhard von Lohengramm:
Reinhard was a handsome young man. One might even say that his good looks were without peer. his white, oval face was adorned on three sides with slightly curling golden hair, and his lips and the bridge of his nose had an elegance that brought to mind a sculpture carved by the hands of some ancient master craftsman.
But what could never be captured in lifeless sculpture were his eyes—ice-blue eyes that shone with light like the blade of a keenly polished sword, or the gleam of some frozen star. “Beautiful ambitious eyes,” gossiped the ladies at court. “Dangerous ambitious eyes,” whispered the men. Either way, it was certain that those eyes possessed something other than the inorganic perfection of sculpture.
At this point some readers might be rolling their eyes, and again, I suppose that would be entirely warranted. However, if the reader approaches this the same way he or she would approach, say, The Ring of the Nibelung, or even the Iliad, nothing about the above would be particularly unusual, and therefore should not grate much on the reader’s sensibilities.
Awareness of what Yoshiki is trying to do with this series also helps the reader understand why so much science is hand-waved away in favour of describing political and military manoeuvres, with much emphasis placed on the latter. The book has ten chapters, and two of those chapters are dedicated entirely to describing every single little tactical decision made, and their subsequent consequences, in meticulous detail. I suppose Yoshiki does that so the reader may better admire the cleverness of the story’s chief protagonists, but those chapters can feel like an enormous drag, if the reader is looking for more character development or plot movement.
That awareness, however, does not mitigate the fact that this novel is flawed. There are many problems with it (including the lack of good female characters and hints of homophobia scattered throughout the text), but the most egregious is that the story tells, rather than shows. Though telling rather than showing is a hallmark of both opera and epic poetry, it still does not make up the fact that it is a potentially deal-breaking flaw for readers of this book, and maybe of the entire series. Characters develop in the same manner that opera characters develop (if they even do so): in dramatic degrees, with very loud orchestra music to accompany the changes; there is nothing subtle or natural about their growth. When themes are tackled, they are declared in a character’s interior monologue, or during conversation with other characters. This makes for plenty of excellent quotations, but they do not exactly provide the kind of meaty dissection and introspection that other readers might prefer.
Overall, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Vol. 1: Dawn is an entertaining read, but is nothing more than that. Though it might seem rich and deep, it is not quite that: the characters do not really grow in any subtle way, if they do so at all, and the plot does not really move forward in any significant way. Of course, this is just the first book in a ten-volume series, so I suppose readers can only hope that the depth and development they are looking for come in subsequent volumes. I certainly hope that is the case.