Having finished it today, these are my final thoughts on Yoshiki Tanaka’s The Legend of the Galactic Heroes (Part 1). This is not a particularly formal review.
It’s a dated piece of science-fiction by all accounts. Originally written in 1982 and not translated into English until 2016, it does show its age a little. I think its most dated aspect is the prose; it feels like a book trying to read like a documentary about fictional events, from its “undergrad essay” of a prologue to its tone throughout which I can only describe as “Open University.” It has a matter-of-factness that were I listening to an audiobook of it I would expect the BBC English tones of a very serious documentary, and a flippancy that feels often like a lecturer talking about their field of interest sharing an academia in-joke at times.
It takes some getting used to, because it is a style that doesn’t immediately come to mind when you think of the grand-scale military SF novel (for this is, on the surface, a grand-scale military SF novel). It seems to lack gravitas, and be too chummy. The narrative voice wants to educate you and be “hip” in the way a 1980s academic might believe one is “hip.” At the same time the descriptions within the novel have a floridity that lacks gravitas in the opposite direction, and feel “epic” in the way a dated history documentary might try to convey epicness. I am reminded of my initial surprise at the matter-of-factness of Yeates’ Winged Victory, the novel I read just before Tanaka’s. That described war in terms alternately flippant and florid and I came to quite like it, much as I came to like Tanaka’s novel.
All told I think the style may be technically rough (for it is a breezy, quite ordinary style of prose) and lean a little on cliche in its descriptions, but it stands out from the pomposity and portentousness of a lot of such SF. Rather than trying to create a deep and mystical mythology, where everything is gravely serious, it is describing a world populated by people of the sorts anyone might know, where the absurd and the foolish and the tragic all happen. Gravitas, perhaps, is not always a good thing. It is not obnoxiously tin-eared in its description but it is not – and does not aspire to be – anything highly cultural. The big sticking-point I think is the decision to open with an essay, a piece of fictional non-fiction that throws out a lot of information that is only questionably relevant (but, if you are historically-minded and tolerant of some slightly out-of-date ideas about space exploration, quite interesting).
The novel’s story tells only the first part of a long series, and ends not with a dramatic cliff-hanger so much as the wearied historian’s voice reminding the reader that the world continues to turn, and there would be no end to the political crises described in the book. It is thematically fitting; the book depicts a series of inconclusive and foolish battles in a war that is unlikely to end soon, set in contrast to characters whose lives are central to the war’s progress and whose personal journeys are the true focus of the narrative.
There are two “heroes” of the book, from opposite sides of a war between a monarchy and a democracy, both military commanders of great skill. One, Reinhard, an embittered man elevated into nobility, is the military hero that would be unquestionable protagonist of a typical military-SF book. He wins great victories with cunning and skill and gets promotions and seeks to redress injustices in his society. He has a strong personal quarrel with the nobility – his sister’s fate lies in the hands of the Emperor. The other, Yang, is a nobody who becomes somebody by chance and spends his life trying to become a nobody again. Whereas Reinhard’s ascent is shown as a corrupt and short-sighted elite bringing about their downfall by the elevation of someone who hates them, Yang’s ascent is depicted as a man’s principles being exploited by a corrupt elite; he is an admiral who saves lives, minimises losses and wins battles efficiently and so he is a national hero in comparison to those who are less competent. Yet nobody listens to him, because he is cautious in a warmongering, failing democracy – and all his promotions are for cleaning up the mess of others.
The novel does not frequently dwell on combat; it is more interested in politics, the reasons for and the consequences of battle. The way in which the action is written is really quite methodical, while by contrast the ways in which the characters think and react to it are given more space to breathe. A grand-scale plan can play out in less than a chapter, and as a result the novel breezes through a significant amount of events, yet remains satisfying.
Its world may be a dated one but it is a very relatable one; the awful “democracy” of the Free Planets Alliance is depressingly well-described, with career politicians seeing wars in terms of popularity ratings and courting (secretly) far-right groups to torment and distress pacifists. On the Imperial side there is a subplot building about the Empire’s recovery from the rule of a bigoted tyrant who sought to “cleanse” the population of undesirables, with many happy to simply have a “just monarch” but Reinhard looking to bring the whole elite down.
One recurring theme which I feel underplays characters who I know (from the existing adaptation) to have a much greater role in future is its reliance on women as humanising influences; the most significant women are a war widow discredited by rightist chickenhawks after she will not play a propagandist role, Reinhard’s sister who explicity exposits herself as his conscience figure and one of Yang’s subordinates who does comparatively little. In time, if the story proceeds as I believe it does, each becomes more important and gains agency. At the moment their characterisation is weak in comparison to others.
In all I would recommend the book to readers in the mood for some science-fiction that at least makes you sit up and notice its quite different style, and which has a pleasantly acidic approach to politics beneath its conversational style.