One fine day, after he had joined a fighter squadron, it would dawn on the young pilot exactly how the losers in the great fraternal competition were now being left behind. Which is to say, not by instructors or other superiors or by failures at prescribed levels of competence, but by death. – Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff (1979)
Episode 3 of Macross Delta is indebted visually and thematically to my personal favourite of all Macross productions, Macross Plus. It remains, however, a somewhat weak episode for this. It cleaves closely to its inspirations in a way which simply does not fit what has been built up in the previous episodes. While the allusions to Macrosses II and 7 and Frontier have been equally evident, there has been a thematic framework – the marrying of soft and hard power, the militarisation of the non-military, etcetera, to ground this. It has built up Hayate and Freyja as outsiders inducted into what Tom Wolfe calls in his book The Right Stuff, which is in part about the business of fighter-piloting, “the ziggurat pyramid of flying”, unready but determined. An episode about Hayate’s training should have him, by this metric, the person working their way up. It does this, in a fashion, but undermines it in how else it depicts Hayate and for this to make sense one must understand Macross Plus.
In my previous article, concerning the genre of what is ultimately pulp, soapish historical fiction, I discussed the idea that it is impossible for a work dealing with an elite and a dispossessed to be be apolitical. By extension, a work which downplays or mocks the downfall of an elite for comic value – by presenting socialists or reformists as figures of fun and inconveniences – can not unreasonably be read as sympathetic to that elite. Downton Abbey, the aristocratic soap popular on British television of late, is a good example; modernity, and a world where the landed gentry are no longer so comfortable, is presented as something annoying and the humour is drawn from how the most posh members of the society are inconvenienced by it.
The science-fiction author John Scalzi is currently highly regarded and popular within the science-fiction community, and, from reading his novel The Last Colony I can see why. I did not particularly rate The Last Colony myself, for reasons I will try to set out in this review, but at the same time it is by no means a bad book and as a piece of science-fiction I would not hesitate to recommend it to a fan of the genre. Scalzi is a science-fiction writer for science-fiction fans, if this novel is anything to go by; literate within the genre, aware of the pitfalls of writing science-fiction and generally able to avoid them, he writes with an enthusiastic and quite readable prose style that feels like a modern equivalent to the brisk, at times methodical prose of science-fiction greats. The Last Colony is, perhaps, as a result the epitome of the science-fiction novel – and yet as a result hard to recommend to anyone other than diehard fans looking for more solid, unremarkable science-fiction.
Although my initial impressions of The Heroic Legend of Arslan were highly positive, enthusiastically pointing to its depiction of the crises of confidence facing an exiled heir to the throne learning the injustices the house he represents has placed its people under, this enthusiasm has waned as the series has settled into its stride. Quite why was initially hard to describe; knowing that Arslan was from the same writer as the superlative Legend of the Galactic Heroes made initial criticisms about the style, narrative voice or aesthetics seem like they were based on placing this new, unrelated series in the shadow of something known to be a standout classic of its genre. Galactic Heroes is a 110 episode minimum OVA from some decades ago, meaning it was made under a very different release pattern and era of animation to a modern-day weekly broadcast television series. Making direct comparisons between things in fundamentally different media in this way is a common misconception among writing about anime, particularly in aesthetic terms; as a result, it took some time to settle into accepting Arslan for what it is, and then in turn discussing what works and does not work within that medium.
Although The Legend of the Galactic Heroes is an anime I greatly enjoy, its immense scope (110 episodes, detailing the rise and fall of immense superpowers through the lens of two men who emerge as their figureheads) makes it a challenging prospect to write about. It is not just epic in terms of its plot – epic in the sense of scale, with planets and star systems changing hands and yet also in the sense of character, talking about the rise of charismatic leaders of men with ambitions to bring down political entities centuries old – but in terms of ambition as a piece of fiction. It presents two entire ideologies embodied by its warring factions, in a sense – monarchy (and a quasi-respectable monarchy under an “enlightened” ruler at that) versus democracy (a corrupt, self-serving democracy that is no more enlightened than the monarchy it fights againt) with capital – the private sector and corporate interests represented by Phezzan – and religion, via both the spirituality of the Empire and the mysterious, destabilising Earth Cult – as third-parties who play both sides. This scale makes discussion of the series as a whole less fruitful than character studies or discussion of individual plot arcs – but these are still articles I have trouble beginning to write. More accessible is the creator of The Legend‘s, Yoshiki Tanaka’s, more recently adapted work, The Heroic Legend of Arslan. Currently two episodes into its 2015 adaptation, Arslan presents the same thematic intent as Galactic Heroes but within a different context.
Reading Stella Gibbons’ novel “Conference at Cold Comfort Farm” from a position of ignorance of her previous work divorces it from its position in a series – preventing comparison or thematic contrast with “Cold Comfort Farm” or discussion of continuity – and considers it as a discrete text. This gives the novel’s own themes room to speak for themselves, and any continuity consideration must be implied. Taken on its own in this way, the novel is a critical depiction of modernity that does not hesitate to condemn both the artistic world and those who ignorantly criticise modern art. It is superficially an anti-intellectual novel parodying pretentious intellectuals, and similarly a criticism of anti-intellectualism. Comprised as it is of a series of lampoons of modernist and postmodernist political, philosophical and cultural thought, Gibbons’ deftness of wit disorients the reader and invites scepticism.
Ann Leckie’s 2013 novel Ancillary Justice is a good piece of science-fiction, a space opera novel that innovates within its subgenre by adapting elements of other science-fiction subgenres. In its more philosophical plot it evokes classic science-fiction in the vein of Pohl or Simak, as interested in presenting an alien, experimental future as telling an all-action story. Most interestingly to me, it is a story about the aftermath of a war of occupation and the ethics of occupation, from the perspective of a protagonist detached from emotional and moral norms in a society whose norms are themselves distant to the reader’s. That one can read the novel and at times wonder if the society being described is human in any understandable sense – or indeed “good” from a modern perspective – without it falling into caricaturish acts of exaggerated cruelty sets it apart from many of its peers.
The pastime of karuta is a fascinating one; a kind of competition of literary knowledge mixed with a test of reactions, based upon recall and identification of poems from the 100 verses of the hyakunin isshu. It received significant visibility in pop culture – especially overseas, thanks to the growing popularity of international availability of animé – with the airing in 2011 of the series Chihayafuru, which focused on a young girl learning the apparently unpopular hobby. While the series, with its emphasis on presenting how welcoming and inclusive apparently forbidding niche activities can be, and on the importance of persevering with things regardless of how unpopular or difficult they may seem, works as good entertainment in its own right, it drove me towards the hyakunin isshu themselves.
The future has shone upon us with its glorious brilliance! The time to seize our destiny and conquer all our fears is now! In ancient times man rubbed sticks together to create fire. Then they slaughtered the whale and battled one another for oil! After that came the atomic age! In every chapter of our history we’ve danced with danger but now it will be different! For the first time in the history of existence we will be delivered from fear! Finally, we will escape the prison of our illusions and the beautiful night will embrace us all!
Franken Von Vogler, from Giant Robo episode 2
The search for plenty and the obviation of resource shortages is a preoccupation of science fiction; the main obstacle in the way of unrestricted progress in reality is the scarcity of materials on which the modern age relies. As a result, the science-fiction utopia must either embrace a post-scarcity world in some fashion, or accept that the future must be a more frugal and responsible one. This former solution can come either through the colonisation of other planets and thus the assumption that new resource stockpiles may be found, such that the current rates of consumption may be maintained indefinitely, or through the assumption that science will provide for society with a method of obviating the current reliance on specific natural resources. Giant Robo, in its optimistic, pulp-esque opening narration filled with atomic-age optimism, describes the “third energy revolution”, predicated on the Shizuma Drive, a miraculous invention which overnight ended mankind’s need for natural resources thanks to the sudden cheap availability of free energy. Even the core conflict laid down in this opening – that between the almost naively titled Experts of Justice and the villainous Big Fire Society – is straightforward. Science has provided humanity with limitless power in the most literal sense, and it is inevitably abused by evildoers.