'Planetes' Should Be Required Baggage on the First Mission to Mars

by Hans Rollman

27 September 2016

This space drama aboard a garbage collection ship makes for first-rate sci-fi.
 
cover art

Planetes Volume 1

Makoto Yukimura

(Dark Horse)
US: Dec 2015

cover art

Planetes Volume 2

Makoto Yukimura

(Dark Horse)
US: May 2016

Makoto Yukimura’s Planetes is probably the best science fiction you’ll read all year.

The award-winning series was first published in serial form in Japan between 1999 – 2004 (an anime version was also broadcast between 2003 – 2004). An English translation of the series was published in 2005, but Dark Horse Comics has obtained and re-released the series for wide distribution in two volumes, the final one of which came out in May of this year. 

Planetes is that quintessential form of good sci-fi: rich stories full of imagination, vividly imagined worlds, characters you come to cling to and pine and fear and hope for.

The stories would constitute good, rich sci-fi on their own, but as manga they’re complemented by some of the richest and most sweeping art a reader could hope for. Each chapter opens with a bevy of colour pages before scaling back to black and white for the bulk of the chapter, and those colour pages are simply breathtaking. But so are many of the black and white images. Yukimura is at his strongest when he’s depicting sweeping solar images: a miniature human spaceship approaching the majesty of Jupiter; an intricately detailed space station floating amid sparkling stars.

The series takes place in the 2070s. Humanity has started to truly get a feel for what it’s like to be an extra-terrestrial species. Space stations float in orbit; expansive and ever-expanding colonies exist on the moon; a fledgling outpost has been established on Mars. Much of Volume 2 involves the next stage of humanity’s journey into the cosmos: an expedition to land the first humans on Jupiter (funded by the mining companies, which anticipate rich returns down the line).

But all is not well in orbit: terrorist organizations that don’t think humanity should litter the universe with its imperfections and dirty baggage target the highly vulnerable extra-terrestrial outposts, determined to stop humanity’s spread into space.

“Litter” is the key word here. Decades of playing around in orbit have left their toll in the form of extensive amounts of floating space garbage. Where there’s garbage, there must be garbage collectors. Cue the crew of the DS-12: essentially a garbage scow (sorry: debris pick-up ship) trying to tidy up some of humanity’s mess. It’s an important job: if the orbits around Earth become too littered, spacecraft won’t be able to safely navigate them; in an extreme scenario humanity might even wind up confined to the planet, unable to safely break through the expanding barrier of floating garbage.

The stories follow the crew of DS-12; a quirky and diverse ensemble who each have their own imperfections. Fee Carmichael is the ship’s captain: she’s a cocksure chain-smoker with devil-may-care bravado who’s got a husband and child back on Earth. Crewmember Yuri Mihairokov is still haunted by the death of his wife in a space accident; fellow crewmember Hachirota ‘Hachimaki’ Hoshino has a single-minded fixation with getting himself accepted to the first Jupiter mission. Newest crewmember Ai Tanabe struggles for acceptance by the others; she’s a newbie who’s simply trying to hack it in the tough, no-second-chances world of outer space. There’s interstellar romance, haunted and harrowing memories, family conflict, conflicting personalities and the occasional clash of ethics and ideology.

That’s the secret to good sci-fi: a vividly imagined, richly speculative setting, but at the heart of it all a focus on very human storylines. The chapters are self-contained but are linked in a coherent and progressing storyline that coalesces at the end.

Planetes is an ambitious work, and although there are moments when it has to skid through plot twists a bit too quickly, on the whole it succeeds in its efforts to balance interpersonal human drama with broader, interstellar themes. In an increasingly post-modern age, it tackles head-on the challenge: does humanity deserve to take its place among the stars? If so, what qualities and values should it bring along for the ride? Which of humanity’s competing principles and values will be the ones to shape and make possible our entry into the wider universe?

Its conclusion is an aspirational one: it’s the questing spirit, the adventurous ambition of the Star Trek variety that will get us out there, leaving behind the self-reflexive navel-gazing of those who doubt whether our species’ imperfections deserve to leave orbit. The characters in Planetes experience their own doubts, to be sure—some of them even give up their spacesuits for a period in despair over the point of it all—but in the end it’s the cocky courage of the space adventurer that drives these women and men to go where no human has gone before.

Although the series drives home the point that humanity’s destiny is to win its place among the stars, it also emphasizes that peace and unity, together with a commitment to sustainability, are necessary to get there. US militarism and the desire to militarize space comes under fire in the series; a multinational crew of astronautical garbage collectors are depicted as embodying the space spirit more fully than the American military. The fact that the action takes place aboard a garbage collection ship, whose purpose is to try to clean up the mess humanity has already made of near-Earth orbits, also emphasizes the need for an ecologically sound expansion into outer space.

The human drama ventures into ambitious territory, conceptualizing some of the challenges future generations of space explorers may face. What will it be like to be the first generation of children born on the moon? What will it be like to have a full-time job in orbit and a family on earth, and only get to see them during your vacations and leaves? How will astronauts who fall in love with other astronauts navigate the years apart necessitated by multi-year missions to Mars or Jupiter? Yukimura renders in serious and realistic depth the ethical and emotional challenges that space travelers will face in the not too distant future.

Planetes is a sweeping saga and, although originally published over 15 years ago in Japan, retains all of its vivid power and speculative force still today. It only ventures occasionally into the exaggerated silliness to which manga can be prone; for the most part it takes itself very seriously and relies on sweeping yet realistic imagination, not lurid exaggeration and excess, to hold the reader’s attention. It’s an ambitious, attractive and engaging collection, and if there’s one comic that ought to be required baggage on the first mission to Mars, this is it.

Planetes Volume 1

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