Any in-depth sci-fi fan can tell you that there are two unofficial categories of the science fiction genre: “hard” and “soft.” Most people are familiar with soft science fiction, where the actual science is less accurate or logically-derived, and more emphasis goes to plots and characters. Hard science fiction is fiction that tells a story within the boundaries of accurate science, mathematics, and technology, while also acknowledging those limits and how one might logically move beyond them.
And since most writers abhor doing research (and I include myself in that category), you’re more likely to see soft sci-fi than hard sci-fi. But every so often, we get a story that’s not afraid to use good science along with good storytelling.
Case in point: Planetes, the anime series.
The Story: Love, Ambition, And Debris
The year is 2043 and mankind has taken several major steps into space. However, more interstellar transit means a lot more debris floating around the Earth, putting other spaceships at risk. Thus, the Debris Section of ISPV-7 (known by the derogative nickname “Half Section”) is responsible for helping make space safe to travel. But besides all the risks their job involves, the crew of Half Section have to contend with a more serious threat: a terrorist group called the Space Defense Front, who will stop at nothing to sabotage further space exploration in the name of the ever-oppressed Third World countries.
In the middle of all this comes our protagonist, Ai Tanabe, a Japanese office girl who finds herself assigned to Debris Section. Besides having to learn the ins and outs of debris hauling, she must also contend with her contentious relationship with her “senpai” (read: mentor) Hachimaki, whose cynical misanthropy clashes with her deep-rooted faith in the power of love.
The Cast: Multicultural They May Be, But Some Things Never Change
Tanabe and Hachimaki (whose proper name is Hachirota Hoshino) are not only the two main characters, but also–appropriately enough–Japanese. And to the show’s credit, the entire cast is impressively multicultural, featuring Americans like Fee Carmichael (voiced by the great Wendee Lee), Russians like Yuri Mihairokov, South Americans like Claire Rondo, and Middle Easterners like Hakim Ashmead.
Not only does this allow for different stories to be told over the course of the show, but it also drives home a major theme: that individual nations can’t be seen from space, and thus all men are brothers. Believe it or not, this feeling has actually been classified as the “overview effect.”
Toward the end of the series, while I found the plight of Tanabe and Hachi to be no less engaging, I was more interested in the characters Fee and Edel. Fee is the main pilot of “Toybox,” a chronic smoker in an almost smoke-free environment whose casual attitude covers a deep-rooted inner strength and resourcefulness that made me wish she had her own spin-off series. And there’s Edel (properly known as Edelgard Rivera), a deadpan temp worker at Debris Section who rarely says more than two words per episode. That is, until Episode 15, where we learn about her shady past and just how important having a temp job is to her. It made her more human and really made me appreciate everything she said and did afterwards, which is exactly what a good story should do.
The Setting: As Close To Space As Some Of Us May Get
Most of the show takes place in or around Earth’s orbit, either on the space station ISPV-7 or in the debris hauler ship DS-12 (also known as “The Toybox”). The animation during space sequences is really quite something, as the show doesn’t use any sound (apart from dialogue and the soundtrack) and a lot of effort goes into the accurate depiction of the effects of zero-gravity.
The show also looks at legitimate issues about space exploration, such as the “space monopoly” by First World nations, the condition of human beings born in space, and the danger of debris escalating into the Kessler Syndrome. It helps that the creators consulted with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) when developing the manga and anime series, the result being a thought-provoking and creative story.
Final Verdict: A Nice Little Gem In A Black Void
I should point out that, for all the serious political and personal issues that this show tackles, it’s still very light-hearted and idealistic. Granted, there are times when Tanabe’s speeches about love and salvation can be a little grating, but in a way, that’s supposed to happen. This show is all about hope and what challenges we as a species can overcome.
I should also point out that this was the show I watched in order to get Neon Genesis Evangelion out of my system (that and re-watching FLCL). It’s happier by light-years and will leave you wanting to do some good for the world.
Bibliography: Planetes (TV series). Directed by Goro Taniguchi. Written by Ichiro Okouchi. Sunrise. NHK. October 4, 2003 –April 17, 2004.