I started reading Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit because Ann Leckie said she liked it. So far, I like it too.
This Korean sci-fi novel most resembles for me a non-moronic version of Warhammer 40,000. You see, in the novel’s far-flung future, the repressive Hexarchate controls its vast territory with weaponized astrology. Through total obedience to the social order, devotion to a strict calendar of feast days, and ritual torture of enemies, the state can manipulate the very laws of physics. (And yes, this sounds like North Korea in a space opera setting, though the calendrical sacrifices as a means of controlling the cosmos also reminds me of the Mayans).
But like all empires, this one is obsessed with maintaining its power. Observing alternate calendars directly weakens the state’s power, and thus a vast military machine is tasked with destroying heretics. One cog in this assemblage is Kel Cheris: a captain, a footsoldier, and a literal brainwashed fanatic.
Having evinced an aptitude for heretical mathematics, she is charged with capturing the Fortress of Captured Needles lest the hexarchate itself fall. Her primary weapon is an undead military genius and traitor who she probably shouldn’t trust.
In the backmatter copy Stephen Baxter describes the book as Starship Troopers meets Apocalypse Now, which so far in my reading seems accurate. He doesn’t mention that the book is also compulsively readable. There are some wonderfully inventive ideas all over the story, and even the names of the weapons are deliciously odd: the catastrophe gun, the neglect cannon, the abrogation sieve, the calendrical sword.
I hope I won’t stay up too late tonight reading this book, but it’s a very real possibility. If you want to try out a brand new talent from an underrepresented corner of the sci-fi world, I suggest picking this up.
Remember that part in Ghostbusters where they’re spewing soft-headed pseudoscientific hogswaddle as they battle the fantastical and the supernatural? Imagine that in book form and you get the novel MM9.
The book is set in a world where giant monsters – kaiju – have always existed in human history. Big Ben and London Bridge, for instance, were destroyed by a sea monster in 1952 while the US Army fought giant ants during the Cold War (and yes, his kaiju are the ones from monster movies like Them!). The author is clearly a geek of the first order and gleefully mashes together various science fiction works in service of the story, as he explains in an interview.
Being regular creatures that are part of the order of the world, kaiju are treated as natural disasters. The study of these monsters falls under the discipline of meteorology, and it is the men and women of the Monsterological Measures Department who devise counter-measures for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces in their fight against the kaiju. I rather like how the book makes clear that the anti-kaiju agency are merely public servants, who are eternally worried about getting receipts for their taxi rides and have to deal with dumb questions from the media while they’re desperately in the middle of the latest attack. It’s kind of like if Pacific Rim were about the scientists instead of the robot jocks.
MM9 is nothing but pure and excellent bullshit. It’s quite short and a breeze to read, so I most heartily recommend it.
A quick glance at the lineup of a typical anime season will reveal a large number of shows featuring giant robots. In the recent winter season alone we can count among giant robot anime the series Mobile SuitGundam: Iron Blooded Orphans, Schwarzesmarken, Macross Delta, and probably a bunch more I’ve overlooked. Point is, giant robot anime are like cockroaches and herpes – they keep coming back.
But what’s so great about giant robots? Yeah, I know, to ask the question is to answer it. Giant robots kick ass. I mean, have you seen Robot Jox?
Or Pacific Rim too, I guess.
Fine, but why giant robots? Why not, say, giant tanks, like in Heavy Object?
I think it ultimately comes down to power fantasies. A giant robot perfectly embodies the juvenile dream of invincible domination that a tank cannot. Realistically speaking, a tank is a better weapon. It’s smaller, so it’s harder to hit; it’s cheaper, since manufacturing tank treads is easier than a bipedal walking machine; and it’s safer, since it’s easier to knock over something on two legs than a machine that rides low to the ground. Tanks are pound for pound the deadlier weapon, yet they don’t feel that way.
Consider that riding in a tank is akin to being jammed into a broom closet. Who feels invincible when the walls are pressing in everywhere?
Even were they roomier, though, tanks are fundamentally more like a heavily-armoured house on wheels. It’s a place to hunker down and hide in. One feels safe by virtue of being enclosed.
Look at the image from Heavy Object above of a tank driver in her native environment. It looks like a shut-in’s dream room – no windows or doors and ample monitors to watch TV and surf the Internet. The outside world might as well be just another program on the computer screen. It’s a perfect metal womb to hide in.
Feeling safe, though, is not the same as feeling powerful. By contrast, a mecha is more truly worn than ridden. It’s human shaped and therefore more of an extension of one’s self – like the perfect battle armour or a second skin, or a new metal body that replaces vulnerable flesh.
It’s also important to remember that the heroes in giant robot anime are all teenagers, even the ones who aren’t. The modern iteration of the giant robot subgenre tends toward the melodramatic and the angst-ridden (as opposed to the gleefully consumerist giant robot shows of the 70’s and 80’s). There’s usually a sense of persecution and oppression being unjustly visited on the protagonists, whether it’s the outcast mercenary troop of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans or the underdog defenders in Argevollen.
But who are the villains who bedevil our heroes so? The enemies are often generic imperialists who fight for poorly-articulated and nonsensical political objectives. They aren’t fighting for anything specific because ultimately their goals aren’t important to the narrative. They’re just there to be roadblocks, to harass and obstruct the hero and provide them something to punch.
The enemies of giant robot anime are so generic as to be universal. Look at the nickname bestowed upon the protagonist of Valvrave: The Boy Who Fought the World. This says it all. The enemy of the giant robot anime is no one specific, but rather everyone. Parents, teachers, bullies, rivals, friends, classmates, adults – which is to say, the generic “they” that persecutes the suffering hero of the show – are all the bad guys. They’re who he’s fighting against.
The giant robot pilot is like the Incredible Hulk – he wields incredible power but is misunderstood by the world. In the end, Hulk, like a surly and emo teenager, just wants to be left alone.
And here we come to the ultimate answer. The giant robot anime is the perfect teenage fantasy, for it’s a metaphor for the teenage condition: an innocent hero is possessed of unwanted new abilities which cause him to be unfairly beset on all sides by powers desperate to control or crush him.
This is the secret of why giant robot anime is so eternally alluring. Even adults who have their shit together will still occasionally feel like the world is picking on them for no good reason, and wouldn’t it be great if you had a magic wand that could make everything disappear? That could stop the world from pissing on you for just one damn second?
Why do we love giant robots? Because we all wish we had one of our own.
Over here is a translated interview of Tsutomu Nihei, the author of Knights of Sidonia. I find it interesting that he’s aware he needs to do more to make his work appeal to female readers. I dunno, dude, maybe make it less male gaze-y? Just change up the presentation and quit with the harem antics and fanservice.
It’s not like Sidonia’s subject matter or setting are alien to shoujo or to female readers. I mean, Please Save My Earth had psychic death battles and They Were Eleven began with a giant info-dump about fusion reactors and space empires – things that should be pleasantly familiar to old school grognards stuck in the sci-fi ghetto. (The latter also had transgender aliens reenacting And Then There Were None in space, but I digress.)
Though I do wish the interviewer had asked Nihei more about his science fiction influences. Which novels did mini-Nihei consume as he dreamed of writing his own science fiction? Still, it’s an interesting interview and even if you’ve never read the manga (like me) it still gives an interesting perspective on what made Knights of Sidonia.
I saw that Force Awakens movie a while ago. I don’t know if anyone has made this observation yet, but I thought Kylo Ren was basically the personification of the whole movie: he’s a reiteration of an original product that’s neurotically obsessed with whether he’s as good as the example he’s copied from.
He’s good enough, which is kind of my feeling on the movie as a whole. I thought it was decently entertaining, though it’s kind of interesting to see the Marvel blockbuster formula being used for something other than superheroes.
Ah, classic sci-fi, is there no situation where you can’t figure out a clumsy way to shoehorn in an exposition dump? So many world-building ideas shoved into dialogue and description that stand out for their awkward placement. As can be seen in this little satire:
. . . “Do you think we’ll be flying on a propeller plane? Or one of the newer jets?” asked Ann.
“I’m sure it will be a jet,” said Roger. “Propeller planes are almost entirely out of date, after all. On the other hand, rocket engines are still experimental. It’s said that when they’re in general use, trips like this will take an hour at most. This one will take up to four hours.”
After a short wait, they were ushered onto the plane with the other passengers. The plane was an enormous steel cylinder at least a hundred meters long, with sleek backswept wings on which four jet engines were mounted. They glanced into the front cabin and saw the two pilots, consulting a bank of equipment needed the fly the plane. Roger was glad that he did not need to fly the plane himself; it was a difficult profession which required years of training . . .
“There are more people going to San Francisco today than I would have expected,” he remarked.
“Some of them may in fact be going elsewhere,” she answered. “As you know, it’s expensive to provide airplane links between all possible locations. We employ a hub system, and people from smaller cities travel first to the hub, and then to their final destination. Fortunately, you found us a flight that takes us straight to San Francisco.”