When Osamu Tezuka's most notable work began to appear in English for the first time thanks to Vertical, Inc., I compared Tezuka's status in the West to Walt Disney being known only for Snow White but not for any of the other work done either by him or his production house. Bringing Tezuka's work into English would close that gap, so such an effort mattered for the sake of history alone. But in talking about Tezuka's work, it was tempting to wax not just ecstatic but hagiographic, to see any Tezuka back in print as being above reproach and worthy only of discussion as a sacred artifact instead of as a living work with merits, flaws, and points of discussion.
Now we're faced with an analogous problem with Yoshiki Tanaka's Legend of the Galactic Heroes, a mammoth space-opera franchise that kicked off in Japan in 1979 and remained all but unknown, and untranslated, outside the country for decades. The sheer size of the franchise, and its sheer unavailability, created around it a mythic stature that would be hard for anything to live up to, or live down. With the first volume finally released in English thanks to VIZ's Haikasoru imprint, the challenge I've faced has been to bear all this in mind and not be intimidated by it — to think of LotGH as if it were something new and not something old. Most audiences won't have this problem; for them, ignorance might well be the better part of bliss, because they'll have the pleasure of discovering a good example of how a big story can also be, at heart, a simple and strong one. And they'll have the pleasure of discovering a good story, period.
Pick a side
The real heart of this first installment in Legend of the Galactic Heroes is not the struggle between a galactic empire and its upstart rebellion faction. That's the lead-in, the stuff on the back cover. The real story is a study in contrasts between two men, one from each side of the battle. One wants very badly to be good at war as a way to rise to the top of his society. The other wants very badly to only be just good enough at it to not have to fight at all. One is too ambitious to be anything but dangerous; the other is, to quote Robert A. Heinlein's famous formulation, too lazy to fail.
The first of the two men in question is Reinhard von Lohengramm, admiral of the Galactic Empire. Military victory isn't enough for him. He wants to remake the empire in his vision, and install himself as its dictator. One glance at the aging and indifferent emperor on the throne is enough to convince him how much better things could be, if only he had the power to make it happen. The struggle looming with a breakaway faction of the Empire, the purportedly democratic Free Planets Alliance, may well provide him with just the excuse he needs to engage in the needed political maneuvering.
The other man, Yang Wen-li of the Alliance, is a military man himself, but a polar opposite to Reinhard. Yang's real interest is history, and his keen reading of how battles have played out since time immemorial gives him the perspective needed to turn a defeat into a mere rout, or a one-sided battle into a narrow victory. He knows the importance of supply lines and the dangers of meeting the enemy on their own turf, and only stays in a battle long enough to win or get out. War isn't really his game, anyway — he wants to find a way to take whatever battle happens to be looming and put a decisive end to it, so the young ward he's taken in can grow up without worrying about a draft.
LotGH pits these two against each other but not because it has its chips stacked on either one. Tanaka is less interested in making a moral case for which is the better man, or which of their respective societies (or a third one that mostly exists to play the first two off each other and profit form that) is superior. Rather, he wants to show the color of the sparks thrown off by the ways they clash, and how where each man came from shapes what they are and what they can be. Reinhard is ambitious, but his ambitions are downright idealistic compared to those in the ranks of the power structure he rises through. He uses the way the emperor favored his sister to gain rank and prestige, but only because the system afforded him little other way to get ahead. His close friend and confidante, Kircheis, he treats like a co-conspirator, not a flunky lucky enough to be coming along for this particular ride. Yang is the easier one to make a positive case for, but the book also makes it clear he's not immune to temptations of his own, and the first volume closes with a hint of how his skill for reading the situation could lead him down a path very much like the one now being cut by his archenemy.
Straight, no chasers
One of my complains about light novelist Nisioisin was how he couldn't stop frilling things up, how his playful (ab)use of the language put everything else — plot, story, character — a very distant second. Tanaka takes nearly the opposite tack with LotGH: its prose is about as unpretentious, bordering on artless, as it gets. Barring the passages where he indulges in the usual huff-and-puff theatrics most SF authors use for space battles, the book's prose is closer in flavor to a work of mainstream nonfiction, the sort of thing Joe McGuinness made his stock-in-trade. The story and the people in it are the stars of the show, and for the most part Tanaka stands back and lets them do their turn — although that, again, comes at the risk of it reading a little too much like an in-universe fictionalized history lesson.
The parts of LotGH that have aged poorly are, I think, the same parts that would age poorly in most any SF novel no matter what the origin. Most SF, especially the universe- and generations-spanning kind, suffers from rather glacial notions of how technological and especially sociological advances work, and so the substance and texture of life across centuries scarcely changes. (The moment-by-moment nature of life in 2016 would be hard for a denizen of 1916 to wrap her mind around, and I suspect more because of things like female suffrage than because of smartphones.) I hold little of this against the author, since there has scarcely been one SF author in a thousand who really understood the nature of normative changes in society. (John Brunner comes to mind; his 1974 novel The Shockwave Rider foresaged not just the Internet but Wikileaks.) But it does mean that most space opera has more of the flavor of epic fantasy, itself in turn derived from historical drama, than it does SF proper. I suspect this will only matter to people who are hung up about labels.
My only other issue is something common to space opera itself, so for me to single it out feels unfair, but I'll do it for the sake of perspective. It always struck me as faintly silly to depict battles in space in the same terms one might use for naval warfare, because the two don't really map to each other in the slightest. The sheer distances involved in space smother any such analogy a-borning; battles in space would either a) never take place, b) be over so quickly they would scarcely be worth dramatizing, or c) be so drawn-out as to also be nobody's idea of material for drama.
Some contrary examples do exist. The anime series Starship Operators, for instance, gets a lot of mileage out of how painstaking and, well, unexciting war in space might actually be, without it becoming boring. I also understand David Gerrold's Star Wolf books tries something similar, taking its cues from submarine warfare rather than high-seas adventure. But maybe it's better when space opera just shrugs and owns up to being the feverish military fantasy it really wants to be. The Honor Harrington books, for instance, do this (although they still wound up being terrible and boring for other reasons). LotGH, though, is less caught up in the technical details; it only revolves around the mechanics of war in space in the sense that it assumes things like supply lines and points of strategic advantage will remain as important in a thousand years as they do now, and that much seems correct.
None of this is a deal-killer for me, in big part because I have never really approached white-label space opera generally, or LotGH in particular, as SF, but again as a kind of fantasy future history. Sweep and grandeur are the order of the day, not speculation about how science will shape mankind's future development and his view of himself. Sometimes the two come together; Asimov's Foundation trilogy still stands a good example of how you can pack both in one box, with the technology in question being a predictive science of human behavior en masse. LotGH prefers the first ingredient over the second, but only because it has that much more to do with it.
A fan's fandom
When news first broke of LotGH being licensed for an English-language release, reactions divided between "At last!" and "Huh?" The franchise's history as a fan's fandom, as something only the most devoted sought out and knew about, had been taken a little too much for granted by those who see themselves as being most tasked with bringing awareness of it to the unaware. I made this mistake myself: it was easy to rejoice noisily about the mere fact of LotGH being licensed without first bothering to clue anyone in as to why the hell anyone should care.
The other mistake that's been easy to mistake is to bill LotGH's importance as being a matter of its "influence". I'm not saying it has none; the series has cast a shadow over a whole panoply of things in Japanese popular culture — anime, light novels, manga, you name it — in the same way Lord of the Rings and J.R.R. Tolkien cast their own shadows. What I want to avoid is the idea that "true" fandom for something requires understanding the chain of influence in either direction. Some of the most devoted fans of a thing have no interest at all in its predecessors or descendants, and I cannot in all honesty say they were any the poorer for it. If a fan shows an interest in where something came from or what influence it had, by all means give them the tools to follow up on that curiosity, but there's no sense in demanding they show such curiosity just to allow them in the door.
My own take on how to approach LotGH as something seminal — an instigator — is in how the author is also responsible for several other major works that reached Western audiences only by way of their adaptations, and it's high time works of that stature were appreciated in their original form. The Heroic Legend of Arslan is the most prominent of them, having been adapted twice now into multiple media, with the second go-round being an anime and manga franchise sporting Hiromu (Fullmetal Alchemist) Arakawa as artist and veteran Noriyuki Abe as director. The Arslan novels are a continuing franchise, but the book closed on LotGH many years ago — all the more reason, I suppose, why VIZ has elected to give us two more books from the series later in the year. I'll be waiting for them, and keeping up my hopes that the anime will accompany them before long as well. The picture deserves to be that much more complete.