One of the things I liked most about Ridley Scott's Alien and James Cameron's The Abyss was the way they brought a blue-collar flavor to science fiction. After the starry-eyed, noble-explorer archetype of Star Trek and the fairy-tale-in-space aesthetic of Star Wars, SF needed more stories about people who actually looked like they worked for a living. Planetes is in the same tradition, about folks whose blue-collar jobs are no less blue collar because they take place in the future and up in space. They're garbage collectors, snagging up pieces of stray satellites or ships that have gotten stuck in orbit, and their ambitions are less in the vein of exploring the unknown and seeing the natural wonders of the void than making a good killing, buying one's own ship, and retiring somewhere cushy. That these things are all echoes of the world we know doesn't make the story any less exotic or exciting.
It's a tricky thing to "ground" SF in the familiar, to make it more about the grit of a job than the possibilities of the future, because that runs the risk of making it something that doesn't have to be SF in the first place. Makoto Yukimura's Planetes doesn't fall victim to any of that, in big part because the future world of 2075 shown in its pages is seen through the lens of the complications that come with humanity becoming a spacefaring being. What grounds it, and grounds it well, is how it's all seen through the eyes of a young, ambitious, apparently uncomplicated man whose complications and difficulties only become clear to use as gradually as they become clear to him.
Space: Not for the timid
Planetes assumes — and by all rights correctly — a good part of our spacefaring future will be a corporate venture (again, pace Alien). Technora Corporation's Space Debris Section has any number of folks under contract to sweep up orbital trash, like the DS-12 "Toy Box". Hachirota Hoshino — "Hachi" to his friends — chafes at the limitations of his job, a dead-end career where all you do is mop up after other people. He's undiplomatic and hotheaded, and his one chief ambition in life amounts to making a big score, getting his own ship, and ... well, whatever comes after that. Like so many other people, he's got an "if-only" view of life.
And like many other people in his age, he hasn't thought all that much about what being in space actually means. For him, space is just an arena for him to play out his personal ambitions, and no place for wimps. The human body wasn't built for space in the first place, and so only the strongest and most unsentimental will survive there. The problem with this worldview is how it doesn't reconcile itself with all the ways human beings use their tenderer emotions. Hachi's shipmate, Yuri (think "Gagarin"), is as cool and compassionate as Hachi is not, and in the first episode the former learns about the latter's motivation for becoming a trashman: he lost his wife when a fragment struck the shuttle they were riding in — something depicted with shattering directness in the manga's opening pages — and he collects debris in the vain hope that maybe he'll find the compass she was carrying at the time. (A compass is useless in space, save for its symbolic and totemistic value.)
Such sentimentality drives Hachi up one wall and down the other, whether in 1G or zero. He's more comfortable around people like the pilot Fee Carmichael, a hothead like him albeit in different ways. She's also a smoker, a vocation even more doomed to marginalization in a spaceborne future as it is today, and some of the more openly comic segments of the series revolve around her either charging bullheadedly through her work or trying to sneak a smoke, with disastrous results all around. Hachi, perennially uncomfortable around women, is able to allow the fact she's female to come in a distant second compared to her attitude.
Enter Ai Tanabe, the wide-eyed greenhorn. It's a tossup whether her inexperience or her love-will-always-save-the-day attitude annoys Hachi all the more. What room's there for forgiveness when bonehead militants who want to keep humanity from spreading its mess to other worlds are prepared to blow up moon colonies to make their points? What room is there for love in space, when space will destroy everything you love without even blinking? Space is no place for wimps, and as long as Hachi can convince himself he's not a wimp, he's a step ahead of both the competition and himself.
The void inside
Hachi's outward bluster at first looks like a good defense mechanism against everything around him that is, in fact, an obstacle. Terrorist attacks are mild annoyances for him compared to the hassle he gets back at home. His father was, and to a great degree still is, a spacer himself, a pioneer who helped build a key human settlement on Mars, and his casual, dirty-old-man mentality only makes Hachi feel all the more like Dad has outclassed him. Even more abrasive is Hachi's younger brother Kyutaro, who aspires to build rockets himself (sometimes having them fly in through the window), and sees Hachi's grasping ambitions as pure self-aggrandizement.
It's not anything on the outside that's Hachi's greatest threat, though. It's what's on the inside, the parts he doesn't show anyone else and that he goes to great lengths to conceal from himself as well, that are most threatened. When the possibility arises for him to be part of a mission to Jupiter, he goes double-barrel whole-hog after it — a gung-ho attitude that might well be healthy in another person, but we know just enough about him by that point to see how it's really just pushing all of his nascent insecurities to the surface.
Things come most to a head in this vein during a sequence where a his copilot on a training mission, Leonov, is injured when they make an emergency landing on the moon. Hachi lugs the other man for many a kilometer on his back, but when Leo confesses sotto voce that he has regrets about leaving others behind for this mission, Hachi blows his stack. He's not really angry at the other man, though; it's more that he's attacking the soft white underbelly of his own conscience, the part of him that is indeed weak in the face of the universe's indifference, the part of him that does in fact need the help of others, that does need love. This material becomes borderline trippy the closer we get to the end of the first omnibus, as Hachi confronts his own fears and desires as personified through various images: himself in a spacesuit, a dying cat, the void itself.
This is the kind of psychological material most "nuts-and-bolts" SF tends to shy away from, either because its own creators are not good at or because the intended audience is ostensibly not interested in it. (Kim Stanley Robinson is your go-to guy when you want an epic story about the terraforming of another world, but let's face it, his characters are about as deep as pie plates.) Planetes wins by dint of addressing this material at all, and also by addressing it rather fearlessly; it isn't afraid of the idea that the biggest threat to Hachi isn't anything he encounters in space, but what peers back out at him from inside himself, as if through a glass darkly.
No man's sky
I need to back up and make clear that Planetes also does something else important with this material: it makes it relatable, and — surprisingly often — makes it funny, too. In fact, the only thing keeping Planetes from being labeled as a comedy is the fact that it's SF, and that one too many labels on something only serves to confuse people more than it does educate them about the contents. Most of the laughs are broad ones that are engineered out of the absurdity of a situation, as when Fee trie s (and tries, and tries) to sneak a smoke even as terrorist bombs are going off all around her. In fact, the whole way the terrorists are handled is played as much for slapstick laughs as it is for an examination of their ideals, by way of a member of the group — one whom Hachi comes very close to killing.
The way that particular storyline concludes is actually one of the book's weakest points. Hachi has one of the terrorists dead to rights, only to have Ai stop him from killing with a kiss, and to have the terrorist in question decide afterwards he doesn't want to do this anymore. It's all terribly unconvincing and stagy. The points made in the large context of the story are all fine — Hachi is prepared even to murder another human being if he can't fulfill his dreams, and that throws serious shade on his motives — but the way it's handled amounts to bad melodrama, even for a manga that isn't afraid to employ such a storytelling mode to make its points.
Flaws like this tend to chafe at me more when a story is unfolding, and less when all has settled into place and I can see whether or not the good overtakes the bad. So much about Planetes is very good indeed, but first and foremost is how it refuses to get stuck in simply being dazzled by its setting. What matters most in a story is not what happens but who it happens to and what it does to them. Planetes is less about space and the future of mankind in it than it is about the kind of man drawn to claim space in mankind's name. Perhaps the reason it has to leaven its examination of that subject with humor is because some of what it finds is just not that pretty. But also fascinating, and a big part of why we stick around to watch Hachi is to see him struggle with the temptation to be human, all-too-human.
Planetes was one of many manga titles issued in the U.S by Tokyopop, only to fall out of print when that company shut its doors. The current three-in-one omnibus reprint comes courtesy of Dark Horse, with newly relettered artwork. All that's missing is a reissue of the anime adaptation, itself distributed once upon a time by Bandai. It'll be worth the wait.