Space Opera Archive

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Book Review: Slow Bullets

Slow Bullets is, I’m embarrassed to admit, my first exposure to Alastair Reynolds’ writing. Based on what I’ve heard of Mr. Reynolds’ works, I expected a story that would put a premium on the details of a hard science fiction environment. Instead, I was treated to a war story that is too complex for the all-encompassing label of space opera.

I suspect a reader will see my invocation of the words “war story” and “space opera” as an invitation to view Slow Bullets as military science fiction. Indeed, I thought about applying that label, myself. However, it feels like doing so runs the risk of minimizing the nuance at hand within this short book. Mr. Reynolds has written what I’m going to call a “peace story”. Though he borrows from elements of about half dozen tropes and sub-genres, their coalescence is something delightfully fresh.

Slow Bullets is told through the memoir of an ex-solider called Scur. The voice and tone are well suited to the nature of the story, inviting a measure of intimacy between narrator and reader. Scur’s narrative begins on the eve of a cease fire between an interstellar human hegemony divided against itself. The details of the war, such as why it happened, are left intentionally vague – save for the occasional nod toward a religious fuel fanning the flames of war. I suspect this is both an intentional allegory to contemporary times, and also a means of accentuating the grand pointlessness of armed struggle i.e. all fighting is arbitrary to the outsider. In the opening pages, readers witness Scur’s capture and torture before she wakes up in a cryopod aboard a prison transport.

The balance of the story brings together the narrative threads of a space ark, interstellar disaster (with just a soupcon of cosmic horror), and the survivor’s tale. The first half of the book, which concerns itself with how people of disparate ideologies forge an uneasy peace despite being centuries removed from their own time via an FTL accident, is considerably less interesting than what I see as the novel’s central question: who are we without our culture?

Mr. Reynolds uses Scur and her shipmates to explore questions of identity and shared history. In the wake of a cosmic disaster, Scur’s ship is more than a lifeboat for the survivors; it is a cultural ark for the collective knowledge of humanity. The novel posits that with a single shove from an external force, the culture and wisdom of the ages can be lost. Civilization, even among space faring peoples, is a fragile thing. Staring at the pieces of a broken world, Scur and her shipmates are forced to ask themselves if their individual identity is worth more than the identity of the species. It is hard not to look at that question and reflect upon it outside of a science fiction context.

Replace the cosmic horror with something much more pedestrian, like ocean acidification or a solar flare, and ponder how much our own national identities or religious affiliations should mean to us. How much of ourselves would we be willing to sacrifice to protect the greater whole of humanity? Would a Christian devote their life to protecting the last copy of the Quran? Would a Marxist give over part of themselves to the collected works of John Maynard Keynes? These are the sort of questions at the core of Slow Bullets. And if I have a single criticism of the novella, it’s that we only see these questions come to forefront late in the story.

This isn’t to suggest that the first half of the novel is unsatisfying. One should not jump into an existential crisis without allowing a reader time to make the allegorical connections between their world and the fictional one. At the same time, I wanted more of this crisis once it was recognized. I expect this desire for more should suffice as a ringing endorsement of Slow Bullets.

Military science fiction almost always asks its readers to examine solders giving up their lives for the greater whole. It can show the absurdity of conflict, or reinforce the notion that the cost of freedom is vigilance eternal. Mr. Reynolds uses Slow Bullets to take the traditional war story in a different direction, asking its soldiers, even in peace, to continue sacrificing their individuality for a greater whole. While it might be somewhat self-serving of an author to suggest that poetry and art is worthy of an individual sacrifice, this critic sees no reason to disagree. If the transcendent isn’t worth protecting, then what is the purpose of anything? A person would do well to keep this question in mind as they read Slow Bullets.


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Book Review: The End of All Things

Let’s start this review with a quick story, shall we? Set the wayback machine for Sunday morning at Ad Astra in Toronto. After a weekend of drinking (because I’m at a con hanging out with other writers) pain pills (because I did something to my back before the con) and not enough sleep (see the above) I found myself on a panel with Charlotte Ashley and Derek Newman-Stille. If I recall, the topic of the panel was contemporary issues in science fiction. Being hung over, exhausted, on meds, and desperate to seem clever, I ended up bloviating pretty hard. Rookie mistake. I should have known better.

The one decent thing I remember saying was that it would be interesting to see a space opera working to deconstruct empire, rather than using it as a convenient narrative vehicle. I think John Scalzi does just that in The End of All Things.

Even if the latest volume in the Old Man’s War universe doesn’t fully dismantle the romance of the space empire in space opera, it does put empire, as a concept, under a magnifying glass. The Colonial Union shows us the cost and hubris of a hard power empire. To maintain its dominion, the CU uses its corps of super-soldiers against human colonies seeking independence. In contrast, the six-hundred alien races of the Conclave – a more pragmatic United Federation of Planets – illustrates the soft-power empire. Where once the Conclave existed as a mutual defence (against the Colonial Union) and trade organisation, its hegemonic power has given way to a modified Bush Doctrine of “get the humans before they get us”. This cold war on the verge of going hot continues the central theme that began in Mr. Scalzi’s previous novel, The Human Division: even the grandest house of cards can be undone when someone small bumps the table.

A reader might expect to find this story told from the perspective of the upper echelons of power. With only a single exception, The End of All Things leans heavily toward telling the stories of working people on behalf of their greater whole. One of the most important characters to the story is the third-string pilot on a cargo ship. A pair of lieutenants within the Colonial Defence Forces anchor half the book. Even with the fate of the galaxy is at hand, Mr. Scalzi subverts expectations that might see space Jack Ryan rubbing elbows with the space Joint Chiefs.

Perhaps this is the great strength of Mr. Scalzi’s writing. He is an expert at writing people, even when he’s working with non-human characters. The aliens of The End of All Things are not hideous and unknowable others. One particular alien takes up arms against humanity because there is widespread unemployment on his planet, and fighting means having a job. This doesn’t mean humanity is cast as the galaxy’s foremost monsters, either. If anything, humans are seen as tiresome and exhausting. To paraphrase one particular alien leader, “I’m sick of thinking about humans.” Aren’t we all, Madam Premiere?

And while we’re on the subject of being tired of humans, there’s a delicious snark running through each of the book’s narrative voices. Nowhere is this more evident than when the author pays attention to fine details that might get lumped into the category of social justice. This isn’t to suggest the novel is a manifesto. In point of fact, it is the exact opposite.

The End of All Things is effortless in the way it promotes institutional equality, tolerance, and compassion as de rigueur. I picture the Robert Heinlein fanboys reading The End of All Things and being horrified at the presence of “SJW” propaganda leaking into “their” genre. In truth, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision Mr. Scalzi intentionally biting his thumb at the kind of people who feel threatened by women written outside the confines of the male gaze or the use of alternative pronouns in reference to non-gender binary characters.

At the end of all things, Mr. Scalzi challenges his characters, and by extension his readers, to see beyond the monolithic ideas of their/our times and toward something better. I’m told there’s a certain hubris, perhaps even a privilege, in and about narratives of hope within science fiction. If this is the case, I trust the internet will deputize the appropriate taxation authorities to collect on my complete and total satisfaction with this novel. It’s one thing for a novel to impress me. It’s something else when it stirs an optimism I thought long since crushed under the weight of cynicism and a popular tendency toward darker narratives of entropy and annihilation.

If this is the end of the Old Man’s War universe, then Mr. Scalzi has given the old girl a fantastic send off. If not, he’s driven his universe toward an uncertain evolution that should make for some fantastic novels to come.


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First Impressions of Ascension

In deference to my policy of giving a television series three episodes before putting pen to paper on a review, I won’t go so far as to say if I think SyFy’s Ascension is either good or bad. Bearing in mind this is a six-episode mini-series, I’ll probably watch the whole thing before daring to offer a review. However, I feel no reason to hold back on expressing all the ways Ascension’s premiere episode felt like a terrible first date.

It’s not you, Ascension. It’s me, I don’t like you. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t bother seeing you again, but my good friend Battlestar Galactica is telling me I should get to know you a little better.

Sexy sex is sexy, except for when it isn’t sexy.

There’s nothing more un-sexy than the implied nudity and simulated sex of prime time television. Though I left the room a few times to refill my drink, I recall three scenes of grunting and dry humping. As I don’t watch soap operas, I leave it to the internet to tell me if Ascension’s sex to non-sex ratio is in the neighborhood of daytime television.

Sexy sex tells us things about the story.

I suppose Ascension puts half the speaking cast in bed together as a juvenile attempt to show the series’ edge – like a fifteen-year-old who speaks like they are fresh off the set of The Departed. For my part, and in light of exposition telling me the ship’s complement is 600 people, I’m left to ponder if Ascension is crewed by swingers. We should also make note of Tricia Helfer’s character – I can’t be bothered to learn names at this point – running an executive escort service under the guise of ship’s stewardesses. The concept worked so very well in Pan Am, and that’s why the show is still on today, right?

Since Ascension’s narrative motif is modeled after America absent civil rights and second wave feminism, objectification of the female body is presented as standard fare – up to and including a two-girl one-guy threesome. Make no mistake, there’s no subversive commentary during this scene. The series is wanking walking on the knife’s edge of good taste, culminating in a faux-naked Tricia Helfer lifelessly faking an orgasm astride a man old enough to be her father. The whole proceeding lands somewhere between sad and hilarious.

In Space, Nobody Can Hear You Derp.

Here’s the thing about setting a show in space; the more a series bites its thumb at science, the harder I have to work to keep my suspension of disbelief from shattering. With my brain in gear, I’m much more likely to catch the little things a series does wrong. You may call it pedantry, I call it a series failing to keep me in the moment.

We’re told the good ship Ascension was built using 1960s technology, modeled after the Orion engine – a system where controlled nuclear explosions would propel a ship forward. Ascension, however, is built and organized like a skyscraper. The command deck is the penthouse suite, and each floor below it houses some instrumentality of the ships function. Does anybody see where I’m going with this?

There is no way to have gravity on Ascension given the way the ship is built.

Conventional wisdom says rotate the ship along its long axis to make simulated gravity. The crew would then live in a series of concentric rings inside the ship a la Babylon 5. The only other alternative for creating gravity on Ascension would be to have the ship’s engines burning at a constant 1G of thrust for half the journey to Proxima Centuri. The second half of the trip would have Ascensions burning its engines in the opposite direction. Even if nuclear explosions could generate a consistent 1G of thrust – they can’t because NUCLEAR EXPLOSIONS - the amount of fissionable material necessary to executive a maneuver like that boggles the mind.

Irrelevant of if details like this matter to an individual viewer, they speak to the depth and complexity invested in the series’ writing. If the creators and writers are content to fly free and loose with the laws of physics, I have no reason to believe they will do any better crafting the murder-mystery that seems to be the only driving force in the show.

Never mention Fallout

To call Ascension unoriginal is to engage in a crime of understatement. Everything, and I mean everything, this show does stems from a better work of science fiction. Therein, a considerable source of inspiration is the video game Fallout.

Fallout posits an alternate timeline where the atomic age brought about a technological evolution through fusion power. It also fixated American culture on the 1950s. Ascension is doing the exact same thing albeit with the 60s. Unlike Fallout, Ascension isn’t giving us any sense of a unique culture emanating from the familiar touch stone. Is it so hard to believe that a closed community would develop and evolve along a new trajectory? Am I to believe the ship’s harem stewardesses, for example, would be content with their lot after half a century of listless banging and putting on pretty clothes? Nonsense.

Humans, even humans removed from Earth, are creatures of story and flux. The ship’s crew would build its own rites, rituals, traditions, and culture. Ascension’s library should be filled to bursting not with the tripe of 20th century pulp fiction, but with two generations of stories, art, and music. The idea that they are somehow stuck in the 60s is as laughable as amusing as the Brendan Fraser movie with the bunker.

Meanwhile on Earth

A dad gives his son a stern talking to about telling someone to “die in a fire” via text message.

“Every message you send contributes to the greater world,” says Father Knows Best.

I wonder, when does a member of GI Joe come out of nowhere to warn me against the dangers of using the stove when my parents aren’t around?

We who are about to watch terrible television, salute you

Rarely does a single hour of television offend my sensibilities so fully and completely. Perhaps Ascension will get better. Certainly, it would have to make an effort to be worse.


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Afternoon Anime – Space Battleship Yamato 2199: Episode 23

Episode 23, One Man’s War, comes a fair distance out of right field. In fact, the story goes so far off the rails from the previous chapter that it’s hard not to view this installment as the writers frantically trying to avoid painting themselves into a corner. Recall that Captain Okita told the crew that their destination was Iscandar. Yet a blast from Dessler’s wave motion gun manages to shatter that particular plot point as the Yamato sets a direct path for Gamilas without a word of explanation. Then things start to get really weird.

So weird that the episode evokes memories of the final plot arc of Gundam Wing. For reasons of pure plot convenience, Captain Okita’s grand strategy in attacking Gamilas is to ram the Yamato into Dessler’s palace. It’s a move that screams desperation at a point when the Yamato is generally space worthy and combat ready. Right about the same time Okita is blowing common sense out the airlock, Dessler launches his personal flagship to rendezvous with the orbiting fortress “Second Baleras,” which looks nothing at all like Gundam’s Battle Station Libra. Shortly after docking his ship with the orbiting platform, which he intends to use to bring a little bit of Gamilas to Iscandar, Dessler ejects a massive industrial block from the fortress, setting it for a collision course with the original Baleras.

Paging Heero Yuy. Heero Yuy to the recycled plot wing.

Is anybody else confused yet? Is something lost in the translation that explains why Dessler has morphed into Nero over the span of an episode? Rather than being the calculating tactician, Dessler has turned into a madman intent upon destroying his former capital city through any means necessary. When the Yamato turns the wave motion gun on the falling industrial block, stymieing Dessler’s massacre, Dessler targets his own wave motion gun on the unsuspecting city below. In this moment the writing is probably at the worst I’ve seen it in the series. There’s no motivation here. For Dessler, there’s nothing to be gained, and everything is to be lost. The Gamilan leader’s willingness to destroy his own people burns through all the character development we’ve seen out of him in this series. Dessler talks about merely destroying Baleras, but both the audience and Dessler know that a wave motion blast will destroy all of Gamilas. How does he think he would be allowed to rule after destroying the homeworld of his empire? It makes no sense.

Only slightly less disappointing is Okita’s decision to use the wave motion gun, the series’ ubiquitous weapon of mass destruction, to save the doomed Gamilans in Baleras. Though I wouldn’t expect him to do otherwise, the incident feels like a cop out. The original series had Kodai destroy much of Baleras in a surprise attack. The guilt that he felt afterward informed his narrative and served to underscore the series’ main theme: a justified war must be fought with equal parts regret and virtue.

Now there’s no other interpretation for the incursion to Gamilas than as a mission to win the hearts and minds of the Gamilan people while simultaneously demonstrating to Yurisha that humanity’s weaponization of wave motion energy had a purpose beyond abject destruction. “Actions not words,” Okita says to Yurisha as he announces his plan to save his enemy’s city. It’s a callback to their previous conversation wherein the Third Princess of Iscandar said that humanity was no better than Gamilas. Now with Baleras safe, Okita has likely proven that the Earth is worthy of salvation. Perhaps he even finds some level of redemption for the fact that he was party to the massacre that started the war between Earth and Gamilas. Though the colonizing nature of the Gamilan Empire likely meant that their recon probe into the Sol System would have led to an invasion regardless of how Humanity conducted itself during the first contact.

The episode ends with an peaceful stillness in the space surrounding Gamilas. A lone second-class Gamilan shoves a captured Yuki out of an airlock – later to be rescued by Kodai – before detonating the wave motion core of Second Baleras. The subsequent explosion destroys the battle station as well as the Imperial Guard fleet surrounding Gamilas. It’s probably safe to assume that Dessler’s ship jumped before being vaporized.

I always wondered if Yamato 2199 would stay clear of its predecessor’s third act genocide. While I’m generally okay with the end result of One Man’s War, I won’t give it any any style points for getting from point A to point B. Everything about this new end-game feels too artificial. Dessler’s convenient jaunt into madness runs counter to much of what we’ve seen from this character. Similarly, Okita’s generally poor choice of tactics worked out just a little too well for the Yamato and the city of Baleras. It got us where we needed to be, but it was an ugly ride.

Stray thoughts

- Okita passed out on the bridge, again. I wonder if he’s actually going to die this time.

- Some part of me is worried that the series is going to take a page from the terrible Space Battleship Yamato live action film and kill everybody in the final episode.

- It seems less and less likely that Sanada is going to turn into out to be a cyborg.


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Afternoon Anime: Space Battleship Yamato 2199 – Episode 22

After multi-episode battles, race wars, and prison riots, the twenty-second episode of Space Battleship Yamato 2199 offers a much needed pause so that the audience might catch up on the nuances of the war. Though, once again, the episode’s primary focus is on Gamilas, it devotes just enough time to the Yamato to set up the final conflict between humanity and the Gamilans.

The use of the Captain’s Log trope to introduce the episode is something of a cheap expository device, but I dare say it is necessary to spell out a few things that the series previously glossed over. Specifically, Admiral Ditz is indeed in charge of an insurrection against Desler. I will admit that his mission to liberate Gamilan prison planets seems like an odd way to sow dissent. Ditz’s quest will certainly yield loyal soldiers, but without a fleet of ships behind him, his actions seem largely symbolic. Then again, Ditz was supreme commander of the Gamilan fleet; thus he was ideally placed to fill the fleet with supporters who could execute simultaneous Red October style coups on his order.

The episode also spends some time further defining the relationship between Gamilas and Iscandar. Through Ditz, the audience learns that Iscandar is not simply an item of political desire for Gamilas, but an object of worship. Blue and white skinned Gamilans, alike, scrape and bow before the very mention of Iscandar. Desler’s plan to exploit this reverence sees him passing off a captured Yuki as Yurisha – the Third Princess of Iscandar. With Yuki at his side, Desler announces to his people that Yurisha has agreed to a union between the two sister planets. The gambit is not entirely surprising given the way in which the series’ iconography has framed the Gamilas/Iscandar relationship as one of 1930s Germany and Austria. However, the writing does take the “we are one people” conceit a step farther; Desler announces to all of Gamilas that Iscandarians and Gamilans were once a single species, which at some point in the distant past was bifurcated into the current binary.

Despite this return to the simplistic framing of Gamilans as Space Nazis, with Desler on a personal mission to bring civilization to the barbarian species of the cosmos, I still find myself intrigued with the Gamilan side of the story. Desler, is far more ambiguous than the series first let on. He’s certainly a tyrant, but is he a tyrant with good reason? Are there worse things than the Gamilan Empire?

It’s also worthwhile to ask how complicit Desler is in the persecution of his own people? It often seems like the Imperial Guard is to blame for the crimes against Gamilan civilians. Despite the aural similarity, to Japanese ears at least, between Albet Desler and Adolf Hitler, could the character be a closer analogue to Emperor Hirohito? Are his actions beholden unto the Gamilan military junta, rendering him little more than a ideological figure head? Or is he complicit in the atrocities of the empire? Let’s not forget that we’ve seen the Gamilan fleet bombarding a rebel planet into extinction. Are Desler’s finger prints on those actions?

The episode ends with Desler ordering the firing of what appears to be a wave motion weapon at the Yamato after it warps into the Gamilas/Iscandar solar system. I suppose the final four episodes will offer up a verdict on Desler and his government.

Stray thoughts:

The prevalence of saluting in this episode makes me wonder what happened to the old cross chest Terran Space Navy salute? Perhaps the writers thought it necessary to balance the Gamilan “heil five” with something more definitively Terran.

A girl-talk session with Yurisha, Ens. Yamamoto, and Melda Ditz sort of passes the Bechtel Test. They aren’t explicitly talking about men, but the topic of conversation hovers around non-gendered relationships before shifting to ice cream and star fighters.

Kodai rejects a plan from Lt. Nambu to rescue Yuki from Gamilas and hates himself for the decision. Both he and Okita are resolute that the Yamato’s mission is to Iscandar, not Gamilas. Presumably Nambu’s plan involved using the wave motion gun.


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Afternoon Anime: Space Battleship Yamato 2199 – Episode 21

Once again, Space Battleship Yamato 2199 proves that the Gamilan side of the war can be incredibly compelling. Episode 21, Prison Planet 17, sees the Yamato licking its wounds after the battle with Domel’s fleet while Kodai and Yurisha get wrapped up in a riot on Prison Planet 17 amid an attempt to rescue Yuki from the Gamilans.

One of my on-going gripes about this series is that it lacks any sense of consequence following a battle. This episode opens with a slow pan across the length of the Yamato. Thereupon we see a ship that looks like little more than a hulk in space. A subsequent funeral scene shows dozens of Yamato crewmen, and the Zaltzi strike team, in coffins awaiting a burial in space. It’s nothing special for a space opera to honour the dead, but in this case it’s a clear indicator that the stakes have gone up. Though, perhaps not as much as we might think as it turns out that security officer Hoshina is still alive.

Niimi, now restored to active duty, points out that the ship is in dire need of raw materials for repairs. Suspecting that a nearby planet is of as much interest to the Gamilans as it is to the Yamato, Captain Okita sends Kodai on a recon mission. Unbenounced to the Terrans, this world houses a Gamilan gulag, and as fortune would have it, Yuki is on her way there for a brief layover before being sent to Gamilas itself.

Unfolding within the walls of the prison, the balance of the episode pretty much confirms every theory I have had about a looming Gamilan civil war. Before either Yuki or Kodai land on the planet, we see Admiral Ditz sitting in a prison cell. Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention, but when did Admiral Ditz get sent to the gulag? You think I would remember something like that happening. Nevertheless, it’s clear he won’t be staying for long when his prison issue meal contains a pistol.

With the blue-skinned Gamilan warden using captive Gatlantian soldiers for live-fire target practice, it’s easy to see why they would riot when given the opportunity. Less clear is Ditz’s motivation for getting wrapped up in the chaos. Melda Ditz, the same Melda Ditz who was a guest on board the Yamato some episodes back, arrives at the prison for an imperial inspection. Except her inspection is just a guise to spring her father and up end the warden’s rule on the planet. Yet the sight of Melda and her father’s blue skinned revolutionaries standing shoulder to shoulder with the newly liberated Gatlantians gave me some pause for consideration. Actually, pause for consideration is too much of an understatement; I wanted to know what the hell was going on.

There’s absolutely no attempt to account for why the Ditz family is tied up in this insurrection. Melda’s time aboard the Yamato offered every indication her being a loyal solider. While we have seen a few scenes of political dissidents and army officers being rounded up by the Gamilan Secret Police, we haven’t had a single shred of narrative – save for this episode – to suggest that there’s an organized resistance capable of acting against the imperial regime. It’s a fascinating divergence from the 70s source material and certainly something that will become more relevant as the Yamato nears Iscandar. It’s also deliciously infuriating for now simply because I want to know precisely what is going on. Considering Kodai’s ship crashed on the prison planet, effectively stranding him and Yurisha, I expect we won’t have to wait long for some answers.

Overall, this is a great episode. It addresses SBY‘s past tendency to glaze over the consequences of war while adding another, surprisingly good, layer of depth to the alien nemesis. If Yamato can keep up writing like this for the remaining five episodes, I’ll be inclined to absolve it of a great many of its past sins.

Stray Thoughts

- Yurisha reveals to Kodai that Iscandar is Gamilas’ twin planet. A Kodai freakout occurs on schedule.

- Lt. Ito survives the Yamato getting hulled in the battle with Domel. He and his clumsy sidekick crash the Seagull on the prison planet after shooting out the main controls. His inclusion in the episode seemed tedious right up until the point where he saves Yurisha’s life, thinking her to be Yuki, who he already suspects to be an Iscandarian, and in turn gets shot in the back. With his dying breath, Ito asks Yurisha to lead the Yamato to Iscandar so they can save Earth. Since Yurisha’s mission is to observe humanity before Starsha renders judgement upon us, I expect Ito will prove to be a key reason why Starsha consents to saving the Earth.

- Dr. Sato and his nurse attend the zero-g funeral on the deck of the Yamato. The gravitas of the scene might have been better maintained were it not for the nurse’s heaving space boobs.

Dear god, did I just write heaving space boobs? I bet my mother is proud of me.


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Afternoon Anime – Space Battleship Yamato 2199: Episode 20

Episode 20, Under a Rainbow Sun, resumes the story that began in episode 19. We open on the Yamato and Domel’s battle group poised for a dramatic showdown within the Rainbow Nebula. As the battle unfolds, the audience is treated to a pretty fantastic episode. Yet the story still falls short of greatness due to an ending which, once again, demonstrates Yamatos fatal flaw: an unwillingness to employ the narrative courage incumbent upon a war story.

While it would be easy to dwell on the episode’s weak ending, the balance of the story finally sees the series raise the bar on telling an honest war story. Fighter pilots, both Terran and Gamilan, die in doves during a ranged battle which quickly devolves into a knife fight between capital ships. What’s remarkable is the way the writing establishes these disposable characters as empathetic figures before ruthlessly killing them off.

One such example sees a Yamato pilot unable to reconcile the fortunes of war, in that sometimes a soldier doesn’t see a lot of action, against an internal sense of cowardice. I recall seeing something similar in Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. Sometimes soldiers don’t get a chance to fight, yet they still have to watch their friends prove their valour, often dying in the process. This feeling of inadequacy instantly resonates with a viewer, thus making the pilot’s suicidal solo attack against a Gamilan carrier all the more meaningful. We knew nothing about this character before the episode. We won’t learn anything more about him now that he’s dead. However, he’ll likely be one of the series’ most memorable figures simply for the fact that the writer’s masterfully followed the maxim of showing rather than telling his limited arc.

Chaos quickly becomes the episode’s watch word as Domel’s fighters warp ahead of the carrier group to strike at the Yamato. This second wave of Gamilan fighters destroys the Yamato’s radar, allowing the space submarine to deploy the Zaltzi infiltration team. Recall from last week that Desler thinks Yuki is Iscandarian royalty. He has taken it upon himself to liberate her before destroying the Yamato.

If the death of so many Terran fighter pilots didn’t signal a raising of the stakes for the episode, then the Zaltzi infiltrators shooting, and seemingly killing, security officer Hoshina, whose actions were key in stopping Lts Niimi and Ito from executing their coup against Captain Okita, certainly indicates that all former bets are off.

Witnessing Hoshina’s apparent death and XO Sanada taking charge of damage control teams from the infamous Third Bridge, I thought I knew the face of the shape of things to come. The Third Bridge is to Yamato as being an Ensign in a red shirt is to Star Trek: TOS. Despite the ill portent, Okita destroys Domel’s fleet. The Gamilan commander is left with no choice but to detach the command section of his dreadnaught and grapple it on to the Yamato’s third bridge. With plans to detonate the remainder of his command, Domel hails the Yamato and offers his praise to Captain Okita. Though Okita attempts to convince the Domel to stand down, he refuses out of respect for the memories of his fallen soldiers.

The poignancy of Domel’s sacrifice is almost enough to distract a viewer from the Gamilan bridge officers meeting death with a modified Nazi salute. Still, when Domel pushes the button, ushering in a silent explosion in space, I thought it was the end of Sanada and countless other redshirts. Dare I say, it would have made perfect sense for Sanada to die in this episode.

Instead the Yamato sailed out of the nebula, third bridge intact. It turns out that Sanada fixed the wave motion shield just in time to insulate the ship against Domel’s suicide.

How fucking convenient.

Seriously. Why? How many times is Sanada going to dodge the bullet? If the writers are going to go out of their way to make the deaths of no-name characters feel meaningful, why not pull the trigger on one of the senior officers?

Glaring as this shortcoming may be, the episode still gets the job done. It is a vast improvement on the series’ consistent reticence to make the good guys bleed. Imperfect as it may be, I’ll call this one a win.

Stray Thoughts

Hoshina getting shot propels Yurisha to abandon Misaki’s body and emerge from the automatic navigation room; therein even Kodai mistakes her for Yuki. I wonder if the series will offer a real explanation on why these characters have such a similar appearance.

Sanada springs Niimi from the brig to help him fix the Yamato when the Gamilans plug the barrel of the wave motion gun with an explosive drill. Are her past sins forgiven?


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Afternoon Anime – Space Battleship Yamato 2199: Episode 19

Full disclosure: at the time of this post, I have already watched episode 20 of SBY 2199. After some initial misgivings over the quality of episode 19, I intended to review the two episodes in a single post. A subsequent re-watch of both episodes led me to believe that nineteen, though somewhat slower paced that other episodes, is worthy of its own entry. Bearing this in mind, I shall do my best not to let foreknowledge of the series taint my review of the chapter under discussion.

In terms of moving the plot, They’re Coming, does very little. My initial conclusion on the episode was that nothing happened. The Yamato, now 90 days ahead of Gamilas’ main fleet, aims to keep its advantage by plotting a course through a dangerous nebula. Domel, restored to command with Desler secure in his leadership of the empire, anticipates Oktia’s maneuver and leads a small flotilla of carriers to intercept them. Both sides launch fighters, and the story ends on a cliff-hanger.

“Great, more wanking,” I thought. On the surface, this episode seems to revel in the sort of stalling that the audience had to endure as foreplay to the Battle of Balun. Yet on the second watch, I caught myself marvelling at just how engaged I was with the Gamilan side of the story. It’s clear now that there is more to the Gamilans than over-the-top Nazi caricatures. Make no mistake, those aspects of the Gamilan national ethos are still in play. But this episode presents a depth and originality to Desler and his people that has otherwise been absent within the series. One scene in particular digs deep on the idea of Gamilan identity.

Remember a few episodes back when Celestra employed a psychic attack against the Yamato? In the aftermath of that botched mission, Desler learned that there is an Iscandarian aboard the Yamato. He, like seemingly everybody else on the Yamato, mistakenly assumed it to be Lt. Mori. In order to maintain the status quo with Iscandar, Desler orders Domel to recover Yuki before destroying the Terran ship. To do so, Domel employs a strike team of pale skinned second-class Gamilans from the planet Zaltz.

Where we’ve seen other second-class Gamilans acting a reticent agents for the empire, these particular soldiers are even more patriotic than some of their blue-skinned counterparts, despite racial scorn that the latter heaps upon the former. When one of Domel’s officers voices his doubts about the loyalty of Zaltzi-Gamilans, they respond by singing the Gamilan national anthem.

Lyrics:

Our noble home

Planet where the blue flowers blossom

Sing a song of joy

May god’s grace always be with us

Ghale Gamilon

Hail to the victory of our home

These Zaltzi see being Gamilan as an identity that transcends their original nationality. Granted, the distinctions are arbitrary given that we know even a blue skinned Gamilan is physiologically identical to a terrestrial human – thus reminding us of the series’ anti-war conceit in that we are all the same within the vastness of the cosmos. I’ll also concede that this probe into identity is probably nothing more than a shallow commentary on the fallacy of the master race i.e. there is no “master race” just delusional people who buy into the words of a demagogue. Still, this sequence is done with slightly more aplomb than we’ve seen from the series to date. Furthermore, SBY’s tendency to telegraph future events means that there is probably a reason we’re getting this insight into the social structure of the Gamilan empire. Perhaps a Gamilan civil war isn’t off the table for the third act.

They’re Coming might not be the most action heavy episode of the series, but is the first time that the series has convinced me to care about Gamilan identity as a diverse thing. I’ll go so far as to say that I wouldn’t mind watching a short run series set on Gamilas. Though the Gamilans may have began, both in the original series and in this one, as a send-up of Nazi Germany, they  now seems more genuine to an external sense of self.

Stay tuned for episode 20, where things blow up.

Stray thoughts:

-  Standing on the deck of the space submarine, Desler looks down on Gamilas and asks, “What point is there in clinging to this planet.” Desler might have begun as a thinly veiled Space Hitler, but I think it’s fair to say that the character is evolving away from that.

- Yurisha Iscandar, still in possession of Misaki’s body, marvels at the technological horror of the Wave Motion Gun. In a conversation with Captain Okita, she condemns humanity as no different than Gamilas in its love of destruction. Despite the strategically placed copy of War and Peace on Okita’s desk, she might not be far off the mark.


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Afternoon Anime: Space Battleship Yamato 2199 – Episode 16

Once again, I find myself of two minds regarding an episode of Space Battleship Yamato 2199. Despite some initial silliness, I appreciate how much this series has grown up from the camp and historical revision that underwrote the original product. Moreover, it’s a great example of what military science fiction can do when it isn’t dependent upon the problematic tropes of military SF as exemplified in the works of David Weber and friends. Yet with each passing episode, SBY 2199 compares more easily to the weak parts of Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, and worse, Star Trek Voyager. Allow me to explain.

Episode 16, A Choice for the Future, sees Lieutenants Ito and Niimi springing their mutiny against Captain Oktia and Commander Sanada.  In doing so, the series demonstrates a considerable commitment to long form story telling. Prior to this point, almost every episode of the series has seen its plot individual plot peppered with exposition that served no immediate purpose. This episode ties each and every one of those loose threads together. It reveals Ito and Niimi as the agents of a faction within the UNCF who wanted to use the Yamato as a means of setting up a refugee colony for humanity. The discovery of Beemela-4 at a time when the Yamato is well behind schedule on its mission to Iscandar is all the pretext Niimi and Ito need to sieze the ship and return it to Earth.

As it stands, the intrigue is quite enjoyable, but it is wrapped up a little too neatly for my taste. The plot goes from mutiny to counter-mutiny in less than twenty minutes. For all the slow burn that the writers offered in terms of setting up this coup d’etat, I expected more to come of it. There wasn’t even any indication that Shima, who had been woo’d by Niimi in the last episode, ever entertained doing anything but supporting Okita and Sanada. By episode’s end everything is set up to return to the status quo. Though I suppose the writers could toss us a curve ball and have episode 17 begin with Ito and Niimi getting tossed out an airlock. If it goes down the path of a court marshal then we’ve officially entered the BSG danger zone. Recall how Ron Moore and David Eick were happy to spin their wheels on intrigue because there was no way to have a battle with Cylons in every episode.

Which brings us to the Yamato itself. The writers turned it into Voyager. That is to say all the damage the ship endured in episode 15, including the destruction of three main guns turrets, is repaired at the start of this episode. I seem to recall the Yamato looking like space garbage at the end of The Point of No Return? Now the biggest problem aboard ship is a lack of working showers. Seriously? Of all the places the writers could have went, they went there. What is the point of blowing the hell out of the ship when there’s a reset button lurking in the wings? Writing like that cheapens the whole experience; it reminds me of a certain British science fiction series that has grown a little too fond of Deus ex Machina.

Then, to make life even easier for the crew, Kodai returns from an away mission to Beemela-4 with a brand new wave motion core, which just so happens to have a map of the warp gate system that the Gamilans have been using. There goes the motivation for Niimi’s and Ito’s insurrection. Now the Yamato can use the gate network to show up on Iscandar’s front door with time to spare.

Even though the episode is far from perfect, it does embody the challenges of telling a decent space opera. If it’s all space battles and pew-pew-pew the narrative becomes vapid and pointless. If it’s all talking, then it’s The West Wing in space. Finding the balance between these two extremes can be a challenge, more so when each episode is only 20 minutes long. So as much as I think this particular chapter of SBY 2199 misses the mark in some areas, I respect it for what it is trying to do.

Stay Thoughts:

- Everything that happens in this episode happens on the Yamato. Hopefully the next episode focuses on the looming Gamilan civil war.

- Ito outs Yuki as an Iscandarian to the bridge crew, and nobody really seems to mind.

- Misaki is demonstrating some clear signs of possession/narcolepsy, and nobody really seems to care.

- Niimi gets a little too excited about the prospect of settling on Beemela-4, tipping her hand to Sanada. Confronted by her commanding officer, she confesses her treasonous plans. As in all things, Sanada responds with stoicism. Wouldn’t it be great if the next episode opened with Sanada smashing up his quarters because Niimi betrayed him?


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Afternoon Anime: Space Battleship Yamato 2199 – Episode 15

Aptly titled The Point of No Return this episode witnesses the shit hiting the proverbial fan. We open on Gimleh, Director of Gamilas’ secret police, putting down a rebellion on an otherwise non-descript planet. Actually, “putting down” is something of an inaccurate euphemism for Gimleh’s actions. More precisely, he burns the planet to a cinder, killing its native and blue-skinned Gamilan population. While obviously an “evil for the sake of evil” action, it does plant two seeds in terms of where the season’s remaining episodes are going to go. The first is that this particular rebellion, and others occuring off-screen, are the result of the Yamato pushing deeper into Gamilan space. This makes some sense considering the Gamilan Empire is built upon the backs of vanquished civilizations. Said reminder leads us to the second theme, the Gamilans are stupendously powerful and they probably could have swatted the Yamato ages ago had anybody felt the need.

The Gamilans have limitless ships, bases for resupply, and control over a system of warp gates allowing instantaneous travel across vast distances. Meanwhile, the Yamato can’t even keep its food replicators working, forcing the crew on to bread and water rations. Subject to constant force recon attacks from Domel’s battle group, the Yamato’s crew begin to show some signs of fraying at the edges. Their behaviors are a little reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica’s season one premiere 33, though I doubt the relationship is an intentional one. With crew morale plummeting, Acting Captain Sanada sets course for Beemela 4 a seemingly hospitable planet that the Iscandarians just so happened to note in their abridged version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Large Magellenic Cloud. And with his decision, everything starts to go wrong.

Lt. Ito, the Yamato’s security chief, begins positioning his pieces for some pending act of treachery. He begins by demanding information about Yuki from Lt. Niimi. When Niimi asks Ito why he wants to know about the ship’s operations officer, he responds with a not-at-all suspicious “you don’t need to know.” He then tells Niimi to stay away from Sanada, despite the fact that he is her direct superior. Things get even weirder when Niimi starts cozying up to Shima. In an utterly confusing scene, Nimmi tells Shima that he’s the most valuable part of the crew, applying all the subtlety of a porn star who can’t afford to pay the pizza delivery man. Is Niimi in on Ito’s plan? Or is she just looking to blow off some steam with the navigator?

Whatever Ito and Niimi are planning, their machinations get put on pause when the warp to Beemela lands the Yamato in the middle of Domel’s battle group. Go figure that after conducting days of reconnaissance Domel would figure out where the Yamato was going. Chalk up another point for Lt. Commander Sanada’s command skills.

What Domel doesn’t know is that far away from the battle at Beemela 4, Desler, supreme leader of the Gamilas Empire, has been assassinated.

That’s right, the big bad guy, the character that academics and pop culture experts alike have likened unto Adolf Hitler, is dead. It’s not even a great dramatic et tu brutus moment. His ship suffers the SBY equivalent of a warp core breach. One big-badda-boom later and Desler is no more – or so it seems. Despite obvious hints toward Gamilan intrigues I wasn’t expecting the writers to take Desler off the board. He and Kodai need to have a dramatic show down. Desler has to lead Gamilas’ defence against the White Comet Empire in season two. Removing him now, even if this is some ploy on Desler’s part to expose the traitors in his government, completely changes the game for the rest of this season. Not to mention that if Desler can die, so can anybody else. Ladies and gentlemen, we have our Sheppard Book moment.

Nevertheless, Domel presses the attack against the Yamato. Lt. Commander dumb ass Sanada very nearly makes another blunder before Captain Oktia takes the bridge and countermands an order that would have saw the Yamato’s fighters cut down like dogs. Instead, Okita orders Shima to fly straight through the enemy lines, despite the fact that there are hundreds of Gamilan destroyers, some seemingly flying formation with the Yamato. Though sinking a dozen or so Gamilan ships, the Yamato proves no match for the sheer numbers of Domel’s fleet. With the engines failing and two gun turrets destroyed, Okita seems resigned to death. Then, when all seems lost, the Gamilan guns go quiet and their ships begin warping out of the area.

On the bridge of Domel’s flagship, Desler’s subaltern calls in an immediate retreat back to the home world. Ah yes, I remember this trope when Robotech did it back in the 80s. Khyron’s forces were about to destroy the SDF-1 until Breetai used a recall device to forcibly end the conflict. Nice to see anime writers sticking with the classics, however much of a mundane and Deus Ex Machina it may be.

The episode ends with the Yamato limping through space, and all hands aboard surprised to be alive.

I’ll give the writers credit for making me feel just as much in the dark about events within the Gamilan Empire as the Yamato’s crew. Even though I got to see Desler’s ship explode, I’m none the wiser in terms of how this is going to play out for the empire or Earth. I assume the political intrigue will allow facilitate the Yamato getting to Iscandar. I previously speculated that there might be some rogue faction of second-class Gamilans who will join with the Yamato against the seat of imperial power. With Desler out of the way I suppose that option has become more probable than less.

I’m more curious to see if the series pulls a Voyager with the Yamato. After the beating it took, the Yamato should hardly be space worthy. I’ll be more than a little disappointed if those damages are hand waved away over the course of an episode. Since the Yamato is operating without support from Earth, I’d like to see the consequences of that reality played up in the coming episodes.

Stray Thoughts

Has the brunette who did the radio show in episode 9 been possessed by an Iscandarian ghost? Maybe I missed a subtitle but something really confusing is happening there.

Ensign Yamamoto is angry for the sake of angry, or possibly because she loves Kodai and is jealous of a burgeoning relationship between Kodai and Yuki. Either way, it’s a weak bit of character development.

What sort of PR engine is necessary to keep the Gamilas empire in-line if their fleets are roasting entire planets? At some point you have to invoke Princess Leia’s snark to Grand Moff Tarkin.