Brain Diving Rocket Roll High School
by Brian Ruh, May 17th 2011
“Where's my flying car? Where's my jetpack?”
These are the complaints of those who have grown up under the promises of science fiction. For many years we were led to believe that such cool futuristic technology was just over the horizon. Unfortunately, the harsh realities of economics have put the kibosh on such fanciful ideas. I'd certainly love to commute to work through the air, but what purpose would that really serve? Discounting the coolness factor, would it really be a better way to travel? Probably not – it would be more dangerous, expensive, and polluting than current earthbound means of transportation. Faced with these facts, such ideas rooted in science fiction never took root.
The same could be said of space travel. We've been dreaming of traveling into space for as long as humankind has been around, and have been putting people up for just over fifty years. However, at this point in our history, we in the US seem to be stepping back from manned space travel on a national level. Emblematic of this national step back from space is the retirement of the fleet of space shuttles. (In fact, by the time you read this, the next-to-last shuttle launch will probably have happened, hopefully without a hitch.) I grew up thinking of the shuttle as the way forward, and that each launch would take us ever closer to a time when we could colonize space, in spite of the shuttle's age and massive expense. Unfortunately, the drive to explore the universe will only carry you so far until economic concerns begin to take priority.
However, just because an organization like NASA isn't flying the shuttles any more, all is not necessarily lost for manned spaceflight. There seems to be a good deal of decentralization and privatization going on these days. These are not necessarily recent developments, as there have been private companies working on spaceflight technologies since the 1970s, but they have been on the rise throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, and with the further decline of government-sponsored programs they will probably be taking on greater significance. Of course, this means that our next steps into space must make monetary sense as well as be adventuresome.
In some ways, Housuke Nojiri's novel Rocket Girls is prescient of these developments. In fact, in the afterword of this English-language version that came out last year from Haikasoru, the author takes pains to point out the ways in which his book was “prophetic” with regard to manned spaceflight. (Score one for the prognostication potential of science fiction. Although, to be fair, SF is probably wrong far more often than it is right; it's just that people tend to forget the visions of the future that failed to come true.) In the novel, the small Solomon Space Association is trying to successfully send a human into space using their new technologies. Although based in the Solomon Islands, the association is funded, run, and staffed almost entirely by Japanese citizens. The association has been trying to prove its worth, but many of its recent rocket launches have been met with failure, and Yasukawa, its sole astronaut candidate, has finally had enough and has tried to run away. However, the association needs to put a person in orbit in the next six months or the entire project will face dissolution.
Enter Yukari Morita. A Japanese high schooler, she arrives on the Solomon island of Maltide after having heard rumors that there are a large number of Japanese people living there. She is on a quest to try to find her father, whom she has never met since he vanished during her parents’ honeymoon on Guadalcanal. Since Yukari's mother has more money than sense, she has allowed her daughter to try to uncover the mystery of her husband's disappearance (which, oddly, seems to hold little interest for her). On her way to try to locate the Japanese enclave, Yukari encounters astronaut Yasukawa coming the other direction, fleeing from SSA security in an effort to break with the seemingly doomed space program. Once security and the SSA administrators catch up to Yukari and Yasukawa, they realize that they have found a perfect new astronaut in Yukari since she is petite enough to meet the rocket's newly stringent weight requirements. In exchange for their help finding her father, Yukari agrees to become the SSA's new astronaut.
Rocket Girls began as a serialized light novel in Dragon Magazine in 1994. For those not familiar with this publication, in 1988 Dragon Magazine began to serialize light novel titles, many of which would eventually become anime. Full Metal Panic!, Maburaho, The Legend of the Legendary Heroes, Chrome Shelled Regios, and Kore wa Zombie desu ka? are just a sampling of titles that got their start in the pages of Dragon Magazine. (Of course, whether or not this is an indication of quality is an assessment best left up to the individual reader.) Compared to many light novels, which often throw in magic or technology so farfetched it may as well be magic, Rocket Girls is more grounded in reality. In a world sure to disappoint Haruhi Suzumiya, there are no time travelers, ESPers, or aliens to be found in Rocket Girls. There is just today's rocketry technology (give or take a few tweaks) and a teenage girl who has lucked into being given the chance at becoming the SSA's first astronaut in space.
Even though Rocket Girls is a light novel, as with all of their books Haikasoru doesn't go with anime-style illustrations for the cover, choosing instead a more realistic style that will probably appeal more to a general audience. However, the art is still done by Katsuya Terada, a Japanese illustrator and manga artist who is probably most famous for his character designs on the original Blood: The Last Vampire film, so the anime ties remain. Unlike many light novels, though, there are no interior illustrations; however, since I haven't seen a copy of the novel in Japanese, I don't know if there were any present in the original version.
Most people reading this would probably be most familiar with Rocket Girls from its 2007 anime adaptation. For a science fiction anime, it has some pretty solid real-world credentials behind it, including production cooperation from JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) as well as a cameo from real-life Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki (who voiced herself). In spite of all this, though, the Rocket Girls anime never appealed to me. I think a big part of this was due to the promotional art for the series, which showed the overly cutesy characters in stereotypical anime girl poses, including some obligatory beach scenes. When I first read the synopsis of the series, the story's main conceit struck me as a mere excuse to shoehorn some shoujo into a story about space exploration. The fact that teenage girls were required since the rockets needed astronauts that were as light and nimble as possible just seemed like such a silly plot device that I decided to give it a pass. Having finished the original book, I still think the idea of sending teenage girls up into space is pretty ridiculous, but now it seems like less of an excuse to combine moe and rockets. The only part of the story that seems a bit odd in this regard is the newly-designed space suits, which are incredibly thin and flexible, so they fit like a second skin. Early in the story, Yukari remarks they are like “a pervert's dream” and it's mentioned later that it leaves “precious little to the imagination.” Luckily the book doesn't dwell on this aspect, although I could see how it could get played up when the story is brought to the screen.
I didn't know until after I had finished reading Rocket Girls that it had originally been serialized in a magazine. If I had known this, I might have been more accepting of the book's overall pacing and structure. Two of my biggest problems with the novel (and they are interconnected) is the sheer unbelievability of certain key aspects of the plot and how conflicts, both interpersonal and technological, are resolved. I think one of the key aspects of science fiction is that the world being presented somehow comes together to make sense in the end. If there is some fantastic new technology, it needs to be presented in such a way that the reader or viewer thinks, “Okay, that's pretty out there, but it could happen.” I think part of SF's believability also depends on how well the characters and the scenarios mesh – you can explain away the technology all you like, but if the characters don't interact in convincing ways, the realism that you're trying to set up is severely undermined.
One criticism I often hear of science fiction is that ideas take precedence over the characters and the story. Unfortunately this is what happens with Rocket Girls – since I'm no rocket scientist, I have no problem with the technology in the book, but I just can't believe some of the other events that happen and the relationships the characters have with one another. We first see this when Yukari encounters Yasukawa as he is running from the SSA security. As they drive away in Yasukawa's Humvee, a pursuing helicopter tries to stop them by firing missiles at them. Just think about that for a second. The security team for a space agency wants to halt their key astronaut and a civilian by trying to blow them up. Now, this could work in a rough-and-tumble SF comedy along the lines of Dirty Pair, but for the most part I get the sense that Rocket Girls wants to play things pretty straight, which makes such an encounter all the more odd. In addition to the use of deadly force to try to subdue a pair of unarmed civilians, think about this string of coincidences: On Yukari's first survival training mission in the jungle, she meets an indigenous girl named Matsuri, who takes her back to meet her father, the chief, who also happens to be Yukari's long-lost father. (This happens early enough in the book that it's not really a spoiler.) Yes, based on nothing more than a mere rumor, Yukari has made her way to the Solomon Islands and has found her father, not only alive and well but in charge of an entire village. Additionally, when Matsuri leads Yukari back to the SSA base, the administrators determine that since the native girl is physically similar to Yukari, she would make a great backup astronaut, to which she readily agrees. The sheer amount of coincidence at work in this book is just a little too much to take at times.
Things just seem to fall into place in Rocket Girls because they need to, regardless of whether or not it makes sense. The same is true for how the characters talk to one another. One particularly notable case of this is when the SSA director calls Yukari's mother back in Japan to let her know he would like her daughter to become an astronaut. Now you might think that even the most negligent parent might have concerns about the logistics of becoming an astronaut and the safety of his or her offspring. However, in the case of Yukari's mother, you would be wrong. She speaks to both the director and Yukari, and both conversations combined take just about two pages. It is as if this is a formality that the author knows he needs to get out of the way, so he's just going to barrel through it as quickly as possible.
In the end, Yukari goes through the training program to be beset with further problems both societal (constant hounding by the media) and technological (ongoing delays with the launch). Does she finally make it into space? Let's just say that there are three sequels to this first Rocket Girls book, and they would probably be pretty boring if they spent the whole time confined to the Earth. In fact, the sequel book Rocket Girls: The Last Planet was published by Haikasoru just a couple of months ago. In spite of the first novel's obvious flaws, I'm tempted to read the second one, but probably only if I can find it at the library. I don't regret having read Rocket Girls, but I wouldn't want to pay for the privilege.
Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.
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