Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Astra Lost in Space
In the future where interstellar travel is possible, high school camping trips become interplanetary affairs, with students splitting into groups to go camping on another planet. In the case of group B-5, they're heading to planet McPa for a weeklong excursion, with the special additional challenge of taking care of the ten-year-old younger sister of one of their members. But things quickly go sideways when the entire group is pulled into a strange orb and spat out thousands of light years away from home. They're fortunate to find a derelict space ship nearby, but unless they can chart a course that finds them food and water, they have no chance of survival. Why did this happen to them? Could it really have been an accident – or is there something much more sinister going on?
Some series get better as they go on, and Astra Lost in Space is definitely one of them. While the first volume is largely setup, establishing the base plotline that the next four books will follow (the series is complete at five volumes) and introducing the characters, the next two start working more with that storyline and cast to begin to create a story that's as much of a survival narrative as any series about high schoolers who survive a bus crash in the mountains.
The series takes place in 2063, and we discover in the third volume that its history diverged from our own in 1963 – the year Kennedy was assassinated, the USSR put the first woman in space, and Astro Boy premiered on Japanese television. All of these events (as well as others) do feel significant in terms of Shinohara's choice of time period, but for the kids of Caird High School's group B-5, all that's important is getting to take their week-long trip to planet McPa. It's a right of passage in the story's world, not unlike a class trip in contemporarily set manga. That's about to get a lot stickier, however, when almost immediately after having been left on the planet the group is pulled into a strange orb and spat out in the middle of space. They're lucky enough to find a derelict space vessel nearby, but it's clear that something may be going deliberately wrong even before the reveal at the end of volume one that there may be a traitor within the group itself. This information is enough to make you start thinking very hard about who the students in B-5 are – and it's easy to see that they may have been targeted.
While the story is working is a nine person ensemble cast, everyone is distinct in appearance and personality so that it is easy to tell them apart. This is also important because of how quickly we begin to see that there's something a little odd about their makeup: Zack already has a captain's license, Kanata is a world-class athlete, Aries has a photographic memory, and so on. Right off the bat we also learn that Kanata's, Zack's, and Quitterie's parents are famous; others are soon also revealed to be the children of well-known names. The more that is revealed over the course of these books the more we have to question what's really going on, especially during the one chapter we get in volume three that's set back on Earth. There's just something off about the reactions of most of the parents, and it becomes worthwhile to go back and reread for clues that you may have missed the first time around.
Basically Astra Lost in Space is a combination of a mystery and an adventure/survival story, and that's a hybrid that works very well. The adventure portion of the story combines a lighthearted sense of comedy with the thrill of exploring unknown planets and discovering their joys and dangers, from volume one's strange plant life to the seeming paradise in volume three, Shinohara has a good touch with landscapes and environments to make them feel both worth exploring and kind of frightening. The mystery part, on the other hand, is much more emotional and has a lot of darkness to it. This isn't just the idea that someone wanted to get rid of these kids, but why - as each person tells their story, we see children neglected by parents who preferred their siblings or jobs, kids deliberately downplayed so as not to impose on their parents' fame, and children who simply refused to follow in Mom or Dad's footsteps, angering them. No one deserves to have been jettisoned into space, but to think that they might have been sent their by their own parents is a chilling concept that grows increasingly likely the more we learn.
As you can tell, Shinohara is not afraid to take the story to some very difficult places. While there certainly are other books that deal with child abuse and abandonment, Shinohara adds another dimension in volume three when one character is revealed to be intersex, something that is rarely treated seriously in manga for this age group. Without going into too much detail, Shinohara makes it clear that the character is comfortable with themselves as they are, but that their family is not, and their rejection by them is wholly due to this. While this is only lightly touched on in terms of handling LBGTQIA issues, that it is done with respect is important to note, and the fact that the character in question (and their fellow castaways) are all perfectly fine with who they are is worth mentioning.
Also impressive is the level of world building that's gone into the series. In between chapters we get floor plans, costume details, and character profiles, all of which show that a tremendous amount of thought was put into how the world functions. From brand names to the fact that space suits for buxom women have an underwire-like support function to the variety of alien lifeforms we see on the different planets, the work that went into Astra Lost in Space is impressive. It all gives the series more plausibility than it might otherwise have had as well, making it easy to get into the story without having to stop and wonder if something could really happen. Yes, credulity is strained at times, but for the most part, the level of detail that exists makes it easy to brush it off and keep reading.
At only five volumes, this is not a story that will wear out its welcome, and the plot is on track to finish believably within that time frame. It's a good adventure/survival tale with a darker edge, and if you're looking for a tighter follow up to Cage of Eden (with less fanservice), this is a good series to pick up. With volume three's cliffhanger ending and doubt cast on one specific crewmember, the wait for volume four is going to feel like a long one.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A-
+ Great world-building and good balance of lighter and darker elements, clues seeded throughout really get your brain engaged in the story
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