Originally publish March 1, 2016
Young Josh was a voracious reader without video games or internet to distract him– and homeschooled to boot, so all that time spent not being distracted by other students meant he read literally everything in the science fiction section of the library. Or at least gave it a shot; I remember trying Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun at about that age, and I definitely needed another ten years before I found that I liked that enough to read it.
Anyways. I read everything. I read things as I could get them, which frequently meant out of order. (The Hobbit came in between Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.) And so when I picked up a book called Homecoming, the third volume in some series I’d never heard of, I just shrugged off the other two books. It was twenty-two years ago or so, and I was twelve. I had no job, and it was a little library in a little town.
Man, was I in for a shock. (Spoiler alert: I loved it.)
For those not in the know, Robotech was a mid-80’s US adaption of three animated Japanese scifi shows. It’s controversial for a fair number of reasons, but the original goal was to bring over Japan’s more serious anime without dumbing it down or altering it too much; the eventual multi-generation storyline was a concession to the way syndication worked in the 1980s.
But I’m not talking about the show, I’m talking about the novelization of the show. The novels take the show’s three-generational structure and flesh it out quite a bit, up to and including an ultimate resolution that the show never got to have. Jack McKinney (pen name of James Luceno and Brian Daley) took the show’s central conflict– control of a near infinite source of power, the Protoculture Matrix– and reworked it to provide a coherent, expansive space opera.
Robotech begins in what was then the near future: 1999. The Earth is embroiled in a Cold War that had spun out of control, only to have the war grind suddenly to a halt due to the crash of an alien battleship on Macross Island, a remote location in the South Pacific. In a rare moment of wisdom from politicians, the war ended and Earth’s resources were applied to reverse engineering the alien technology and rebuilding the battleship. After all, if there are aliens out there that feel the need to build giant battleships, there’s probably something in space that makes having a fleet of ships armed to the teeth a good idea.
Ten years later, a city has grown up around the ship, which has been rebuilt and christened the SDF-1. (“Super Dimensional Fortress.” It was originally an anime, after all.) The scientific advances from the ship have been collectively dubbed “Robotechnology” and resulted in a fledgling space fleet, the Robotech Defense Force. With no sign of anymore alien contact, things are going fairly well. The SDF-1’s maiden flight is about to begin amidst fanfare and the public’s first real introduction to the wonders of Robotechnology.
Which, of course, is exactly when the alien armada shows up. They’ve been trying to find humanity’s brand new battlefortress for the last ten years and they want it back.
In the middle of all this are two old friends: Roy Fokker, the RDF’s top ace and commander of the elite Skull Squadron, and Rick Hunter, a young pacifist and airshow pilot. Time was, Roy flew for Rick’s father in an airshow; but then war and the SDF-1 happened, and Roy answered the call to serve his country (and world). It’s something that Rick hasn’t really forgiven him for, but he still takes Roy up on his invitation to see the launch of the SDF-1.
When the aliens attack, Rick finds himself thrust into the middle of all this, flying a brand new fighter plane that he really shouldn’t have been in in the first place, to make matters worse, the aliens are fifty foot tall giants, and the RDF’s new fighters happen to turn into giant robots for ground and urban combat. (Not exactly airshow flying.) While flailing around in a robot that used to be a military fighter, Rick comes across the beautiful (But young, spoiled, and horribly annoying) Lynn Minmei and takes his first real steps into combat– and into understanding why the military exists– in order to protect her.
Thing go from bad to worse when the SDF-1 tries to surprise the the invasion force by using the ship’s spacefold drives to jump to the far side of the moon and attack them from behind. The surprise, on one level works– only an idiot, or someone who’s never commanded such a ship, uses a spacefold that close to a planet’s surface. Turns out the spacefold actually takes a bubble of the surrounding universe with it, and in this case, it took Macross Island and a pair of aircraft carriers as well as all the civilian inhabitants of the island. Adding insult to injury, the inexperienced crew calculated the fold wrong, and they’re on the far side of Pluto.
Oh. And the fold drives have vanished into thin air.
Fortunately, the SDF-1’s a big ship, and has room to spare for the civilian inhabitants. Also, the aliens are most interested in the SDF-1, and don’t actually care about the Earth per se, so with the SDF-1 out of the neighborhood, Earth is safe. Unfortunately, the crew of the SDF-1 doesn’t know that, and either way, it’s going to be a long and dangerous trip back to Earth.
Character is one of the places these books stand out. It owes that, frankly, to its source material (The original Japanese franchise is collectively called Macross, and it is, by and large, known for cool planes, good music, and great characters.) but it would’ve been easy enough for Luceno and Daley to flub their transition into the printed word. Roy Fokker is one of the most memorable characters I’ve seen in SF, though whether or not that’s because of the influence the books eventually held over me, I can’t tell you. What I can tell you is that I’ve read these books so many times that they’re literally held together with packing tape and contact paper, and that the names of Fokker, Hunter, Minmei, Hayes, Sterling, et. al., have stuck with me through my adult life.
As I mentioned above, the authors did a lot to take a vague, overarching conflict and make it into something coherent. The first book, Genesis, opens with a prologue that the TV show never had, but does so much for establishing that there is Something Going On. The initial state of the SDF-1 after its crash is one of strange, almost Lovecraftian geometries. The inside is in shambles, ever reconfiguring in a way that doesn’t seem quite mechanical and doesn’t seem quite like a spacetime anomaly, and that goes a long way towards making the idea of fighter planes that suddenly change into fifty-foot tall power armor seem less ludicrous; change and metamorphosis are in some way at the heart of Robotechnology. The prologue also takes a character who is very, very minor in the TV show and turns him into someone that will be a driving force for the entire 40-year arc of the series.
Robotech was a game changer for me in a lot of ways. It broke Star Trek‘s monopoly on my imagination, and thus on my writing, which I was just starting to be serious about as a young teen. Combined with the influence of Babylon 5, I learned a lot about how to balance character drama and explosions, and I learned the value of having good characters.
The books themselves are relatively short– maybe 200 to 300 pages– but there are a lot of them. 21, to be precise, though the main story is “only” 18 books. (The other 3 are forgettable midquels.) Fortunately, though, Del Rey saw fit to package a lot of the books into an omnibus format that gives you three books at a shot. You can get the Macross novels (6 in total) in two omnibus paperbacks. And, surprisingly, on Kindle.