The Superversive from the East: Giant Robo – The Animation

Giant Robo is, as the linked article states, both one of the oldest of Japan’s comic franchises and the source of one of the best original animation series in the last 30 years. As such there’s some familiar issues that any franchise faces, starting with multiple continuities that often drastically reshape the premise into something very different from other versions. That’s why I’m specifying the OVA series: “The Animation”.

The reason for this specific incarnation’s enduring appeal is that this story is one of the most boldly Superversive stories to come out of Japan. Just take a good look at the trailer below:

That’s all you need to know, right there. The details that really deliver on the story’s promise aren’t in the trailer, but you will see that every element gets used–and used well–to tell a tale that uplifts the audience, inspires them to face great fears with courage, and press on even when you think you’re done for. That boy, Daisaku, is your protagonist and he gets put through the ringer over the course of this short series, but he does make it happen at the end–albeit with help (and a Pellenor Fields moment that is ridiculous, awesome, and (by that point) makes logical sense).

And it is thoroughly entertaining at all levels. The music is fantastic, the aesthetics are brilliant, and the production team did your Avengers or Justice League style of “heroes band together to stop a world-wide doom” story better than Marvel or DC have to date, in any medium. Daisaku’s the plunky youth you want to cheer for, Big Fire’s villains range from love-to-hate to completely despicable, and the other Experts of Justice may be rough around the edges but they are still heroes.

And, as for the necessity of virtue, the plot centers around two virtue-related matters: the origin of the Shizuma Drive, and the truth about the disaster that nearly derailed its introduction. Big errors got made, and everything about this story is a logical consequence of those errors, but there is no fixing it without fixing those errors- and that final bit shows this story’s value as a Superversive work.

The commercial availability of this animation isn’t what it once was, but you can get it at Amazon in a boxed set on DVD at a reasonable (for commercial anime) price. It’s not a long series: just under 6 hours, total. Agent Carter‘s first season ran longer. Recommended highly!

The Superversive from the East: Legend of the Galactic Heroes

In the 1980s, one of the greatest works of science fiction ever to come out of Japan first hit the shelves as a light novel: Legend of the Galactic Heroes. It would later get adapted into a 110-episode anime series, produce two movies, and several side-stories mini-series. Unfortunately, only recently did the original light novels get licensed for release into the West. (You can fix that here)

Whether you read the novels or watch the anime, you’ll find a truly epic Space Opera that hits most of the things you want out of a Superversive work. While the moral clarity is muddled at times, as this story reflects the mood of its day, the protagonist and the deuteragonist (and their key allies) are clear heroes with heroic virtue and epic flaws.

There are no supernatural powers. There are no aliens. There are no giant robots, laser swords (save for those shown as part of an in-fiction feature film), transformable machines, or other tropes popular with the famous SF/F franchises arising in Japan at this time. The fantastic elements are confined to FTL travel, cybernetics, the many technologies implied by the fact that galaxy-wide human colonization occurred, and high-end medical technologies. Yet there are massive fleet battles only eclipsed by E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series, and cultural conflicts (with attendant political intrigues) that drive the plot overall (and thus many subplots therein).

What there is, however, is true love (but often filial instead of romantic). What there is, however, is courage against often ridiculous odds. Faith held against powers willing and able to destroy you and yours, and fortitude in times of struggle are what you will find here. And, while individuals can succumb to their tragic flaws, the overall conclusion is hopeful in both absolute and practical terms. If you can find a good playlist online, and you can deal with subtitles, the long-running series and its related works will bring you up without lying to you on what it often takes to climb that mountain to a better tomorrow.

Moreso than any other work of science fiction or fantasy out of Japan, I recommend Legend of the Galactic Heroes, especially if you like your key characters to be competent as well as their opposition. Victory here is earned, and therefore deserved- including the hopeful end.

Marvel MCU at #SDCC, with Captain Marvel, Thor, and Infinity War

This may not be strictly superversive, but as we have a surfeit of geeks and nerds in our readership (assuming we’re not the entire readership), I thought we should take a quick look at some of what the Marvel Cinematic Universe had at San Diego Comic Con this year.This is “some,” in part, because they dropped an Avengers trailer during SDCC … and not to the public. It was leaked and taken down in short order.

To start with, it seems to have been confirmed that the Punisher will be in The Defenders. Meaning there will be a fourth person I will actually care about in The Defenders (The other three being Stick, Daredevil, and possibly Luke Cage).

And if the Punisher isn’t in Defenders, then they’ve got some explaining to do. (At the 60 second mark)

Other than the Punisher, the trailer didn’t add much … except show us that Stan Lee is still alive. Good for him.

And then, we’ve got Thor: Ragnarok

Early on, I had been a little worried that they were going to be focused on the wrong things in this film. I like that Bruce Banner appears in the trailer as Bruce Banner. It could have been all too easy for them to have the not so jolly green giant have all the screen time. But seeing Mark Ruffalo is reassuring. And …

Is that Hulk versus the wolf Fenris? Really? And Thor, with Loki, with fully automatic blasters, mowing people down like Arnold in Commando. And Valkyrie riding a winged horse. Again, we’ve got more of a humor vibe here, with our opening to the trailer, and even the conversation — actual whole sentences from Hulk, huh — at the end. And I’m still getting more and more of a Guardians, over the top vibe. Gee, I think someone’s been taking notes on what audiences actually like. (If only Sony would do the same.)

Though I’m amused that Jeff Goldblum is even in the franchise now. And it sounds like he’s stopped with the Jurassic Park stutter.

I especially like how Loki is revealed here. I was wondering how they were going to handle it.

But, dang it, I want to see how Doctor Strange shows up in the film. I’d rather it would be more than just a glance at the end.

Though, I’m a little curious about how much Ragnarok is going to act as a direct lead in to Infinity War. Why? because the Infinity War trailer opened with the Guardians running into space debris … an unconscious, beaten up Thor. Which makes me wonder if Ragnarok is actually well-titled.

Speaking of Avengers Infinity War, it’s also got some poster art.

infinity-war-poster

In other news, SDCC discussed the Captain Marvel film. In the comics, Carol Danvers, air force fighter pilot, was kidnapped by aliens called the Skrulls, experimented on, and turned into a flying juggernaut who shoots lasers out of her hands, and is build like Marilyn Monroe.

In the Cinematic universe … Captain Marvel will be set in the 1990s.

… What?

Sigh. Okay. Let’s dig down into this a bit.
It’s been confirmed that the Skrulls will actually show up in the film, despite the half dozen missed opportunities for them to have shown up earlier. In the comics, the Skrulls are the long-running foe of the Kree … yet in Guardians of the Galaxy, they were at war was Xandar? It’s almost like they were cautious about showing another alien race that wasn’t tall and blue. But I suppose that legal issues have been settled.
Captain Marvel will apparently feature the Kree-Skrull war. Unless Captain Marvel  will feature an actual end to said war. Eh. Who knows?

The film will also star Samuel L. Jackson with two eyes. Because the 90s.

Yeah, I have no idea why they’d set it in the 90s. The actress they have for Captain Marvel, Brie Larson, looks like she’s 12. Unless they’re going to say that her powers have slowed down her aging, this would make her a middle aged superheroine today … but if that’s the case, where the bleep has she been through: three alien invasions, a robot army, and a SHIELD meltdown?The answer is probably … IN SSSSSPPPPPPAAAAAAAAAACCCCCEEEE.

But we’ll see. They may have the balls to actually kill off a superhero… No, I don’t think so either.
All in all, it looks like Marvel is going to stay on top for another year or so. As long as you don’t count their network TV shows. Those still look like they merely suck.

The Superversive in Film: Char’s Counterattack

Today, I direct your attention once more across the Pacific to Japan. While I can–and do–recommend Hayao Miyazaki’s classic Studio Ghibli films, that’s not the man behind this film. The film is Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack, and the man is Yoshiyuki “Kill ’em All” Tomino.

The protagonist and antagonist are, once more, Amuro Rey and Char Aznable. This movie is the end of their story, which began with the original Mobile Suit Gundam series, and it brings their conflict to its conclusion. However, that doesn’t mean you need to watch that series (or Zeta Gundam, or ZZ Gundam) to appreciate this film; you’ll be fine going in cold.

The reason for me marking this out as Superversive is due to the root of the conflict: Despair-fueled egotism, expressed as fanatical terrorism. Char does what he does out of a deep-seated obsession with Amuro, whereas Amuro had moved on and began to–at last–find the possibility of happiness in a future of family and fatherhood as he serves Mankind as part of an autonomous elite unit. (This is mirrored in Bright Noa, the unit’s commander. He is married and a father, happily so, and has only gotten stronger as a character because of that.)

It is also because of that root of conflict that you need not see the previous series to appreciate this film; the root reveals itself early to the audience, as shown by Char’s behavior before executing the big villainous plot to force Mankind off Earth entirely. That root comes full circle in the end as everyone sees through to that root and Char gets his comeuppance in spectacular fashion in the climax.

The film’s theme of Hope v. Despair shapes everyone in the cast, for good or ill, and while the villain’s plot is ended it comes as a high cost. (Another regular Gundam trope.) You can see how each character’s embrace of hope, or succumbing to despair, leads to that character’s fate. Tomino has his status as a master for a reason, and you see it in action here.

Thus the ending is bittersweet, but overall a positive one, but not without leaving some matters unfinished and exposing others heretofore buried. (This would set the stage for Gundam Unicorn, which takes place three years after this film.)

And, for all the men-with-screwdriver sorts out there, yes there’s plenty of science in this fiction- the plot (as it often does for a Gundam title) revolves around dropping very big things on to very populated places on the surface of Earth. (Remember that this is the franchise that destroyed Sidney, Australia by dropping a space colony bigger than Babylon 5 on it.) The robots, even the psychic powers, are consistent if unreal (and have other purposes for their presence).

Recommended. It’s the final chapter of a classic saga of Japanese science fiction for a reason.

Standard Right Wing Talking Points and Casual Sexism

This might be the new tagline for John C. Wright’s Hugo nominates story “An Unimgainable Light”. From Nerds of a Feather:

An Unimaginable Light: Imagine a thought experiment dealing with the nature of being human by  playing with the nature of robots and mix in some casual sexism and some standard right wing talking points. Then, imagine the story is even more didactic and poorly written than it sounds and you have the beginning of what John C. Wright’s awful “An Unimaginable Light” is. The reality is so much worse. Rich Horton notes that much of the context for the story is tied to Wright’s collection God, Robot and perhaps it would read very differently in that context, but coming into the story as a discrete piece of fiction I can only say that it is bad. It is not worthy of being considered for the Hugo Award.

Seriously, when will people understand that the story is literally an argument *against* casual objectification of women? It’s not even subtle. The person who “casually objectifies” women is literally nicknamed “Skinner”. Because he flays people. He’s not the guy we’re supposed to be rooting for.

As for “Standard right wing talking points”…here are the other Hugo stories. This is taken from books.zennaro.net. All emphasis mine:

A Fist of Permutations in the Lightning and Wildflowers by Alyssa Wong
Hannah and Melanie are two sisters, with the ability to bend time and reality. Unfortunately there are limits of what they can achieve, and when one succumbs to self hate, suicide, family transphobia, and hate crime, the other traps herself in a never ending loop of alternative realities, fueled by her sense of guilt, desperately trying to change an unchangeable past.

Seasons of Glass and Iron by Amal El-Mohtar
This is the story of Tabitha, and Amira. Their stories, and their roles are the archetypal stories and roles of women in fairy tales. The same fairy tales that we still read to our children, often without realizing how misogynistic they are. One day, as Tabitha walks around the world to repent for having revealed to her mother she was a victim of abuse, she meets Amira. Their encounter will deeply change their lives, their way of thinking, and of living.

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies by Brooke Bolander
A very interesting, and very fine example of message fiction, focusing on women rights, and rape. Given the brevity of the story, it is hard to say anything about it, without spoiling it. I would just say that it is a great piece from a Hugo / Nebula / Sturgeon / Locus finalist writer.

The City Born Great by N. K. Jemisin
All the great metropolis on Earth, when they get big enough, and old enough, they must be born. Now it’s the turn of New York, and a homeless queer black man find himself tasked with the role of facilitate this birth [sic]. But nothing it easy: there are mysterious enemies that want to prevent this from happening. Thus New York will live or die by the efforts his reluctant midwife.
I found the short story interesting, in particular the way it touches some very actual themes like xenophobia, and homelessness. The story is not as good as Jemisin’s previous work.

(Carrie Vaughn’s story seems pretty neutral ideologically, for what that’s worth.)

But, sure, the issue here is that there are “standard right wing talking points” in John’s story. THAT’S what we should be concerned about!

Mostly I notice that this Hugo Award year, at least in the short story category, is divided on deeply ideological lines – there is no question that John’s story is very definitely on the conservative side of the ideological divide. But they’re not even trying to hide it anymore; message fiction is being acknowledged and stories are being praised specifically for the ideologies they happen to be pushing.

If you want to see something from someone who *actually* seems to be neutral, here are some good reviews from Reddit, of all places:

The gist of his notes on John’s story:

It’s an interesting thought experiment and is more metaphysical and philosophical than science fiction in feel.

I really enjoyed this story, though it is up to you to decide if the $5 purchase price is worth it to read this Hugo nominee.

See, this reviewer seemed to like other stories more, including stories I’d probably dislike myself. And, hey, that’s fine; at least his judgments don’t seem to be based on “Is my preferred political viewpoint being expressed?”

Because that seems to be the theme of this year’s Hugo Awards. How depressing.

The Superversive Gundam Series: Gundam Unicorn

“Superversive” and “Mobile Suit Gundam” doesn’t get associated often. Over the course of the history of this giant franchise of Japanese science fiction, there’s been a strong note of despair and incidents of nihilistic excess that cannot be ignored. (If Yoshiyuki “Kill ‘Em All!” Tomino is involved, be ready for it.)

This is not universal, and recently a series not only shook itself loose of that legacy but managed to be Superversive. That series is Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn Re:0096, and you can watch it free and legal here (subtitled into English) or (for American readers) on Adult Swim’s Toonami block on Saturdays (dubbed). If you prefer (and you can find them, and read Japanese) there are print versions; Unicorn originally was a light novel before its series adaptation.

The reason I mark this series out as Superversive has to do with the subject of the story, which concerns itself with the origin of this setting’s creation and the corruption that took root at the beginning to subvert the real potential for the uplifting of Mankind into a more perfect form- Newtypes (i.e. psychics, telepaths). The conflict of the story revolves around those seeking to maintain the undermining lie upon which all of this meta-narrative’s conflict revolves, or expose the truth to all of Mankind and thereby risk the collapse of a corrupt order into utter chaos in the effort to restore the original intention of the founders of the Universal Century era.

And by saying that much, I likely spoiled some of it. My apologies.

This is a series featuring giant robots fighting battles where our protagonist is reluctant to fight, tries to love his way through it all, and–especially once he gets a literal princess at his side–actually manages to pull some measure of it off. Why? Because that desire to love his enemies leads him to the truth, and that truth is the means that leads him to achieve his victory in the end despite facing down multiple superweapons and just as many black-hearted antagonists who’d throw billions to Baal (not so figuratively) than admit that they serve a lie.

While many Gundam series conclude with bittersweet success for the protagonists, if they succeed at all, this time it’s properly uplifting. There’s a reality to it that isn’t present in others, and a decided lack of nihilism despite all of the suffering and death that occurs. While I’ve yet to watch a Gundam series that lies to me, this is the first one that ended in a way properly uplifted me, like after I watched Star Wars the first time lo those many years ago.

In short, this is a beautiful series in all ways possible. Short of a Miyazaki masterpiece, it is rare to get such a treat in most franchise anime. Recommended.

The Superversive in Tabletop RPGs: Space Opera Edition

It’s Space Opera Week. While a lot of people who love this style of story are content to read or watch them, a significant number of us want to make our own. There’s plenty of writing-specific advice around, so I’ll focus on those of us who want to game them instead.

So, you want a Superversive Space Opera? Where do you start? Well, if you’re not doing GURPS Lensman, you still want to have that book (or the novels it’s about) handy. That example will be the model you’ll find easiest to adapt for gaming purposes.

Your players play characters who champion their cultural traditions and institutions. This means you’re some sort of Galactic Patrol, formally or otherwise, because the standard gameplay scenario involves dealing with predatory actors seeking to undermine your people. As active agents, you have reason to seek out such trouble and put a stop to it.

Your players play pro-active characters. Be it by acting on orders from another, or one of the players coming to the table with a plan, a Superversive Space Opera relies on the characters being the ones driving the game and that means acting according during play. This is not a place for passive or reactive people; that’s for other media.

Your game has a solid moral core to it. Just like playing Pendragon Superversive Space Opera requires that the players engage with a solid moral foundation. This is best made explicit to the players at the beginning (again, like Pendragon) so you can have everyone on the same page and not waste time doing that after you’re underway.

Do that, and you’re golden. Now you see why I recommended having those Lensman books handy. These elements are not only present, but front-and-center where they can’t be ignored, which is what you want when you’re looking for a model to adapt to your game at your table. There’s plenty of others out there, so pick what you want to use and commit to it. The fun you have will depend on the work you put in, so have at it.