The Superversive from the East: Super-Dimensional Fortress Macross

Japan has several long-running science-fiction franchises, but few are truly global in reach. Mobile Suit Gundam is one. Space Battleship Yamato is another. Both got their start in 1979, but the third part of that era’s triumverate came in 1982: Super-Dimensional Fortress Macross, what many in North America may (unfortunately) know better as the most popular part of Robotech.

I won’t go into the details of what makes the original Macross great–you can read the TV Tropes article for that–so I’ll skip straight to why I’m marking this out as a Superversive work. First, and foremost, this is series is a counter-balance to the downbeat stories that the Gundam franchise often did; this was the era was “Kill ‘Em All” Tomino’s penchant for nihilism, despair, and audience-unfriendly narrative decisions were at their worst. While tragedy and loss are present in Macross, they are Things To Overcome and not You Suck Forever elements.

The story, despite the massive warfare going on, ends on a hopeful note that’s borne out before the credits roll for the final time and expanded upon in the many franchise expansions ever since. Brotherhood is rewarded, faith in things greater than oneself key to victory, beauty and culture are explicit superpowers (but that is not enough; Right Needs Might), and real love is not narcissistic delusion.

The transformable fighters and the Space Opera story are what many remember, but what gives Macross its heart is much like what we see with Gurren Lagann: an earnest, relatable hero who struggles to do what is right while doing what is necessary, overcoming his losses by keeping faith with his people (which is also difficult at times for him to do), and in time he becomes a leader in his own right. Maturity, marriage, and the embrace of responsibility are shown to benefit him and make him into the hero he saw in his big brother.

This theme persists across the series: those who embrace the elements necessary to build up a healthy culture with concern for the future are those that succeed, whereas those that embrace nihilism and succumb to despair are those that fail. Not only does this persist throughout the series, it persists throughout the franchise.

While not perfect, Macross is a beloved classic for good reasons- and if “Superversive” was a part of the vocabulary of the culture then, you would’ve seen it used prominently. Recommended.

The Superversive in Film: The Last Starfighter

We return once more to that period between the late ’70s and mid ’80s when that last flourish of old-school pulp sensibility arose in the form of feature films out of Hollywood done by then-rising names in the business. This time, it’s The Last Starfighter, another Space Opera made possible due to the success of Star Wars.

This film, like Tron, falls into that “Boy’s Own Adventure” style of adventure where our hero–although an adult–still speaks and acts like the boys this film is intended to entertain. That means the film’s style of presentation is in harmony with that audience also: earnest, sincere, and uncomplicated- but not simple.

The reason this is superversive is that this film’s story, as with many stories aimed at boys, is about the necessity of accepting responsibility- not just for yourself, but on behalf of those depending upon you. For an emerging generation of boys, soon to become men, this learning how to face difficult and dangerous realities even when you would rather run because if you don’t no one else will.

A careful review of the story’s narrative shows this to be the case. The critical events that make our hero into the titular character comes about due to succumbing to that very fear and running from the responsibility that his previous actions–qualifying as a Starfighter gunner–put upon him. Today some would cry about this being unfair,
or unjust. That doesn’t matter; it’s a job that men need to do, like it or not, because not doing it means far, far worse for everyone- man, woman, and child. Stories like this are necessary for boys, because this reality is their future as men in one form or another.

Which brings up another, understated but no less critical point: at no point does our hero get dumped on for taking up his burden and doing his duty. The others that benefit by his actions appreciate what he risked for their sake, and it is this acknowledgement that completes the superversive elements of this story. No one wants to risk life and limb for ingrates, and no society so ungrateful benefits from such deeds for long as it subverts that fundamental institution of any healthy society and culture. The audience of the day rewarded this handsomely, making it one of the latter day classics with lasting influence. It still holds up today. Recommended.

A Greater Duty by Yakov Merkin

While we’re on the subject of Space Operas, just yesterday a new once came out that I was the editor of. It is the debut novel of Yakov Merkin, an indie author and fellow member of CLFA:

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It’s a book that I enjoyed editing, and one that builds into a fun action-packed romp filled with intriguing scenarios, high-stakes internal and external conflicts, cool technologies and powers, colourful alien races and a rich and varied galaxy.

There’s a corrupt and crumbling galactic republic, with ancient grievances flaring up into new bloodshed; a grave new threat to the old order, an uneasy alliance based on a lie, a seemingly impossible quest for vengeance, and an equally unlikely search for redemption.

If that sounds good to you, check it out!

A Book of Gold

“Golden Age” by John C. Wright is a true book of gold.

There is discontent in Paradise. When all physical needs are taken care of, when there is no poverty, no crime, no want, and phenomenal personal liberty, what is left to fear?

A dream.

There is a dream so terrible, so horrible, that the keepers of civil order have forbidden all from remembering it, and threaten permanent exile from paradise to all who violate the ban.

“Golden Age” spins a strange and wondrous future 10,000 years in the future. The entire solar system is colonized, vast artificial intelligences aid humanity in all of the myriad new forms available. Yet this Utopia has real limits to resource uses (for example: you cannot turn Saturn into a new star, and leave it a gas giant nature reserve at the same time), and clashes of differing philosophies.

Above all it is the ancient tale of personal ambition vs. a static society. When all is prosperous and stable, can all of this be risked by one man seeking to accomplish greatness? Without innovators and dreamers, how can civilization continue to grow?

“Golden Age” is a must-read for hard-sci-fi fans, lovers of space-opera, and futurists. It is a tale into a fantastic future unlike any I’ve read.

Star Trek is NOT Space Opera.

I’m not typically inclined to get terribly pedantic like this, but I’ve gotta say it, guys. Despite what I hear people saying constantly, Star Trek is not a space opera. I don’t like to get all fanrage-y, usually, but the line must be drawn here! This far and no farther!

Star Trek is not a space opera! Well, maybe sometimes.

Jean-Luc. You broke your little ships.

Yes. I realize the irony here.

“But Josh,” you say, “You’re normally so calm and cool. You usually just roll with people’s crazy assumptions, knowing that reality will sort them out eventually!” And it’s true. That’s usually my MO. If I were pressed, I’d say this probably isn’t worth breaking all my little ships. If I were pressed, I’d say genres are fluid and subgenres are even more fluid. But I’ve been running into this idea lately that soft scifi– which Star Trek most definitely is, despite its fondness for sciencing its problems into resolution– is automatically space opera. It is not.

Exhibit A: Logan’s Run.

Why hello there, Jenny Agutter.

Why hello there, Jenny Agutter.

I love me some Logan’s Run. It freaked me out terribly as a little kid, and I’ve grown to have a soft spot for things like that as I’ve grown older. If you’ve not seen it, it’s, at the risk of sounding hipster, dystopian before dystopian was cool. (Actually, probably not. There were a lot of dystopian works coming from the 70s.) In Logan’s Run, people live carefree, libertine lives in the City of Domes until they turn thirty, at which point they are sent to a public event called Carousel to be “renewed,” at which point they are theoretically reborn as babies. Some people don’t believe this, and become Runners, people bent on escaping the City of Domes for the legendary city of Sanctuary, where you are allowed to be come old. Logan is a Sandman, someone who hunts down Runners, and is ordered by the City of Dome’s master computer to become a Runner and locate Sanctuary. Hijinks ensue.

The film is a lot of things– a little cheesy, a little melodramatic, and a lot of fun– but what is is not is hard SF. It has ray-guns, antigravity, and killer robots. Does that make it space opera?  Perish the thought. I don’t know if you even see the sky at night in this film, much less travel to other stars. What it is is a literal YA dystopia. (I’m sorry, I had to.)

Exhibit B: the Alien franchise.

Queen Xenomorph

Why, uh, hello there, Xenomorph queen.

The Alien films, both fantastic and terrible, are another example of soft scifi that’s not space opera. We’ve got killer aliens, space marines, travel to other stars, and in a movie I’d rather forget, genetic engineering and clones. Surely the stuff of space opera! Well, not entirely. That sort of thing is certainly not foreign to space opera, but the tone of Alien certainly isn’t space opera, it’s horror. (Elements of psychological horror, body horror, and arguably just a tinge of slasher.) The first film has an almost Lovecraftian air about it– human beings caught in something old, ancient, and uncaringly malevolent. The second exchanges horror for action, but we’re still in a dark place. Even if the horror is mitigated by pulse rifles and APCs, we’re not quite into space opera territory.

So what the devil is Space Opera?

It’s pretty gauche to cite Wikipedia, but you know what? No one’s grading me. So here’s how wiki defines space opera: “Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes space warfare, melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, and often romance (heroic literature). It usually involves conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, futuristic weapons and other sophisticated technology.”  Space Opera gets its roots from EE “Doc” Smith, who wrote the amazingly fun Lensmen novels and the Skylark novels, which I need to finish one day. Space opera’s pretty frequently– but not always– about square jawed heroes facing off against villainous forces. It’s frequently soft, but not always. (The wonderful and goofy anime Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is ultimately a space opera, but so is John C. Wright’s fairly hard Count to the Eschaton series.) Sometimes the heroes are military– there’s a pretty heavy overlap with military SF in space opera– and sometimes they’re space pirates or something similar. (I’d probably call Brian Niemeier’s Nethereal a space opera.)

Macross Plus

I swear, the focus isn’t really on the hardware…

It’s usually, on some level, a war story, but the focus isn’t really on the military hardware or weaponry. Even in space operas where the hardware is a big draw– I love you, Macross!– it usually differentiates itself from military SF in tone and verbiage. If there are more than four capital letter acronyms in a sentence on a regular basis, you’re either reading Tom Clancy or military SF. Macross/Robotech (and even Star Wars) does, on some level, draw some of its cool from the weapons and spaceships, but the concern is more “Gosh, wow!” sense of wonder than it is hardware porn.

To be honest, though, of all the subgenres, military SF and space opera are probably the two hardest to differentiate between. It’s really a gut-level feeling thing, and I’d guess that both sides of the military SF/space opera equation probably know instantly which camp a work falls into.

So what about Star Trek?

The thing about Star Trek is that, despite a recurring cast (including whatever ship a particular series centers around) Star Trek is essentially an anthology show like The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine broke from the mold, and Voyager and Enterprise attempted to, but, by and large, very little changes from episode to episode in Star Trek.

Tholian Web

One wonders how Tholians do this if the ship won’t sit still.

You can watch TOS in any order you like and your experience will be largely the same. (Unless you start with something terrible like “Spock’s Brain” and never finish, I guess. For the love of Kirk, please start with “The Doomsday Machine” or “The Tholian Web.”) Within a given season of The Next Generation, or Voyager, you can largely do the same. My experience with Enterprise is more limited, but at least during the first season or so, you can jump around in a similar manner. In the interest of self-disclosure, I’m not terribly fond of shows that don’t have an over-arcing story, but I understand that’s how shows were made until recently. I’m old enough to remember how different Babylon 5 was when it aired for having an ongoing story that would take years to finish. But what this means for the various Star Trek  shows is that they are, at times, a very different show tonally or thematically from episode to episode. There are some comedic episodes– and man, I’d love to see Harry Mudd in nu-Trek– and there are some very dark episodes. “Conspiracy,” in particular, traumatized me more than anything except for maybe the The Blob when I was little. (And I mean the 1950’s The Blob.) There are episodes that are little more than courtroom dramas, and then there, are, yes, moments of true, high-falutin’ space opera. “The Best of Both Worlds,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” The Wrath of Khan, and DS9’s overarcing story all qualify.

So what does all this mean?

Nothing, really, I just wanted to get it off my chest. FTL, rayguns, and aliens don’t make something a space opera. So Nyaaa. On the other hand, if you’re like me, and you are madly in love with space opera, a clearer picture of what is and isn’t will help you find more space operas to experience. My favorites are the Macross universe, Babylon 5, Hyperion, and the Lensmen books. Got some favorites of your own? Chime in! think I’m an idiot? Chime in! I can take it.