May 25, 2010

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To Terra Volume 1

Written by Keiko Takemiya
Illustrated by Keiko Takemiya
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To Terra is the selected title for the fourth edition of the Manga Movable Feast, (or MMF) where those of us who hang out together in the blogosphere pick a title to talk about all at the same time. Perspectives and approaches will differ, which is part of the fun.

In my case, this is a new series for me, so I'll be featuring my volume by volume reviews this week, starting here with Volume 1.

You can see all of the posts about To Terra for the Manga Movable Feast here.

I'm betting right now that I'm going to be the minority opinion. Keep in mind that I am by no means the target audience for this one. I'd bet dollars to donuts my friend Noah would really like this. (Let me know if you end up reading it, pal.) I don't read a lot of sci fi, and when I do, it tends to be of the short, Ray Bradbury style that emphasizes action over world building. I don't know that I've ever finished a "hard" sci fi novel, and the only writer in that vein that I have a fondness for is Warren Ellis, who writes some of the most distinctive characters around. To Terra doesn't match up to my reading style and so you shouldn't necessarily discount it because of me. That said, let's get started...

The time is somewhere in the far future. Humanity has done all it could to Planet Earth, or Terra. The world, still unique in all the cosmos, cannot take any more. Terra becomes an empty shell, reworked in the image of a technocratic, Darwinian society that values perfection over personality and raises its children accordingly, without true parents and without individuality. While Terra heals, the human race moves off into space, to return only when the select few are deemed worthy to return home.

In the path of perfection, there are always speed bumps. Mutants arrive, with strong psychic powers. They're killed if they can be found, but manage to hold their own in their own refuge. Soon, we see the two groups start to bump heads for the right to inhabit their old homeland. The key to the future looks to be held by two boys, one on each side, and both with great potential. Who will win the right to go...To Terra?

I realize that's a mouthful as far as an introduction goes, but I'm not even sure that covers all we see in the first volume of To Terra, a story that's very much the product of its time, the late 1970s. This trade is nearly 90% information dump, as Takemiya strives to make sure that the reader understands everything about the world she's created. There are so many details in the first two parts and roughly 300 pages that it's hard to get any characterization going.

That was a big problem for me. I almost always read for character over plot, and the fact that I really don't know much about how Jomy feels about this sudden change in his life--or even if he really still is Jomy!--bothers me. The supporting cast of Mu surrounding him are, at least so far, as interchangeable as pawns on a chessboard and half as interesting. There are flashes of interest when Jomy begins his life as part of the underground, but they're too far and few between for my taste. Beyond feeling obligated to like them because they're meant to represent free will, an imposition forced on the reader that turned me off as well, I don't see any reason to care whether or not the Mu live or die. They seem weak, whiny, and just as apt to discriminate. They just lack the power to do so. I'm really hoping for better in the next two books in the series.

Keith ends up better developed and as a result, I have to keep fighting against my urge to want the "bad guys" to win. Their society may be terrible and punish free thought and independent action, but at least we get to see them doing just that! There's all sorts of jealousies, class issues, and political intrigue. There was a lot of action, relatively speaking, in Keith's section of the book, and this made the info-dumping feel less blatant. Still, with the exception of a character who flames out and can't really be used again, the authoritarian side of the equation really has no one going for it beyond the main character, either.

Given that there's only three volumes and about 1000 pages of story in this series, I found the way in which I was introduced into the world of To Terra extremely off-putting. Had it not been part of the MMF, I do not think I would have bothered past the ridiculously dense first part. This manga seems to fall victim to the reason I tend to read more fantasy than science fiction: It feels like the writer has to trip over themselves establishing the world, and that gets in the way of making the story interesting from the early going. It's why I seem to enjoy short sci fi better as a rule--the author doesn't have time to bog me down in the minutia.

A more technical story can work for me, but the author must be careful to make sure there's a balance between telling a interesting story with good characters, and making a believable world that has a reason to exist. Takemiya does a good job on the latter--there's no way this could be anything other than a sci fi story--but fails miserably, at least for me, at making good characters.

To Terra is leaning heavily on the setting and the grand concept of free will versus a controlling state to drive it along, at least in this early going. There's a lot of explanation of what that sort of world means to Takemiya, and you can see the influence of 1970s political ideas and fiction driving her style. This is an era where we still figured we could colonize space and that we'd have to leave Planet Earth because we were ruining it. It's a time when there were stories of not trusting adults came from the rebellion of the late 1960s. The idea that the government, in order to create a better society, would take away free will, was almost certainly seen as both plausible and dangerous. (Now, it just seems to be seen as plausible and only dangerous if you're not the party in power.)

It's a mix that features prominently in To Terra and had there been more interesting characters, I think I would have liked the story better. I like the idea of dreams being used to determine who's dangerous to the state, the concept that any deviation, no matter how slight from the "utopian" state, is treated like a medical issue, and the fact that this homogenization of the human race is seen as the only way to save it. Would having even one dissenting voice destroy the fragile return of the human race to earth? Does that justify the killing of free will? Had the story spent more time on the way in which the cast feels about these problems and less about showing me (admittedly well drawn) space ships, I would have felt quite differently about the book.

Overall, I like the ideas in To Terra a lot, but I felt the execution was too burdened by an unnecessary need to show us everything from the start, leaving nothing for later. It crowds out the bigger concepts and leaves us with characters who are no more interesting than a store mannequin. A great idea is nothing without great characters. I'm going to keep reading To Terra, but based on this first volume, I'm honestly not too hopeful that the author can change her style radically enough to make this into a book I like.