May 26, 2010

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To Terra Volume 2

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.

You can see the home page for the To Terra MMF here.

Under the leadership of Jomy, who now has the power and memories of the Blue Soldier, the Mu have settled down on an abandoned planet to call their own. They're comfortable and even starting families. It's not Terra, but who cares if they're free from persecution?

The peace, however, is short-lived, as Keith, the rising star of the human race, goes off to investigate strange doings at an old planet. What he discovers and the actions he takes will impact on the Mu in ways they never anticipated. Despite space being such a large place, everything comes down to being about needing to go...To Terra.

The first thing I noticed about this volume is that it had a lot less exposition than the first trade. In that regard alone it was light years ahead of its predecessor. Now that the world is pretty well established, Takemiya can concentrate on having her characters act in that world. We still get a few sets of lengthier explanation, but because they're mixed in with the general movement of the story, they don't stop the progress dead and don't feel like we're getting exposition dumps at every opportunity.

In fact, this middle arc focused extremely heavily on the interplay between Keith, Jomy, and Physis as well as their personal reasons for acting as they do. Even when others are involved, you can boil this volume down to the idea that Keith wants the Mu destroyed and Jomy can't decide if he wants the same for the normal humans. Everything that occurs within the pages goes back to that sentence.

Normally, I'd be very happy with the change to a character-driven narrative. The problem is that, with the exception of Keith, the people in this book are so weakly constructed that I just don't care about their personal issues. As a race, the Mu feel like stock characters who prop up a background. They have superhuman powers, a hive mind, and frankly remind me of talking animals from a Disney movie. You feel bad when they get shot, but at the end of the day, there's no compelling reason to be attached to them.

The biggest names in the Mu, such as the aggressive Captain Harley, are given so little space to breathe that their actions feel mechanical and rote. I have a feeling that there are those who don't like Jomy's leadership, but I'm never given enough screen time to tell me exactly why. Are they afraid? Resentful? Homicidal towards those who oppress their kind? Wishing for death so as to not be different? I'd love to know who they are and why they act like they do.

Instead of helping us get a better feel for what the supposedly free-thinking Mu are all about, there are pages and pages of Jomy retreating into himself, a concept that I could have easily figured out in a panel or two. It seems that in a desire to keep a laser focus on Jomy and the idea that the Mu are different from the technocratic humans, we lose several chances to show who the Mu *are* as opposed to who they are not.

Though the idea of artificial birth and childhood memory wipes are terrifying to consider, with their echoes of a Master Race, at least when they grow up to be adults, the old human race is just as crafty, lazy, or scheming as ever. I continue to be far more interested in the plain humans as a result. After all, they're still out there being pirates or hazing arrogant officials or even just feeling a strong sense of self-preservation. To me, it's a major flaw when I prefer the "evil" society (relatively speaking, since I'm not overly keen on either side) because at least after the mind-wipe, there's a sense of personality. The Mu are "free" but can't seem to change a lightbulb without a committee meeting.

That dichotomy is an interesting point of discussion, of course. Is it better to be free as a concept and stuck always making your choices as a group, right down to not being allowed to think of anything but what the majority wish you to? Or is the freedom on a day to day level, with the big decisions being made by a semi-oppressive State the better way to go? That's a thought which could be debated for ages and might actually be the most interesting moral dilemma we've seen so far in the book.

However, I don't think that was what Takemiya was going for at all, since the human race is shown to be the aggressor in a way that is so horrible as to make them clear villains (even if they're villains I prefer to their victims). Thus, to me, it's a failing in the book. We're supposed to want the Mu to pull through, but they lead such a dull life that I just can't bring myself to be upset if they don't.

If I may argue against myself for just a minute, there is a possibility that, given what we see here in these chapters, Takemiya is going for a third way, namely to show that these two forms of Utopia that we see on display are equally flawed. The Mu's communal ideals lead to bland lives while the militarization and mechanization of humanity takes away extreme difference in the name of progress and stability.

I'd almost buy that, except that the human race is shown using weapons that are designed to be a clear echo of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's a powerful moment that draws a strong emotional reaction in the reader, and the Mu aren't even close to having a similar ability to destroy. There is no possible way I can see Takemiya wanting the reader to relate to the side that uses the most horrible weapons imaginable to foster genocide. To me, it's clear she wants us to side with the Mu--the trouble is, I'm just not given a good reason to care about them.

Though he's definitely a heartless man, Keith shines through all this because he is constantly thinking, acting, and feeling. He refuses to let his friend go unavenged, and uses a government assignment to make that happen. He turns an assassination attempt into an advantage. Even after going too far out on a limb and ending up in the worst of positions, Keith never gives up, as he looks for the way out. He's proactive, as opposed to the reactive Jomy or the paralyzed Physis, and uses that drive to beat impossible odds. Again, this is something that's attractive to me in a character, but since he's also behind a scorched earth policy, you're not allowed to like him. He is by far the only person in this book that rises above stock character level, which is a real shame.

There is one last concept I want to go over here before I end this review, and that's Tony and the other natural-born Mu children. They are mutants within mutants, and already know that's going to be a problem for them. I wish we'd *see* this being a problem for them, but again, that doesn't appear to be as important to the author as it is to me. Instead, a vague idea of scariness just because they are different is going to have to do. I'd love to see this explored in the final chapter, but I'm not hopeful, based on what has gone before. Will the Mu allow this gigantic difference, that only applies to the children born on Naska, or do they resort to the tactics of their enemies?

It's another great idea in a series that has so much potential. Unfortunately, it's competing with too many other ideas and the need to have relationship drama, battle scenes, and personal angst, so I can't see it getting the time that it deserves.

For me, To Terra is a frustrating read. It's gotten past the problems I have with most hard science fiction stories, but now has entirely too many balls in the air and contains too many characters that just don't do anything for me. The ideas I want to explore just don't have enough room to move, since now we have to run to the finish line before the third volume concludes. It's a shame, because I think given more space or tighter control over ideas, I'd have really liked To Terra. As it stands, two-thirds of the way through, I can't really recommend it. It's just got too many problems and not enough time to get them fixed.