May 27, 2010

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To Terra Volume 3

Written by Keiko Takemiya
Illustrated by Keiko Takemiya
Vertical

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.

While Jomy and the rest of the Mu work to break apart the parts of the vast space machine of humanity, Keith, now risen to some of the highest positions possible, works to understand why there are Mu in the first place. Soon, a final reckoning must be had between these two groups, and their most powerful weapons are used in a plan that can only lead to mutual destruction.

With Keith plotting to destroy the Mu and some of the Mu working to make sure that peace never happens, can anyone discover the real truth behind the vast machinery of the human race before it's too late? It's a battle of bodies, bombs, and will as we finally make it...To Terra.

As I reached the closing pages of this one, I couldn't help but be saddened. Not because I found the ending to be a tear-jerker. It wasn't at all, at least for me. Instead, I mourned the fact that in a book with so many potential ideas to pursue, the one we ended up focusing on ends up letting all the other problems this world has off the hook.

The Mu aren't good because they reject reprogramming of their brains or pogroms or an authoritarian state. Instead, they are the heroes because they want to smash the machine that's at fault for *everything*. We don't get a discussion of why humanity felt it was okay to kill those who differ or if the idea of killing in the name of species preservation (another concept tossed in along the way that, to me, is far more interesting than the final result) is morally just. Nope! It's all the fault of an evil supercomputer, in a storyline that's very much a product of its time.

Because of this, all of the moral issues that have piled up over 900 pages are rendered moot. Destroy the computer causing the problem, and humanity returns to a better time. The fact that humanity programmed a computer to utilize the human race's most base survival instincts in the first place (and therefore aren't going to be magically better because the computer is gone) is glossed over. The epilogue shows the world as a better place, but I am not convinced.

I found the whole idea, as well as the way things play out in the final series of battles, to be extremely unsatisfying. There are just so many things left lying about, a few of which are, to me, very glaring omissions.

The biggest is Tony's role in the story. Tony finally goes ape (after a nice build up) and rebels against the restraints placed on him by Jomy's leadership, but he manages to accomplish nothing but some senseless deaths and then isn't even punished for his disobedience. By the end, he and the other super-Mu literally drift off to space, another unexplained and underdeveloped concept. It's as though their only real point is to prove how strong-willed Keith is and also to give the Mu a fighting chance against the human weapons. They're more like props than characters, and that's just not a good way to tell your story.

I have a similar problem with Physis, who all but disappears, except to mourn the destruction around her. For all the build up of her importance, when we get around to why she's important, it's lost in a spiral to the big finale. She's a main character without a key role in the action, and given she's the only female character of any note (the others being a reluctant super-Mu who dies in a pointless conflict and the personality of the evil computer), I found her flailing at the end to be annoying and taking up valuable pages that could have given us insight into the society we're supposed to be wanting to see eliminated but that I for one never got enough information on to make a final determination.

Keith's situation is trickier to get a feel for. I understand that his actions are driven first by careful manipulation, then by a reaction to those manipulations. However, I'm not convinced that he would be able to shake that off. He's not been driven to the breaking point so much as he's been given confirmation of what he always knew in his heart. Having given his all to preserve that which he's been created to protect, I'm not sure that Keith actually should react in the way that he does. However, since he's the only person around to put the final step in motion, I guess that's what has to happen for the story to work in the way that it does.

Unfortunately, that makes To Terra even less satisfying for me, as the only character I really felt connected to is jerked into a decision by the needs of the plot. As with everything else in this manga, it seems like Takemiya is working towards a very specific message (smart computers are bad) and any other ideas or concepts are pushed aside to make sure we get this point.

Overall, I think the problem with To Terra for me is that it never decides what it wants to be. At times, it's a very hard sci fi work, with detailed explanations of the world and how things work. That seemed to be the focus of volume one. At other times, it's showing us the complexities of the world created by volume one. There are so many philosophical issues in the second volume that you could teach a class on them. Here in volume three, the focus is on action and one final theme, the danger of giving up your humanity to machines. The problem is that since these themes don't carry over from book to book, there's a definite sense of disconnect, to the point that here in book three, I felt like I was missing crucial information needed to make sense of the whole.

If you are going (or planning) to be an epic saga, introducing all these ideas would be okay. But in only 1000 pages of comics, with many of those pages used to show your cool drawing skills in terms of detailed ships and specialized computers, there's just not enough time to try and be all concepts to all people. I'd have liked this one a lot better if we'd have been given one idea to fixate on or if it had focused more on the moral issues raise. Trying to do both just failed for me.

Alternatively, it's possible that I just see the potential on the sidelines and it blocked me from getting Takemiya's big picture. Reading anything is always open to interpretation, and I may just be the oddball who saw this as a different work from what it was intended to be. It's also possible that I've read too many deconstructed narratives and now have issues when I read a story that *could* do that, and yet doesn't.

To Terra was an interesting read, to see what a 1970s sci fi manga looks like. I can't say after this that I want to read any more in this vein, but I do appreciate getting the chance to sample it. Overall, though, in my opinion, To Terra just doesn't hold up, unless you have a fondness for Cold War science fiction. Since I really don't, it missed the mark with me. Feel free to give it a try, but I think you may find that it's just too stuck in its time period to be a compelling read in the 21st Century.