by Osamu Tezuka; translation by Jared Cook, Frederik L. Schodt, Shinji Sakamoto
published by Viz; $15.95 US
Review by Rob Vollmar
[Space is collected along with Yamato in the third volume of the English language editions of Phoenix. Interested parties can read my review of Yamato.]
True to its name, Space is the first of the Phoenix cycle that takes place predominantly in space. It is set during a time alluded to as past events in Tezuka’s dour opening to Future (volume 2): a time of deep space exploration as the final expression of human curiosity and know-how. What sets Space immediately apart from those portions of the cycle which proceed it is its radical departure from the worldbuilding that dominates the other openings.
Tezuka instead opts to open the book with one of the more viscerally engaging experiments in visual storytelling from his entire body of work. Here’s the set-up. Five humans are piloting a ship back to Earth over a distance so extraordinary that the voyage will consume most of their lives. An emergency claxon brings four of them out of their hibernation only to discover that the crewmen currently on active duty is not only dead (apparently of old age), but that the ship has been damaged and is nearly exhausted of its fuel. With no chance of surviving with their vessel, the four reluctantly enter separate escape pods and are ejected into the black of space. With a year and half of oxygen and six months’ worth of rations, their chance for survival is non-existent.
In these opening scenes, Tezuka uses his panel borders inventively to evoke the extremely cramped quarters of the spaceship as characters seem to emerge from between small gaps in the panels much as they would a hatch or narrow doorway. But as the crew members launch into the vastness of space in their individual escape pods, Tezuka takes this device to a whole new level. The escape pods are essentially coffins with elaborate gauges and switches surrounding the occupant. Barring short flashback sequences that take place on their planet of origin, the first half of Space is told using an elaborate grid system that not only directs the flow of the dialogue but mercilessly reinforces the maddening isolation of the hapless players.
Of course, storytelling devices are only as effective as the stories that they are used to tell. Tezuka uses this one to spin his version of the classic locked-room murder. As the pods drift further into space, and eventually, further apart, each crew member shares secrets about the others that slowly create motive and means for the murder. The story spends more time worldbuilding during these flashbacks, creating a picture of a human culture flung throughout the galaxy and barely recognizable to our own.
The appearance of the Phoenix some eighty pages into the story signals (as it usually does) a transition as the remaining two survivors crash-land on a alien planet, along with a mysterious fifth escape pod that was launched after the rest had already evacuated. This second half of Space is at once reminiscent of earlier Phoenix stories and novel in its execution. The worldbuilding exercises that served as mere garnish in the first section become the entrÃƒÂ©e as the remaining survivors, Saruta and Nana, explore the survivable but surreal environment that they now inhabit. While Tezuka restrained his speculation on alien life in Future to essentially one species, Space embraces this staple of science fiction with imagination and enthusiasm in abundance.
Space is also somewhat unique in the number of different incarnations of the Phoenix that it presents to the reader, each enjoying a slightly different relationship with the mortals who live and die in their shadow. Considered a particular way, their differences can be seen as a continuum that stretches from natural to the supernatural or, for the more materialist minded, from matter to energy. Segments like Dawn and Yamato, both set in the historical past, feature very tangible incarnations of the Phoenix. While humanity is shown as the clear master of all other animals it encounters, the Phoenix, not unlike the volcanoes it prefers for its nesting ground, is shown as being both a part of and a force of nature on a scope that surpasses human understanding. Despite its amazing powers, though, the Phoenix still bleeds. In order to emerge renewed from the ashes, it must first, like all other living things, die. In this sense, the Phoenix is shown as subject to the same laws that govern all life without a hint given as to how those laws came to be or by whose hand they were fixed.
The second incarnation, featured for the first time in Space, is an anthropomorphic bird goddess who resembles in an idealized way the inhabitants of an alien planet. Unlike the folkloric incarnation described above, this Phoenix is imbued with human ideas of morality and fairness and uses her power to enact justice in a universe otherwise blind to the corrosive nature of evil. If one is tempted to think of the first incarnation as sympathetic to the views of Taoism, this aspect of the Space Phoenix is a Hellenic goddess willing to silently stalk a hapless mortal across the span of several human lifetimes to enact justice on the unrepentant.
In comparison to the other segments of the Phoenix cycle, Space has relative strengths and weaknesses. The severe formal restrictions placed on the first half of the story creates a sense of two, if not three, different kinds of stories simultaneously vying for our attention. Those concerns aside, Space is one of the more atypical segments in the Phoenix cycle and, at times, one of its most intriguing. As always, highly recommended.