To Terra… Against Hubris

by Ed Sizemore

**Warning, This Essay Contains Spoilers**

To Terra… invites comparison to a number of works. Takemiya’s description of how humans have depleted Earth’s resources, forcing most of the population to leave while clean-up crews try to fix the mess, will remind readers of the opening of Wall*E. There’s even a panel showing machines creating giant pillars of garbage. The way humans fear mutants (called Mu) and want to exterminate them echoes themes found in the X-Men comics and movies. Takemiya even speaks of mutants as a superior race of beings that will replace normal humans eventually. While I think these comparisons are helpful in exploring some of the themes inherent in Takemiya’s writing, they are only skimming the surface of a much more profound work.

To Terra… was serialized from 1977-1980. At that time, Japan had completed its shift to a manufacturing economy and was becoming a consumer culture, just like the US. Takemiya was writing in reaction to Japan’s industrialization. Unlike Hayao Miyazaki, Takemiya doesn’t postulate some idyllic past (such as in Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro) to critique the environmentally dangerous direction Japan is heading in. Instead, she looks forward and takes our consumer culture to its logical conclusion. While ecological concerns are part of To Terra…, Takemiya penetrates deeper to confront the foundational mindset behind industrialization.

Takemiya’s real concern is the same as the ancient Greek playwrights. She is writing to combat hubris, or extreme arrogance. It’s a belief there are no limits to one’s actions and a failure to recognize there are boundaries to life, which if violated will result in one’s destruction. In the old Greek tragedies, hubris was the downfall of the protagonist. The gods swiftly punished those that dared violated divine law or dared to imagine themselves as equal to the gods. Takemiya isn’t worried about divine law, but natural law. She is writing to warn us against the belief that we can become masters of nature and ourselves.

We see hubris in the way humanity has treated Terra. First, they consume all its resources without regard for the other life forms on the planet, not even showing regard for the life of Terra herself. Next, they scour the universe looking for more resources. In essence, they are depleting more planets to fuel their desires and in an attempt to correct the damage done to Earth. Here, the true failure of humanity is a failure to properly understand the nature of Terra.

Terra is not a machine, but a living organism. Earth isn’t a car that you swap out parts and make like new again. A planet’s ecosystem is like the human body, a complex network of interacting beings. When that network is corrupted, then you have to find ways of restoring both depleted resources and broken interconnectivity. You also have to let a living organism use its own system of healing. Like a wise doctor, you have to know when to quit tinkering, sit back, and let the patience’s immune system do its job. The humans in To Terra… never awaken to this insight about Earth.

The ultimate act of hubris is the enactment of the Superior Domination (SD) program. We are told it’s “a social order for the complete regulation of life.” Takemiya is engaging in a bit of sardonic wit with the program’s name, but we can’t appreciate the joke until we finish the series and understand her foundational message. Oscar Wilde certainly is having a good chuckle from the great beyond.

At its core, SD is an attempt to engineer human nature through genetic manipulation and social conditioning. What humans hope to achieve is a race of people who will live ecologically responsibly on Terra. Toward this goal, they have stopped natural procreation and a central computer (called Mother) now creates embryos from artificially created sperms and ovum. Mother then chooses the parents for the child. Children are taught to confide in Mother about all things and to obey all ‘she’ tells them to do. Humanity has surrendered all important decisions to this central computer.

Part of the SD program is the elimination of all Mu. The general population is taught to fear and hate them. Once a Mu is detected, they are either killed or captured and used for experimentation. Some Mu have escaped and formed an alternate society hidden underground on one of the space colonies. We discover that normal humans who have prolonged exposure to the Mu begin to develop psychic powers themselves. Furthermore, we learn in the third volume that humanity was increasingly becoming Mu before SD began. Politicians hoped to use genetic manipulation to eliminate Mus completely.

The Mu born under the SD program all have some physical weakness as an offset to their psychic abilities. Jomy, the Mu leader, decides that the Mu should procreate naturally. The first children under this new yet old-fashioned way are born on a planet apart from the central computer and a corrupted ecosystem. These children have both strong healthy bodies and full psychic abilities. In fact, they are born with almost unlimited psychic powers. The next wave of natural children is born on space ships and are Mus with healthy bodies but not the same psychic power. Takemiya is subtly showing how technology corrupts human evolution, and only when we return to our normative state of being in harmony with nature do we find our true potential realized.

In the third volume, when Jomy confronts the human leader, Keith Anyan, Jomy makes explicit Takemiya’s criticisms of a society ruled by computers. Technology and science can’t save them from the basic realities of the universe and human nature. When humans have divorced themselves so thoroughly from the natural order, they become impotent in body, mind, and spirit. They are doomed for extinction. Life can’t be neatly contained; evolution and the natural order will find a way to prevail against the best-laid plans of humans. Keith, seeing how the Mu have survived and prospered on their own apart from Mother, realizes the truth of Jomy’s words and shuts down all the computers to return humanity back to its proper path.

Takemiya isn’t anti-science. She is opposed to science with a mechanistic worldview. Further, she is opposed to the belief that as humans we have the ability to step outside of the natural world and control it. To Terra… is meant to show us what happens when we take that thinking to its logical end. Takemiya is reminding us that we are a part of the natural world just like any other animal. We can no more step outside nature than we can step outside our physical bodies. True science understands our place in the universe and sees the universe as a living organism. Instead of trying to control the natural world, we seek to partner with it and develop a way of living that is beneficial for all living things. We don’t place humanity or our needs above any other living being.

Takemiya is asking us to create a new model of science that thinks of the universe as another living being and makes decisions in the light of that understanding. Jewish theologian Martin Buber wrote a book called I and Thou advocating a similar line of thought. He desired that we treat all life with the same regard we would treat a loved one, to never think of anything as an ‘it’ but always as a ‘you’. If we did this with regard to the Earth, then we would never knowingly make decisions that would harm her, but always seek her wellbeing as well as our own in all we do.

8 Comments

  1. Ed, this is a terrific, thought-provoking essay — you did your philosophy profs proud with this one! The Manga Moveable Feast has really inspired some tremendous writing from you, and I can’t wait to see what you do with next month’s title.

  2. [...] MMF host Ed Sizemore (Comics Worth Reading) situates To Terra in broader historical context, noting that it was written at a time when [...]

  3. Ed Sizemore Says:

    “…A planet’s ecosystem is like the human body, a complex network of interacting beings. When that network is corrupted, then you have to find ways of restoring both depleted resources and broken interconnectivity. You also have to let a living organism use its own system of healing. Like a wise doctor, you have to know when to quit tinkering, sit back, and let the patience’s immune system do its job. The humans in To Terra… never awaken to this insight about Earth…”

    You just reminded me of this :)

    Neal Stephenson, in The Diamond Age or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer Says:

    “…Source Victoria’s air intakes erupted from the summit of the Royal Ecological Conservatory like a spray of hundred-meter-long calla lilies. Below, the analogy was perfected by an inverted tree of rootlike plumbing that spread fractally through the diamondoid bedrock of New Chusan, terminating in the warm water of the South China Sea as numberless capillaries arranged in a belt around the smartcoral reef, several dozen meters beneath the surface. One big huge pipe gulping up seawater would have done roughly the same thing, just as the lilies could have been replaced by one howling maw, birds and litter whacking into a bloody grid somewhere before they could gum up the works.

    “But it wouldn’t have been ecological. The geotects of Imperial Tectonics would not have known an ecosystem if they’d been living in the middle of one. But they did know that ecosystems were especially tiresome when they got fubared, so they protected the environment with the same implacable, plodding, green-visored mentality that they applied to designing overpasses and culverts…”

    Ed Sizemore Says:

    “…True science understands our place in the universe and sees the universe as a living organism…”

    Now I wonder what Takemiya thinks of Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene.

    Richard Dawkins, in “Introduction to the 30th anniversary edition” of The Selfish Gene, Says:

    “…The best way to explain the title is by locating the emphasis. Emphasize ‘selfish’ and you will think the book is about selfishness, whereas, if anything, it devotes more attention to altruism. The correct word of the title to stress is ‘gene’ and let me explain why. A central debate within Darwinism concerns the unit that is actually selected: what kind of entity is it that survives, or does not survive, as a consequence of natural selection. That unit will become, more or less by definition, ‘selfish’. Altruism might well be favoured at other levels. Does natural selection choose between species? If so, we might expect individual organisms to behave altruistically ‘for the good of the species’. They might limit their birth rates to avoid overpopulation, or restrain their hunting behaviour to conserve the species’ future stocks of prey. It was such widely disseminated misunderstandings of Darwinism that originally provoked me to write the book.

    “Or does natural selection, as I urge instead here, choose between genes? In this case, we should not be surprised to find individual organisms behaving altruistically ‘for the good of the genes’, for example by feeding and protecting kin who are likely to share copies of the same genes. Such kin altruism is only one way in which gene selfishness can translate itself into individual altruism…

    Richard Dawkins, in chapter 1 of The Selfish Gene, Says:

    “…Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to…

    “…This book will show how both individual selfishness and individual altruism are explained by the fundamental law that I am calling gene selfishness. But first I must deal with a particular erroneous explanation for altruism, because it is widely known, and even widely taught in schools…

    “…The muddle in human ethics over the level at which altruism is desirable—family, nation, race, species, or all living things—is mirrored by a parallel muddle in biology over the level at which altruism is to be expected according to the theory of evolution. Even the group-selectionist would not be surprised to find members of rival groups being nasty to each other: in this way, like trade unionists or soldiers, they are favouring their own group in the struggle for limited resources. But then it is worth asking how the group selectionist decides which level is the important one. If selection goes on between groups within a species, and between species, why should it not also go on between larger groupings? Species are grouped together into genera, genera into orders, and orders into classes. Lions and antelopes are both members of the class Mammalia, as are we. Should we then not expect lions to refrain from killing antelopes, ‘for the good of the mammals’? Surely they should hunt birds or reptiles instead, in order to prevent the extinction of the class. But then, what of the need to perpetuate the whole phylum of vertebrates?…”

  4. Hsifeng,

    I’m not well read enough in Takemiya’s fiction to figure out what she would make of Dawkins. I’ll just say that he and I have never seen eye to eye. My distaste for his interpretation of science would prejudice any attempt I’d make to answer the question. So I’ll leave it to others to figure that out.

  5. [...] tuned for my thoughts on the third book. Also, Ed will be contributing an essay on the themes of the series to the site. By the way, my thanks to my local library, who had all three volumes available. [...]

  6. [...] Sizemore kicks off the weekend with a thoughtful essay on the tragic flaw in To Terra: The belief that humans have unlimited control of the world around [...]

  7. [...] in the May Manga Movable Feast, especially April MMF host Ed Sizemore. Not only did Ed contribute one of the week’s most thought-provoking pieces, he also invited me to participate in a podcast with some of my favorite mangabloggers. I hope [...]

  8. [...] Ed Sizemore writes about the deeper meaning of Keiko Takemiya's classic sci-fi manga To Terra: Takemiya’s [...]

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