To Terra … Volume 1
I tried to read To Terra… once before, three years ago, just after it came out. I didn’t make it through. It was so old-fashioned in both look and story — as the copyright page notes, it was originally serialized from 1977-1980.
It’s also got what I call the 2001 problem, after the movie. I am told that Keiko Takemiya was an originator, that her work here inspired so many others that what was then innovative quickly became cliché as others picked up on it and mimicked her. Which I believe. Only the problem is, I’ve seen those other books first, so to me, this reads as just another copy even though it may be the original.
Reputable people said good things about it, though. Ultimately, I wound up spending time on other series. But now, it’s been selected for the May Manga Moveable Feast, hosted by Kate Dacey, so I’m giving it another try. It’s got an uphill battle ahead of it, with me having tried it once, and having a large reputation to live up to. But it’s science fiction, from a character-based perspective, and there still aren’t enough good manga of that type available in English. (Planetes, A, A Prime, and Four Shojo Stories (containing They Were 11) are all out of print, but if we reach further afield, Ooku: The Inner Chambers, 20th Century Boys, and Pluto, some of the best books of last year, are also science fiction. I’m going to be reading Saturn Apartments and Twin Spica later this week as well.)
So, prelude over. What’s it about? Well, it’s your typical 70s SF premise, combining technological optimism with societal depression. Humanity has expanded to the stars, but they had to abandon Earth, now polluted beyond repair. They’ve also created a plan of Superior Domination, in which all aspects of life are regulated, so that children are created in laboratory groups by computer. They’re raised by foster parents to be healthy and good, and on their fourteenth birthday, they’re evaluated, supposedly to identify their job aptitude and prepare them for a new adulthood. What’s really happening is that those with telepathic ability are identified.
The Mu are a race of people with both ESP and “emotional instability”, and the Mother computer and those who run her want to prevent children from developing into Mu. Jomy, turning 14, is about to go to his Awakening ceremony, but he’s disturbed by the dreams he’s been having of Physis, a blind prophet, and Soldier Blue, Mu commander of a ship deep underground. His mother reports his emotional outbursts, so he’s evaluated. While an older official tells her that they’re giving him a psychological test (after gassing him) for the good of the state, we see inside his mind in a striking, disturbing, darkly psychedelic image expressing his shame and fear. Early on, this content contrast reinforces distrust of public statements, common in the cynical and betrayed society of the time.
Jomy’s fate is to be the Mu’s new leader, taking over from Soldier Blue, although at first he resists his fate. Unlike most Mu, he doesn’t have a physical or emotional disability. He’s a hybrid of the best of Mu and human nature, although the Mu have to be convinced a “primitive” human has any value. But his strength, youth, and willpower will allow him to lead them home.
The second half of the book explores the way teens are raised once they leave their foster parents. The elite are put on space stations, managed by computer, to study and prepare to return to Terra as leaders. One of these students, Keith, finds himself questioning the system at the same time he’s being raised to defend it.
Today’s science fiction readers may have trouble with elements such as a spaceship having a soothsayer who reads Tarot cards. Back then, it was all another way to expand consciousness, whether physically or mentally. There are a lot of themes combined here, but ultimately, I think it’s an example of “science fiction as setting”, where spaceships and technology populate the world to give the story a futuristic feel. That’s in contrast to “science fiction of ideas”, where the author has a “what if?” concept that drives the story. In this case, Jomy’s coming-of-age and his striking out to lead a band of rebels could have as easily have taken place in a WWII setting with not much impact to the core story. (Although it does remind me at times of Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.)
To Terra… is very much of its time. It makes me want to watch Logan’s Run and Buck Rogers, just to see similar clothing designs and big winged hair. The characters are distinctive, most beautiful. Everyone speaks in poetic speeches, laying out their emotions in a way that will affect the reader. The parts that will stay with me, though, are the spacescapes, either the ones providing background or the ones reflecting the internal state of the characters. They’re striking in their timeless simplicity, even if the spaceships are from Star Wars and some of the outfits from Battle of the Planets.
Another way this book reflects the 70s, unfortunately is its relative lack of female characters. The mothers, nurses, and teachers are women, of course, and then there’s Physis, the beautiful, damaged, muse-like inspiration to Jomy. Some of the background students are female, but the officials and soldiers and the rest of the “supporting cast”, the adult decision makers with a line or two to keep the story going, are all male.
To Terra… is ambitious, tackling big themes on a sprawling canvas. The exaggerated storytelling makes for some fun images, like Jomy’s mother sprouting horns and cussing him out with bolts of lightning when he’s flagged for misbehaving. I really miss the attitude that technology could make life better, even if came with trade-offs. Just as all the characters want to return to Terra (Earth), their ancestral homeland, I want to return to an era of optimism. In that way, I was very much in tune with the nostalgia of the work.