bristol Guest posts

Guest Post: Wonder in Plane Space

Matt Brown is the adoptive parent of Anime Dream, and has written for the site for eight years. He’s an RPG gamer turned anime fan who lives in Florida and dreams of escaping, someday. A programmer and language enthusiast, he devotes most of his energies to slacking off, raising laziness to an artform. He maintains a pocket-busting love affair with Japanese music. His Twitter personality is MattB_AD. In a very exciting post for me personally, here he looks at an anime set in my adopted hometown of Bristol.

Picture a boy of hardly more than ten years. If you are such a boy, this won’t be difficult for you. Like most boys, wide eyed and innocent, this one is oblivious to the dangers of the world. He has parents who love him and provide for him, so that he might spend enough time with his imagination to get his fill, before biology rears its ugly head. He is curious about his world, his own home, and everything in between.

Disaster strikes. While the adults take care of adult matters like evacuations and blind panic, the boy slips out into a field, where no living soul is present to witness the spectacle of light that he experiences – it is all his own. Our view of the scene changes, weightlessly circling the sky and his frame. We see the green grass above as our bodies float in the sea of stars. The planet’s laser defense system unleashes bolts of light into the heavens, and we see how insignificant we are, next to the cosmos.

Picture a girl of sixteen years. If you are such a girl, you know everything I do and more. She is independent, intelligent, mature beyond her years – unlike the boys her age. Her mother and father are both respected military officers; she will follow in their footsteps, and on to greater status and responsibility when her service for the security of the realm is sufficient. While in training, she meets a boy about her age who is, like herself, a dignitary. Unlike herself, the boy spent his childhood on land, and she in space.

Disaster strikes. Her first chance at combat disappears with an order to remove this boy from the action. As she ferries him toward their destination, the journey is fraught with challenges. The boy reveals his talent for getting into trouble in space, only to redeem himself on the ground, where her feet are less sure than they were in the heavens. He uses his frail body and still-boyish voice to protect her, and if she took a moment, she would realize that he steadied her steps all along. Maybe she already has.

As boys and girls become women and men, the volume of life’s background noise increases to the point where nothing comes in clearly. In the midst of pursuit for fame, fortune, family, or something resembling either, we search for the signal that would connect us again with that source of all happiness. To Hiroyuki Morioka, the gender of childhood wonder is male, and the gateway to romantic love is female. But in a sense, every one of us is both – the anima and animus. The work I’ve just described is Crest of the Stars, originally a three-volume series of light novels which open his Seikai (star world) saga. Morioka’s work shows us a romance that is worlds apart and galaxies wide, but starts with simple boyhood curiosity, and that feeling that proves elusive in adulthood.

Now we travel to England, and back a half century, give or take. You don’t have any trouble going back in time, do you? Science reigns in the town of Bristol – particularly atop a hill, in a small boarding house over a restaurant named Tenkai.

The building’s owner, a beautiful young woman who goes by “China,” is quite adept at the martial arts, which she uses in diffusing fights in her restaurant, and breaking down a tenant’s door to demand rent. The tenant is Professor Breckenridge, a scientist/inventor nobody’s heard of, yet. To appease his landlord, he demonstrates his latest invention – a space reflection lens! She astutely points out that it’s no better than a mirror, before finding that it’s more easily broken than a mirror. Breckenridge likes to spend money on parts instead of rent, and keeping China at bay isn’t something he can alone. Enter Jim Floyd, his assistant, whom he charges with “China management.”

China has a soft spot for Jim, which enables him to sneak parts past her to the lab upstairs. He can’t get away with tricking her indefinitely, though, so China management and inventions are intertwined for the greater good. From small gifts like a genuine moonstone ring, to a birthday message on the moon’s surface and more, keeping China happy enables outlandish feats of science in Bristol.

According to Kenji Tsuruta, China first popped into his mind as secretary to “a sort of scientific Sherlock Holmes.” As he struggled to pay his own bills, the image of China overlapped that of his landlord, and his Spirit of Wonder had its spokesmodel. If discovery is the fuel of wonder, then the spirit is that which fosters discovery. In Tsuruta’s romantic brand of sci-fi, woman is that spirit, and accounting for her desires is the only way to satisfy those boyish dreams.

In “Miss China’s Ring,” Jim and the professor manage China by using their inventions to make outrageous birthday presents for her. In another story, Jim devises a machine that creates a shooting star, so that China can make all the wishes she wants at a predictable time. The formula is pretty consistent: China lets things slide because of her feelings for Jim, and the inventions are fun for her, too.

Across town, a woman named Windy waits for her husband to return from an overseas trip. Her illusion of having him to herself is shattered quickly; when Jack returns, he immediately starts hanging out with her father Gordon, and his buddies, Cooper and Shepherd*, who fifty years prior christened their group as the Scientific Boys Club.

Their story is based on actual science…sort of. Unknown to Windy, the purpose of Jack’s trip was to steal the Mars globe created by Percival Lowell, revealing locations of the now infamous “canals” which Lowell believed were evidence of intelligent life on Mars. This globe, plus a book on ethereal current written by Windy herself, would help the club make their dream of traveling to the Red Planet a reality! It’s a fine idea, but they overlook one crucial factor: Windy. Jack has to stop neglecting his wife, or the whole project is doomed.

Tsuruta’s stories intoxicate. Within their underbelly is the notion that all curiosity can be satisfied, as long as one sees to the forces that govern life and work, and returns that which is given. The converse is also implied: that science is hard, and the people who do it deserve support from everyone. China wants to see the canals, and due to a quirk in Breckenridge’s space-reflection telescope, she sees what she wants. The science club, by contrast, discovers that Lowell’s canals theory is wrong and calls him a liar, despite the irony that their ship, the “Spirit of Science,” is ether-driven – another failed theory, that enjoyed favor prior to the discovery of the photon and its reconciliation with the wave properties of light.

We now know that Lowell’s canals are an optical illusion. Perhaps the most interesting failure of Lowell’s was his “Planet X” theory, which stated that there had to be a planet past Neptune that accounts for the peculiar orbit of Uranus. The data which formed the basis of his theory was wrong, but his work led to the discovery of Pluto. Tsuruta’s work paints the scientific process and its results, both right and wrong, as a virtue deserving of praise, and Percival Lowell is a perfect model for this sentiment. Not every scientist’s work produces a breakthrough, but their contributions are meaningful and often subtle.

When we look to the stars, we see the past of the Universe, and the future of humankind. Time limits our activities off world and slows our progress, because space is so vast. For the Seikai saga, Morioka created the concepts of space-adept “Abh” fashioned by humans (in their own image) for exploration, and a two-dimensional “plane space” to even the score between space and time, to allow us to conceive of deep space travel and its societal implications. Seikai amusingly follows Tsuruta’s Rule: that man will continue to accomplish great things if the woman in his life is content.

Seikai takes time to show us that in Morioka’s vision of the future, little boys will still look to the heavens and feel the immensity of space, no matter what humanity will have accomplished by that time. Spirit of Wonder reminds us that while most things do not remain in the realm of science fiction forever, we can always dream.

*Bonus points if you recognized “Gordon Cooper” and Shepherd as the names of American astronauts. Both Leroy Gordon Cooper, Jr. and Alan Shepherd were among the seven astronauts selected for the Mercury program. Shepherd was the first American in space.

Notes on availability:

The Crest of the Stars novels were released in English by TOKYOPOP, and are still widely available. The Banner of the Stars novels are not available in English. All Seikai TV series and OVAs, save for the Banner of the Stars III OVAs, were released in R1 DVD by Bandai Entertainment. Crest of the Stars was released in the UK by Beez Entertainment.

The Scientific Boys Club story is only available in English as an OVA series, published in R1 DVD by Bandai Entertainment in 2003. Copies are still fairly easy to obtain. The Spirit of Wonder manga is partially available in English, courtesy Dark Horse Comics. Miss China’s Ring received an OVA adaptation, which AnimEigo licensed. Unfortunately, that license expired, and copies are difficult to obtain in DVD, although VHS copies aren’t too difficult to snag.

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