Planetes is a seinen, science-fiction manga series that is written and illustrated by Makoto Yukimura (Vinland Saga). It follows a small group of astronauts who are tasked with keeping near-Earth’s orbit clean of debris. In the four volumes of the series, or two omnibus editions, we get familiarised with the individuals who are doing the disgusting jobs no one else wants to do. We see them as professionals in their trade, and as regular human beings with everyday, normal problems in their personal lives as well.
I originally bought the manga collection last year. The vibrant and beautifully detailed covers immediately caught my attention. When I learned that it was about astronauts, I knew that I had to have it. I finally got off of my lazy ass and read the manga this year, over the course of two months. In my most honest opinion, I strongly believe that Planetes is one of the best science-fiction narratives out there to date.
The chapters within Planetes tend to be very episodic in nature, with a few of these “episodes” spanning multiple chapters depending on the arc that is currently being examined. This works superbly because it allows the reader to get to know each of the characters individually. We do see all five to six of these folks working together, but the ultimate focus of each arc falls on a specific person at a time.
Even though it’s categorised in such a means, the writing is extraordinary. As someone who understands complex and difficult sciences rather well, I understand that being an astronaut and doing this mundane occupation of “trash gathering” is actually extremely dangerous and intricate. You have to be absolutely brilliant with many, many subjects in order to be able to complete the tasks assigned to them safely and successfully. While we learn about each person, it’s done in a highly intimate manner. The reasons that everyone has for wanting to have a career out in the void of space is uniquely personal to them. Some of those reasons as terribly emotional, while others are as simple as mere curiosity. This creates a dynamic for diverse personalities and unpredictable storytelling. Each crew member’s plight in various forms, no matter how subtle or forthright, helps to create a much bigger picture: the family they have all become. Every aspect is tied together by one piece of thread or another. So yeah, the chapters are episodic, but the narrative is quite cohesive in the grand scheme of things.
In addition to being highly character-rich, the examination of space-life is fantastically realistic. Some motifs include political strife; emotional, physiological, and psychological stresses; and the families of the astronauts who are being affected by their prolonged absences from Earthly lives. This in turn evokes an array of emotions. There were at least three times while reading this manga serial where I had to take a break because I began to cry. The focus on family is so heart-wrenchingly relatable. Everyone has a dysfunctional home-life. But it’s still a home, a place they’ve left behind that is filled with warmth and love. It was beautiful. As well as crying, there were many moments where I was completely awed by the physics, astronomy, and engineering that went into creating the bulk of the what the astronauts are charged with doing.
The manga is sensationally smart and profoundly intelligent, not to mention meticulously technical, in regards to living in space. This includes dealing with gravity within a space station, the affects of cigarette smoke within space communes, settling on a planet for mining, etc. My brain felt so wonderfully invigorated and completely immersed; it was a very interactive type of reading experience for me. All of it is further amplified by the masterful illustrations.
To say that Planetes is one of the most breathtaking manga series’ that I have ever read would be, quite frankly, one hell of an understatement. I’ve read a lot of gorgeous manga, and comics, but nothing on a scale that can truly compare to this seinen story. One of the most terrifying parts of being in space, whether you reside there or are exploring its depths, is how overwhelmingly vast and empty it is. It’s a black void filled with trillions of stars and other gaseous creations. There’s no oxygen, no light, no sound, etc. It is fucking frightening how lonely space truly and utterly is. The mangaka does an exceptional job of bringing this horrifying concept to life with his drawings. When I look at a page that is nothing but a single man standing on a planet, looking out at the blackness before him, I get chills. I can feel the anxiety and panic of it all seeping into my bones. It’s an all-encompassing sort of mastery that creates a strong foundation for the series. Without the art, Planetes would have been lost to its potential. But it wasn’t and I’m so damn grateful for it.
Speaking of being grateful, while there are a myriad number of motifs that are exhibited in Planetes, my favourites are the ones that have to do with life being what you make of it and the people that you share it with. No matter who you are, or what your trade consists of, a life without these two distinct qualities isn’t really a life worth living. It’s a notion that I know I have taken for granted and have forgotten on my journey thus far, and it feels marvellous and comforting to be reminded of it every now and again.
In conclusion, if you like hard science-fiction, and you are a fan of technically, complex narratives that concentrate on being in space, then I recommend this manga series to you. It’s positively brilliant.
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