Mobile Suit Gundam (Novels)
Some time ago, I watched and reviewed the anime series Mobile Suit Gundam in my quest to experience the foundations of Japanese science fiction. I enjoyed it well enough, but expected future installments to wow me more. At the time, I was unaware that a novelization of the first series had made its way into English, though I knew that many books and manga existed in Japan. Lo and behold, Del Rey released a translation of the three original novels in 1990; they quickly went out of print. (I have no idea why Del Rey thought this was a good idea, what with anime’s utter lack of mainstream popularity at the time and the financial difficulty of licensing the Gundam franchise.) Stone Bridge Press released an updated translation in 2004 as a single volume and the series has stayed in print this time around.
Some background for the anime impaired: Gundam is the premiere franchise in the Giant Fighting Robot genre. The first series aired in 1979 (followed shortly by the novelization reviewed here) and the expanded Gundam universe rivals Star Wars or Star Trek, both in size and influence. Tomino Yoshiyuki, Gundam’s creator, began the series in a bid to escape some of the sillier conventions of giant robot anime. These include, but are not limited to, simplistic tales of good and evil, random kids falling into robot cockpits and just happening to be genius pilots, and wholly implausible robots doing stuff that would make an engineer’s head explode. Gundam cannot completely escape the gravity well of cliché, but it does make an honest attempt.
I wonder if this was part of the motivation to write the novels. The anime, while unquestionably dark and mature for its target demographic, makes certain concessions. The book makes none, beyond the inclusion of wholly implausible robotic creations. (I’m sorry, but no amount of detail and planning will ever make 600m tall humanoid fighting machines anything but fantasy.) The world building and setup are identical, but by the second quarter of the books, the plot has diverged completely from the anime. Among the non-spoilery changes: Amuro Rei is a pilot in the Federation, not some whiny punk who stumbles into a conveniently open Gundam, Brite is squawky and insecure, and the civilian refugees are not idiotically forced to remain on a warship heading into combat. (No more scenes of children yelling, “WoooooOOOOOOOaaaaaah,” while the ship makes high-g combat maneuvers that should be turning them into smears of tomato paste on the walls.) The changes are almost universally for the better. Also, the book focuses much more on New Types, with the robots fading more into the background. I found this interesting, as it changes the focus and meaning of the story.
Some things are not awesome, both thematic and technical. Tomino clearly has issues with women. I forgive (barely) the cringe-inducing “relationships,” because I have seen real life Japanese courtship in action. It is not pretty. This doesn’t mean I want to read about 20 year olds acting like it’s 7th grade all over again, but I can at least see where they’re coming from. However, there is an undercurrent of, if not misogyny, at least an obvious discomfort with The Ladies. I think I’ll leave the heavy analysis to someone else, but it was something that occasionally rankled. He was trying, I think, but it’s awfully hard to not be a jerk sometimes. Beyond this, I can tell that Tomino is not primarily an author. Things can be a bit choppy, with sudden info dumping interrupting the flow of action, or random side trips into philosophy. He is a natural storyteller though, and this generally covers a multitude of technical faults.
We’ll wrap up this review with some reasons why people should read Mobile Suit Gundam. (Fans are going to read the book anyway, so the challenge here is to pitch it to readers more likely to be skeptical of Giant Fighting Robots.) The most obvious reason is to experience a canonical piece of Japanese science fiction. There is a lot of SF out there that we never see in English, so when something major like Gundam is translated, serious readers owe it to themselves to take a look. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, attacking Japanese SF without acknowledging Gundam is like looking at American SF without Star Wars. It’s not the most literary, award-winning stuff out there, but you can’t toss rice ball in Tokyo without hitting a Gundam fan. It’s a bit of fiction that has transcended the genre and become part of the cultural background noise of one of the biggest entertainment exporters in the world.
I also recommend Mobile Suit Gundam because it holds up well as SF. (I make no promises for other novels or manga in the universe.) The future history is convincing and compelling. Tomino keeps everything in Earth orbit, with much of humanity now living in “Sides,” or artificial habitats located at various Lagrange points. The war between Zeon, a Third Reich re-imagining based on one of the Sides, and the Earthbound Federation is plausible, with enough internal politics to feed the ever-shifting morality of the sequels. The characters are interesting, if a bit broad, and with enough possibilities that Tomino can use them as archetypes in future stories. Much of the story is wrapped up in the ethical quandary of war: what are we to do when the default human response is violence, despite our collective desire to rise such base instincts? The Japanese are hardly unique in examining this question, but their warlike past and nominally pacifist present give them an oblique take on the subject not often seen in Western fiction.
There is also a moment, more in the anime than the books, that seems a dead ringer for a scene in The Legion of Space, when a Nazi-esque speech and crowd response on Zeon mirrors almost exactly a similar moment in the Purple Hall. I wonder if Tomino read Jack Williamson and other pulp writers in translation, or if this is pure coincidence.
There are plenty of holes to poke in Mobile Suit Gundam, as one would expect for a novelization like this. It’s not perfect, and not even canonical in some crucial points, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. In fact, I enjoyed it more than the original anime, though I have been advised that later series are much better. It inspired me to pick up my occasional viewing of Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam and perhaps read further into the novels. I think it’s definitely worth checking out for those not already initiated into the joys of the Giant Fighting Robot.