Saturday, December 26, 2015

Mobile Suit Gundam: Awakening, Escalation, Confrontation review

    I'm a long-time fan of the Gundam series even if I believe it's been about ten years and five series too many since they had anything new to say. Then again, that's the nature of all fandom for continuously operating decades-old franchises. For those unfamiliar with it, Gundam is a mecha anime based around the titular brand of mecha which is a portmanteau of the words "Gun" and "Freedom."

    The rough premise of (almost) every Gundam is that there's a central conflict between two factions, usually Earth and her space colonies, which are beating the crud out of one another with little regard for civilian casualties. Then the titular mecha, almost always an advanced prototype more powerful than anything else on the battlefield, falls into the hand into an outside observer. This character chooses to fight on the side of the slightly-or-more-than-slightly-less-heinous of the two sides while learning harsh lessons on war.

    The series carry harsh lessons about the cost of fighting which are undercut by the fact  the audience is here to see mechas blow each other to pieces. I'm particularly fond of the Mobile Suit Gundam movies, Zeta Gundam, Gundam Wing, Gundam Seed, Gundam 00, and the Universal Century mini-series (08th MS Team, IGLOO, War in the Pocket, Stardust Memory, Char's Counterattack). Which should tell you, despite my lackluster description, I really like the franchise. But what would be a good place to really read about what Gundam is about?

    That would be this collection of novels.

    Written by Gundam's creator, Yoshiyuki Tomino, and translated into English, these are about as close to his original vision for the series as you're going to get. A vision uncorrupted by the need to draw out the series longer than necessary, bow to television sensibilities of the late seventies, and the need to sell as many toys as humanly possible.

    Is it great? Not quite. Tomino is a television writer more than a novelist and the prose is a bit on the beige side, lacking descriptive flourishes which would bring the world alive to masterpiece levels. I've read it three times, though, so there must be something good there. It roughly follows the premise of the original Mobile Suit Gundam but with some differences in terms of time compression, where characters start, and being more adult in content.

    The premise is Federation military cadet Amuro Ray is one of the few survivors of an attack on neutral space colony Side-7 when he and his friends load themselves up on an experimental warship, White Base, and head down to planet Earth with both the Gundam and data on how to produce them. Side-7 violated its treaty with the Principality of Zeon in order to produce these weapons and now its survivors are being hunted by ace pilot Char Aznable in order to prevent them from being used to turn the tide of the war.

    The three novels are notable for the fact the Gundam is not treated as an invincible war machine but simply a very advanced piece of military hardware. Despite its power, it's not capable of turning the tide of the war on its own and can be both damaged as well as destroyed. Indeed, as the war progresses, the Gundam's advantages get less and less powerful as the Principality fields better mecha.

    A great deal more world-building is inserted into the narrative than was present in the original series. This includes describing the events of the One Year War before the arrival of the Gundam, General Revel's famous "Zeon is Exhausted" speech, what Minovsky particles do, the nature of Newtypes, and background for the Principality of Zeon as well as its greviances. The series is more adult as well with issues of sex amongst soldiers dealt with frankly as well as the memorable issue of talismans.

    Amuro Ray is a great protagonist in this adaptation of his character, being akin to Starship Troopers' Rico in that he's a novice who is introduced to the realities of war only to have him come to almost polar opposite conclusions as Rico. Char Aznable is less an obsessed rival for our hero as in the anime than a character who wandered in from another story, a Game of Thrones-style epic about feuding nobles, who is trying to take down the Zabi family. His conflict with Amuro is almost irrelevant to his actual goals. I'm also fond of Sayla Mass, who is a character who received far less attention in the original series than she deserved but shines here as the first female Gundam pilot.

    The conflict in the book gets extremely dark, which should come as no surprise given Tomino is known as "Kill Em All" in certain quarters. This is a war and no one is safe. Both sides are humanized and the staggering wastefulness of it all is well-done. Sadly, the book is unavailable in Kindle or electronic format, but only paperback. As it is published by a Japanese company and decades ago, I doubt this is going to change any time soon. Still, I recommend it for fans of war stories and mecha.


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