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Earthly Delights: "To Terra" Still Hits the Mark

by on April 23, 2007

For my conventionally Western brain-box, reading Japanese literature is akin to pulling your brain out, giving it a brisk, healthy wash in nice, hot cup of green tea and then placing it back in your skull—making sure, of course, that the arrow is clearly pointing front-wards. In other, less colorful words, it’s both refreshing and slightly disorientating.

To Terra is a surprisingly undated piece of manga fiction from the hands of illustrator Keiko Takemiya. In Western terms: If you threw 1984, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a collection of Shonen-Manga ingredients into a pudding bowl and stirred gently while standing in a 1977 kitchen, you’d get this book within thirty minutes.

Given that it is thirty years old, this first volume of the classic series reads surprisingly well. I knew nothing about its creator or its date of composition until after I had finished it, and I can honestly say that I didn’t realize until later that it was originally published in the late ’70s. Maybe a Holmesian reader would have picked up on the cassette tapes it imagines in the far-off future. But that’s not a decisive tip-off; you could equally mistake it for a bit of futuristic retro-kitsch, a counterstroke against more mundane predictions about digital technology. Stranger things have happened.

And To Terra is certainly a strange story by Western standards. As with so much Japanese literature, it’s not bound by the Western conventions of literature, so don’t expect the usual structure of dovetailing characters around the spine of a central connecting arc. Don’t expect the Western prerequisite of romance either.

To Terra: Volume One doesn’t technically focus on one character, but more on one object: Terra. The story observes how separate characters function within and outside a futuristic colony culture whose social goals are totally fixated on their planet of origin: the Earth.

In Takemiya’s future, people are molded to fit the appropriate characteristics required to return to the new Eden, Terra. Through the use of surrogate families, a variety of mind-altering techniques, and a Big Brother—or in this case, a Big Mother—computer system, the best suited are cherry-picked to return to Earth. Some candidates don’t fit into the system and are forcibly removed; most conspicuous of the rejects are the Mu’s, mutant human offshoots who have longevity, telepathic powers, and physical imperfections. To Terra neatly focuses on the practical and ideological problems of the regular humans and the Mu’s: both factions of humanity want to return to Terra, and both are racially opposed to each other.

The characters themselves aren’t particularly deep; often they seem to be ciphers standing in for the ideas and plot movements within the story. However, To Terra is more about the universe of the future than the individual. It features some clichés: the refusal of Jomy Marcus Shin to accept his destiny, and the sacrifice that will ultimately change his perception of the system; the young Elite Keith Anyan, whose secret isn’t quite as shocking as the story thinks it is. Some of the themes are very reminiscent of science fiction concepts we’ve all seen before: individuals who insist on breaking free from the mental and/or physical oppression of the System, for example. But that’s the beauty of To Terra: to read it is not to be wowed by new ideas, but to take in a pleasantly unconventional weave of separate plot arcs, social mechanics and dynamic storytelling. In the end, the dated concepts actually give the book a warm familiarity, and many of its constructs are, within the story’s context, charming.

But—and here’s the bottom line, folks—the book works because it’s a decent story whose imagined future has been well fleshed out. Because they are handled with intelligence and creative thought, none of the by-now-familiar concepts feel old. Any story will work if its foundations are solid, and To Terra is a very solid and dynamic piece of storytelling.

The artwork is fairly Tezuka-esque, with a wonderful blend of light character models laced with occasionally rich tonal textures and finished with some first rate technical workmanship. Indeed, some of the vehicle design-work and the consistency to detail throughout the book really help flesh out the universe.

The actual book format reads Japanese style—back to front—though some of the English translation loses its flow in the typesetting. The stand-alone first volume has one downside: it just stops, with neither resolution or cliffhanger. On the other hand, this irresolute ending might inspire you to buy the next volume, and Vertical has published the entire story in three well-presented volumes.

While this book may not exactly blow your mind, it will certainly offer you a slice of well written and professionally executed science fiction that hasn’t aged as brutally as its contemporaries. Any science fiction buff looking for an escape from the confines of Western story structure should take a look at To Terra.

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