Prescience 6: Old Sci-Fi Manga and Climate Change

Featured Image: Public domain picture of the California Aquaduct.

I’ve been getting back into the swing of reading manga by reading a lot of sci-fi manga, including two of my favorites, Planetes by Makoto Yukimura and Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou by Hitoshi Ashinano. Both are, in my humble opinion, some of the best comics in the world. Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou follows Alpha, an android who runs a countryside cafe after her owner left. The series follows her and how she changes as she goes through daily life, becoming this slice of life series that zooms out to show how she grows over time, just as much as the world does. It’s truly one of the best comics of all time. Planetes is similar, following Hachirota “Hachi” Hoshino, an astronaut working a dead-end job doing debris cleanup in low earth orbit. As the series goes on, we see him start to get motivated and go from his dead-end job to trying for a position on a deep-space exploratory mission. If you know what I like in stories, then you can see why I love these series. They have a lot in common, both being grounded sci-fi stories about daily life and finding our places within it. Literally everything I’ve ever wanted in manga. There’s a lot that’s wrapped into both manga, which makes them really rich reads, but what’s jumping out to me on re-read is specifically the way they address climate change and how it might impact our lives in the near future.

Fiction about climate change and environmental devastation has been big for a while, but it’s really, suddenly, part of the culture now. How To Blow Up A Pipeline, a movie focusing, obviously, on blowing up oil pipelines, has come out to wide praise and alarm. Apple TV has a new science fiction series about it, Extrapolations (I haven’t gotten around to watching it). Everyone is talking about the climate. With California getting slammed by a monsoon, I can’t escape it, and I’m not taking a lot of comfort knowing that this was a La Niña year (traditionally, when the climate is dry and not rainy).

Panel from Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou Chapter 6: Sleepless New Year

We don’t know when Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou is set, but it’s a good time after some kind of apocalypse. The world is much smaller now, and works on slower rhythms than our modern life. Nature is reclaiming many places. Mount Fuji has erupted, and the sea level is rising. Yet life goes on. The rising seas are a constant plot element, with chapters focusing on the problems that come with it such as cliffs eroding into the sea and Alpha’s well getting contaminated with seawater. But one thing that is very prominent is the beach. Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou is set in a beach town in the Miura Peninsula in Japan, and the beach slowly disappearing as the ocean overtakes it is something that is constantly commented on. As someone living in a beach town, it’s something I’ve seen myself, but nobody really talks about it. It’s too much of a bummer for people. Which is why I love that this manga does! Each beach chapter is full of reminisces about what the beach meant to characters emotionally, and what it means now that it’s almost disappeared. This is the kind of art that I feel we have to start making as we start living through climate change. Eulogies for what we’ll miss.

And it isn’t just the rising sea levels that get attention in Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, but changing weather patterns in general. Storms are a massive focus within this manga, forcing several large plot changes. They’re depicted in this awesome way, as inhuman forces of nature that one can only live around and deal with. Godlike. It’s really great. To give one example; a chapter that is burned in my mind specifically is Chapter 75: Wildfire. I first read this a week after moving back to the city of Santa Cruz, where I was living at the time, after being forced to flee due to a wildfire (I was fine: The fire turned the other direction and began to burn out the day I left). You don’t see a lot of representation of wildfires in any work of art. It’s just kinda ignored, or dramatized to focus on the firefighters.

That’s fine and all, but that doesn’t reflect my experience of fires, which is mostly waiting around as the light becomes more orange, the temperature drops, and ash starts to fall like it’s snow. Seeing vast plumes of smoke in the distance. There’s nothing to be done about them – at least by us, so all you can do is watch and wait till they burn out or move. This chapter takes place in an arc in the manga occurring after a great storm has destroyed her cafe, leading Alpha to decide to take a gap year and explore before she returns to rebuild it. On her journey, she’s stopped by a wildfire in the distance, blocking the road, and Alpha takes a moment to reflect, before changing her plans and moving on. I basically did the same thing when I had to flee during that wildfire, and it just spoke to that experience. It also showed the real scale of wildfires, how they just look like walls of clouds. YKK doesn’t shy away from showing these things. It’s honest about what these changes to the world mean, and what they do to us. Through the events of the story, Alpha grows as a person from meeting the challenges meted out to her, from storms to fires to the rising seas. It’s crazy that it was written in the 1990’s and 2000’s, and not last year.

Final panel of Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou Chapter 75: Wildfire

On the other hand, Planetes looks at Climate Change from a slightly different angle. In Planetes, the problem of fossil fuels has been solved, with Earth now being powered by fusion energy. This has changed our entire economy as we must mine the necessary materials on the moon, resulting in a drastically increasing population of astronauts and an economy that serves them. Being an astronaut has become like being a roughneck in an oilfield, or an underwater welder – a dirty, dangerous job. Thus, we get Hachi, cleaning up garbage in low earth orbit. It’s a story that feels really relevant right now, where we are in the middle of a massive societal shift to different forms of energy that won’t destroy the environment. This stuff isn’t easy, and through Planetes we see the characters struggle with all kinds of injuries that come from living in space. Like Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, part of the story is about coping with climate change – just in a different way than Alpha. And like Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, Hachi has to grow as a person in order to meet these challenges.

But there’s a bit of a twist, because it looks at how society changes in general due to mass space colonization. Political terrorism against space infrastructure is common, and towards the end we almost see a space war break out. Through Hachi, we’re shown an even cross section of space society, from high ranking scientists and engineers to the real working class. Society starts to change as new space exploration projects begin, and that spurs Hachi to get out of his dead-end job and work towards a new personal goal to join those space exploration projects. It’s not direct like Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, but it’s just as impactful as the storm that forced Alpha to leave. Changing weather, changing economies, changing societies, they all force us to personally grow.

2 panels from Chapter 2 of Planetes

We’re going to have to live differently because of climate change. We know this, because we already do have to live differently because of climate change. But this has somehow become a bit of a forbidden topic within art, where we’re currently obsessed with staying young, staying fit, and staying the same, forever. I’m not sure if it’s a reaction to climate anxiety, or a political narrative demanding that we do not change, but it’s the same result. We’re putting our heads in the sand, and our art reflects that. So I really appreciate any art that is honest about what it’s like to actually live right now. That’s the art we need.

Now the tunes: weathers getting warmer, so I’m getting back into dubstep. Especially Burial. Here’s my favorite track from him:

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