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Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Vol. 1: Dawn Paperback – March 8, 2016
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From Publishers Weekly
Tanaka's military SF classic has been unavailable in English for decades, but given the poor quality of this new translation, it's hard to say whether that was truly a bad thing. The saga follows two young commanders on either side of a galactic war: Reinhard von Lohengramm of the Galactic Empire, and Yang Wen-li of the Free Planets Alliance. Upon their first meeting in battle, each man distinguishes himself by utilizing unorthodox tactical maneuvers (which have their basis in military history). A web of political infighting on both sides slowly reveals itself, but Huddleston's prose is so slavishly devoted to Tanaka's original Japanese text that the path towards the meat of the book quickly becomes a slog. It's easy to lose interest long before the action picks up (no thanks to the unnecessary, lengthy prologue, absent in the fan-favorite anime adaptation). It doesn't help that Tanaka's nearly 35-year-old plot has aged rather poorly; with its overwhelmingly male-dominated story and shallow female characters, it's hard to find a place for this series among today's more nuanced SF. (Mar.) \n
About the Author
Yoshiki Tanaka was born in 1952 in Kumamoto Prefecture and completed a doctorate in literature at Gakushuin University. Tanaka won the Gen’eijo (a mystery magazine) New Writer Award with his debut story “Midori no Sogen ni…” (On the Green Field…) in 1978, and then started his career as a science fiction and fantasy writer. Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Dawn, which translates the European wars of the nineteenth century to an interstellar setting, won the Seiun Award for best science fiction novel in 1987. Tanaka’s other works include the fantasy series The Heroic Legend of Arslan and many other science fiction, fantasy, historical, and mystery novels and stories.
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On the series as a whole....
Much like the venerable "Mobile Suit Gundam" franchise, the Legend of the Galactic Heroes is sometimes referred to as the "Star Wars of Japan." Though, personally, given the scope, scale and themes of the story I find Frank Herbert's Dune to be a more suitable analog.
The Legend of the Galactic Heroes is best described as a "Historical Epic / Space Opera." Tanaka writes less as a storyteller and more as a historian. Characterization is sparse (but adequate) and the story moves at a fairly swift space whose course is charted just as much by the (sometimes anticlimactic) whims of history as the dramatic arcs of its characters. As is so often the case in our own histories, the cast of relevant characters is enormous, though many find themselves mere bit players. The focus of the narrative is on two protagonists: Reinhard von Lohengramm, a brilliant admiral serving the autocratic Galactic Empire; and his equal-but-opposite, the genius Yang Wen-li, in the democratic Free Planets Alliance. The galaxy-spanning war between these two nations serves primarily as a backdrop for the conflict between these two men who, despite their many similarities, adhere to opposite political ideologies.
First published in 1982, the Legend of the Galactic Heroes is one of the few series in science-fiction truly deserving of such adjectives as "epic" and "classic." The adherence to fairly realistic "hard science fiction" technologies and tactics makes the battles--and the imaginative, unorthodox tactics frequently used to end them--a joy to behold, and the ideological and thematic conflicts add a great deal of depth and significance to the trials and triumphs of Reinhard and Yang as they struggle to fulfill their personal ambitions.
On Volume 1: Dawn....
Where Tanaka's masterpiece may fall short for some readers is in its overall style: with its focus on the historical narrative instead of the personal narrative, the story (like history) never really reaches an end point--there is always the question of, "and then what happened?" The text can also be a bit dry, particularly the forward to the first book, which is a 15-page overview of galactic history prior to the events of the novel proper. More problematic, perhaps, is the series' frequently-criticized depiction of women. Despite the very large cast of characters, there are very few women--only two of whom are important characters. While a more shallow reading of Tanaka's work might cause one to label the text as outdated, or its author as misogynist, I think it's important to view these things within the context of the work. The setting of the Legend of the Galactic Heroes is deeply conservative, and modeled after authoritarian states in our own history. Where the Galactic Empire embodies aspects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Nazi Germany, the Free Planets Alliance takes its cues from Imperial Japan and the McCarthy-era United States. Both societies originate from the same source: a rigid totalitarian regime where women were subjugated, homosexuality outlawed, and birth defects, genetic disorders and physical disabilities punishable by death--a state that spent centuries weeding out "undesirable" elements of the population with zero moral compunctions.
The Legend of Galactic Heroes is not Star Trek--neither political state is set upon a Utopian pedestal. Both societies are deeply, fundamentally flawed--and these flaws become an integral part of the unfolding story. It is easy to callously dismiss the lack of female characters (or non-white characters, or gay characters, or disabled characters) as bigotry on the author's part, or as a sad social relic of a story written in an older, less enlightened era, but doing so is both lazy and inaccurate. It is vitally important to recognize that these aspects of the story are deliberate, integral parts of the setting designed to help define the setting, juxtapose the two opposed nations, and demonstrate the inherent problems in the societies that both of the heroes are fighting against. It is extremely important to recognize the difference between an author depicting specific social or political ideologies and actually advocating specific ideologies--and one of the greatest aspects of the Legend of the Galactic Heroes saga is that Tanaka presents a wide variety of different opinions, ideologies and institutions, using the narrative to illustrate both the good and bad of each system, while leaving the reader to make up his or her own mind about the validity of each.
Daniel Huddleston's translation is very faithful to Tanaka's original Japanese, which is both a good and bad thing. Translation in general is a very difficult task that requires a great deal of fluency, imagination and (perhaps most importantly) a respect for the original work as well as the willingness to change it. Much of the English prose is very well written, but occasionally suffers from excessive verbosity or unclear syntax. Sometimes the word-choice can be very questionable, especially in the first volume. For example, the opening pages repeatedly use the (extremely) clumsy word "enthronement" instead of more common synonyms, even in cases where it doesn't literally make sense (for example, "enthronement" is NOT a synonym for the word "reign." Fortunately this questionable word choice is mostly confined to the translation of the first book, and subsequent books--even if occasionally stilted--read much more naturally. Thankfully the text is mostly free of editing errors (though I did notice a small number of typos) and reads easily and well.
In the grand scheme of the Legend of the Galactic Heroes saga, Book I: Dawn is, perhaps, the least important, least memorable story. Here is an introduction to the chief characters, and the worlds they inhabit. Make no mistake: the pace of history proceeds at its usual breakneck pace, and the cycle of war, peace and revolution is fully present in Book I: Dawn. The story is absolutely enthralling, and at its conclusion the reader is left with a burning desire to know what happens next as one riveting, climactic arc rolls deftly into another. Dawn accomplishes its goal of establishing the galactic status quo in a fiercely interesting story, so when that status quo is turned upon its head at the end of the first novel, we are left desperate with anticipation for what the future will bring.
To summarize: the Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Volume 1: Dawn is a science-fiction epic of enormous scope and scale that weaves a complex narrative involving compelling characters, conflicting social and political ideologies, and the immutable, intractable forces of history. This book is often inspiring, always enthralling, and one I absolutely recommend to anyone fond of great science fiction or historical epics.
For fans of the very thorough animated (1989-1996) adaptation of Yoshiki Tanaka's epic making their way to the novels for the first time, Book I: Dawn covers the events of episodes 001 to 016. Because the OVAs incorporate subsequently-written stories, be warned that the novel may skip or gloss over certain events you may remember. For example, in the OVA series the Kastrop Rebellion occurs in the same timeframe as Book I, yet is not mentioned until Book II, and then only in passing.
Several hundred years from now, humanity has spread out across a large portion of the galaxy. Through stints of political turmoil and civil war, three major faction have emerged, the dictatorship of the Imperial government, the democratic Free Planets Alliance, and the minor Phezzan land Dominion, an economic power technically under the rule of the imperials. The Imperials, and the Free Planets Alliance have been clashing for years, and two new soldiers are about to take the field. For the Imperials, Count Lohengramm has ambitions of ruling the whole universe, while Yang Wen-Li for the Free Planets just wants peace.
The main selling point of this series is the intrigue. Tanaka utilizes and insane number of characters for his story, all with different roles to play, and he refuses to make one side the obvious bad guys. The battles are won by strategy, and if you're a fan of observing tactics and political negotiations like I am, there is a lot to love. While Tanaka's writing isn't the most colorful, it serves it's purpose, and I have reason to believe it gets even better as the series continues.
I'm off to read the next event.
Dawn is the first volume of an epic that explores the conflict between the Galactic Empire and the Free Planets Alliance, two bodies of government with clearly opposing ideologies. The Empire is based on pre-World War monarchies like that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire whereas the Alliance is supposed to embody the ideals of democracy albeit a very corrupt one. The story focuses around two key characters on both sides: Count Reinhard von Lohengramm for the Empire, a smart up-and-coming young admiral who threatens the status quo of the current Imperial Navy; and Yang Wen-li, a slightly older commodore who turns out to be a keen military strategist and is continuously pushed by the Alliance into situations that require him to prove his wit against the Empire time and again.
Of course, these characters and their stories provide an excellent device to study how the opposing ideologies have shaped the men fighting on both sides and how they react in turn to the change spearheaded by Reinhard, with Yang drawing parallels to human history from time to time. This is perhaps the stronger aspect of Dawn (and Legend of the Galactic Heroes as a whole) as you believe the different characters in the story are actual people that would behave in such a way when faced with those situations. It is probably stronger in the anime as it expands on certain storylines (like the Alliance's invasion) that bring down the abstract, at times, nature of Dawn's writing to actual people. After all, whether due to intention or not, this first volume reads as a historical novel and it is to its credit that the immersion is such that we could actually see this happening in a distant future where mankind has taken to the stars.
If you're still in doubt whether this book is for you I encourage you to watch the first couple of episodes of Legend of the Galactic Heroes. If the premise intrigues you, I suggest you give the book a read first and then continue watching as the anime only enhances what's written on paper. You will be hard pressed to find a more balanced and engaging (or addictive, depending on who you ask) space opera.