I was quite baffled when reading the first volume of Legend of the Galactic Heroes earlier this year. This was a story that had been praised across the Internet as some of the finest fiction to come from Japan, yet all I found was a dull read on an unconvincing theme. It may be premature to dismiss Legend of the Galactic Heroes altogether though - it's always hard to live up to hype, and as "Dawn" was author Yoshiki Tanaka's first novel we can make allowances for an early attempt being rough around the edges. Legend of the Galactic Heroes is a long series - the original cycle is ten volumes long before we even start with the gaidens and spin-offs - and it has time to grow into its renown. Conceding all of this, I've decided to keep up with Haikasoru's initial trilogy of releases to see if Legend of the Galactic Heroes can make good on its ambitious promises, leading the appropriate title of the second volume of the story, "Ambition".
Reinhard von Lohengramm's triumph at the end of "Dawn" was incomplete - while he had thrown the invading Free Planets Alliance armada out of the Galactic Empire, the expert leadership of the Alliance admiral Yang Wen-Li had taken control of the deteriorating situation and successfully rescued many of the Alliance ships to escape home and fight another day. Reinhard the "Golden Brat" has enjoyed a meteoric rise to power - on the back of a string of victories he's already marshal of the Imperial Navy barely at the age of twenty-one - but in Yang he's met for the first time someone who can truly test him. However, the world is not so polite as to wait around for suitably theatrical dramatic moments and the next round in their duel must be delayed. The unexpected death of Emperor Friedrich has plunged the Empire into a political crisis as multiple factions struggle for control of the new Emperor - a five year-old boy who can be the convenient puppet of whoever holds the keys to the palace. Reinhard sees no reason why that shouldn't be him, and he positively relishes the oncoming civil war as an opportunity to sweep away all of the despised nobility who will want to protect their centuries-old privileges against the upstart - and, naturally, fail miserably.
Meanwhile unrest is also stirring in the Free Planets Alliance. Their new hero Yang Wen-Li may be of equal strategic brilliance to Reinhard but he's of a rather different temperament and the only opportunity Yang sees arising from the Empire's civil war is a break from invasions and an opportunity to put his feet up with a glass or five of brandy. He won't have time to enjoy it though because the Alliance is suffering from its own internal strife - the steady rise of the peace party in parliament is ironically only provoking ever greater violence from those who view peace as surrender, leading a group to embark on a coup d'etat to overthrow the government and ensure that the war is prosecuted to its final victory - forcing Yang into yet another battle that he doesn't want but needs to fight for the sake of those whose lives will be wasted if he leaves others to it. Before they can face off against each other, both Reinhard and Yang must prove that they can defeat their own.
"Ambition" alternates between chapters following events in the Empire and the Alliance so if you're impatient to find out what happens to one particular character you can skip their counterpart and read this book twice in odds and evens. The Imperial chapters certainly make a striking enough impact for two, though - I criticised volume one of Legend of the Galactic Heroes for its didactic opinions and volume two outright doubles-down on them. If that first volume resented the elderly, this instalment absolutely has it in for the aristocracy. The confederacy of nobles that seek to put the Golden Brat in his place are a confederacy of dunces. To a man they are hopelessly, unremittingly stupid - totally disorganised, constantly infighting, myopically obsessed with their own pecking order instead of the oncoming enemy, meddling with their generals, easily and repeatedly baited into obvious traps, deaf to advice and blind to criticism, murdering their own subordinates - that this clump of numbskulls even had sufficient thought to rebel in the first place, let alone fight for more than a day, is only the first of the book's obnoxious implausibilities. The text repeatedly assures me that Reinhard is a strategic genius without peer but I cannot respect that when he's up against people so pathetic he may as well be kicking puppies.
In the interests of full disclosure I have to admit that I hate this book's politics. I am a monarchist and I am a conservative. From Oh! What a Lovely War on to Blackadder Goes Forth and beyond this indiscriminate blanket depiction of aristocrats is a self-indulgent, simplistic caricature copy-pasted into manuscripts by lazy hacks blissfully ignorant of their own white-collar comforts, or mendacious propaganda from left-wing hypocrites who shriek chippy adolescent tantrums against Sirs and Lords but obsequiously knuckle their foreheads in obeisance to the Dear Leaders, Comrade-Chairmen and Party Secretaries of the undemocratic bureaucratic feudalism that are the socialist states these useful idiots are stooges for. For all that the "lions led by donkeys" trope flatters the vanity of writers and readers alike who prefer to imagine themselves as bluff hardy russet-coated honest salts, strong of arm and firm of brow; it bears reminding them that during the First World War proportionately far more officers died than men.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Gene Roddenberry introduced the Ferengi, a species who were meant to embody his condemnation of capitalism (from a man who hid assets in offshore banks and wrote "I am interested in a statement couched in dollars and cents of what this means to the Roddenberry treasury.", mind). Early concept art of the Ferengi even gave them pointed beards like Shylock the Jew. However, when the Ferengi appeared in the episode "The Last Outpost" their depiction was so ridiculous it backfired: they were a mob of deformed chimpanzees scampering and hooting and hollering and leering, and no-one could take them seriously as a critique of anything - far from holding a mirror up to the West's rapacious greed it only reflected badly on the pompous arrogant oafishness of Roddenberry and the unreality of his progressive egalitarian utopia. The exact same problem undermines Tanaka and his would-be searing fireblast scorching the edifices of 'unearned privilege' only ends up burning his own fingers instead, and makes us ask if there is really so much justice and benefit to be found in his 'progress' if he has to stoop to this slap-a-Jap matinee newsreel depiction of the foe to try and convince us.
Am I only so upset at Tanaka because it's my own politics that are being attacked? Am I just replacing his prejudices with my own? I don't believe I am. In fairness to Tanaka he does have cause enough for his tone; as much as the behaviour of the nobles in this book seems to be black parody, it is reasonable to write about it as it's a sad fact that there are people in the real world who are that stupid, who are that petty, and who are that cruel. You need only look at the history of the past century to confirm that, even if Tanaka's point is rather undermined by the overwhelming majority of it being perpetrated not by royals and nobles but commoners in People's Republics who slaughtered and enslaved solely in the interests of the working class. However, Tanaka's determination to show the nobles up as completely without redemption is so over-exaggerated it doesn't make sense even in the context of the story itself. I've already covered how it demeans Reinhard's reputation and another example is Marquis von Littenheim, one of the leaders of the noble confederacy against Reinhard. When Littenheim is soundly trounced by Reinhard's best friend Kircheis the craven Littenheim flees, callously shooting down his own ships to carve out an escape route for his own. It's hideous, it's irredeemable, it's complete nonsense: they're in space! At this scale a bullet burn is still a gap of miles and there are vast expanses of utter nothingness between the closest objects - the text of the very same chapter even mentions that one of Kircheis's admirals "opened his gun bays at a distance of six million kilometres". There was never any obstacle to Littenheim to begin with and so this scene rather than making us revile the spineless nobility only instead shows up the crude libel of Tanaka's fiction. Tanaka could have written this in other ways and still got the image of bad nobles that he wanted - for instance, Littenheim in his fear of Kircheis's ships catching up to him could have ordered his ship to sail on and not stop for distress signals from escape pods being threatened by radiation waves from destroyed ships, so callously and self-centredly abandoning his comrades. However, the incompetent author's urge for lurid evil and his incomprehension of scale that I mentioned in my previous review only make him fumble his own point.
Talking about the writing of space battles leads me to respond to a criticism that I received in my review of volume one. When I complained that Tanaka's writing was flat, dull and passionless a number of readers chastised me for "missing the point" of Legend of Galactic Heroes, that it was meant to be about the more elevated chess-like strategy and that I was just a cheap superficial thrill-seeker by asking that Tanaka try to make his writing the least bit vivid. To this I would say that if Tanaka doesn't want to be judged on his ability to evoke action then maybe he shouldn't have written a book about zap-pow battleships blowing stuff up. Maybe he can compensate for this paucity of imagination in other fields, but for all the plaudits this series has acquired for strategic thinking over the years, it isn't all that developed. It may be unfair to blame Legend of the Galactic Heroes for being a product of its time, but it hasn't aged well - remember that this book was published in 1983 and is over three decades old. Its strategic battles may have been impressive back then when we were still in the laser swords and space fighters age of sci-fi with Star Wars new in cinemas but nowadays Tanaka's concepts have been built on and further outclassed - I've recently started reading Jack Campbell's Lost Fleet series and that takes the strategy of space warfare to a higher plane with deeper and more intelligent appreciation of three-dimensional combat at relativistic speeds, whereas Tanaka treats his navies as if they're lines of frigates crossing-the-T in the Age of Sail. Maybe we can appreciate Legend of the Galactic Heroes' place in literary history as a seminal work even if not a sophisticated one, but should we really be indulging it so much when Spock was already upbraiding us for "two-dimensional thinking" in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which came out before this book in 1982?
Despite the mistakes and mediocrity that populate most of this book Tanaka does summon a few interesting thoughts as bright stones in the muck. After receiving fulsome praise and honours for yet another victory Yang does have a reflective moment with the dry irony that all brilliant and ingenious commanders do is get people killed - they're the ones who smash lines and run down routed troops whereas incompetent commanders dither, flounder, miss and surrender. I'm not sure that it's a correct thought - incompetent commanders could just as well batter their men against futile bulwarks - but it does inspire some consideration. Yang is also the subject of another good turn of phrase early in the book when he clandestinely meets a defence chief in a dive to report his suspicions about the upcoming putsch in the Free Planets Alliance - for food he orders "fried fish, fried potatoes, quiche, and milk tea". On first reading I thought that it was just Tanaka being his usual stultifyingly pedantic list-writing self so I didn't pay it any mind, but later in the scene Yang has a nostalgic reverie about eating "fish and chips" and the delayed sudden flash of realisation about the earlier order and late recognition of that familiar dish inspired a similar remembrance of taste and past nights out at the same instant that Yang experienced it, giving me and the character a moment of simpatico. I don't know if that was what Tanaka actually wrote or if it was just a happy accident of Huddleston's translation, but it was a rare and welcome point of emotional connection to this otherwise entirely wooden cast.
Another equally vivid if less positive connection is Yang continuing to be Tanaka's own Mary Sue. In "Ambition" Yang appears to have acquired something a drinking habit, unconsciously totting up his tea with nips of spirits. His ward Julian continuously admonishes him for this and takes his flask off of him, but eventually lets it slide and doesn't pull Yang up on it to help him out during times of stress and high crisis as the rebellion expands. Contrastingly one of the rebel ringleaders that Yang's facing is a dishevelled bloodshot alcoholic openly swilling whiskey straight from the bottle during strategy conferences and even in the middle of arresting government ministers, like a reeking wino who somehow blundered into an executive board meeting. That this trembling character is improbably tolerated by his co-conspirators makes it pretty obvious that Tanaka wants to tell us that Yang's genial, convivial, comfortable warm foible is nothing on the same scale as that mutinous treasonous shifty drunken sot and that his wife should stop nagging him and let the great man enjoy his harmless indulgence already, geez!
While I always question Yang's relationship to the author, Reinhard as an independent character is allowed to acquire a bit more room to grow and he obtains some significant depth in volume two. He has a major falling-out with his closest friend Kircheis over the fate of Westerland. This planet is in the demesne of one the rebel leaders the Duke von Braunschweig and it revolts against him - the Duke duly disposes of his defective appliance and destroys the planet and its two million people in a nuclear bombardment. Reinhard gains intelligence of the Duke's plan but rather than intervening to stop it permits it to occur in order to score a propaganda coup and exhibit the nobility's callous inhumanity to the galaxy, so completely destroying their respect and authority and even causing many of their own men to mutiny in outrage. Now, there are many problems with this scenario. It once again demonstrates Tanaka's cack-handed fumbling of scale - this is a war that has gone on for one hundred and fifty years and has claimed tens of billions of lives, and a point repeated in this book is how the attrition is so gruelling that both the Alliance and the Empire are literally just running out of people. In a war so prolonged and so total, would an exhausted and jaded population even blink at another two million dead, at this stage barely a blip? About that number of people die in the first battle which opened this very series! Of course, there are significant differences between the deaths of soldiers in pitched battle and the one-sided slaughter of civilians, but this won't have been the first time that this has happened in a century and a half of war; indeed everyone seems to have conveniently forgotten that Reinhard, champion of the Common Man that he is, implemented a scorched-earth strategy when the Alliance invaded just in the very previous book and abandoned eighty million Imperial subjects to starvation. This cold act doesn't seem to have done his reputation much harm! As much as the incident is yet another unfortunate showcase of Tanaka's clumsy plotting and moral hypocrisy, it does make for a genuinely fascinating breach between Kircheis and Reinhard, as Reinhard knows he's made a mistake but won't admit it to the man who is his conscience, as well as a reflection of the closeness a leader can have to his subordinates. This could have been an interesting disintegration of a bosom friendship to invigorate future books - sadly Kircheis's convenient death shortly afterwards relieves Reinhard of that psychological burden and Tanaka of the need to put more thought into his writing than quoting old historians verbatim.
Despite everything "Ambition" is a better book than "Dawn" - the characters of the book do develop, and show more depth and nuance than the ultra-rational victory-robots of the first volume. Nonetheless, I'm starting to think that Legend of the Galactic Heroes' incredible reputation is not on its own merits but only relative to the magical high school tournaments and torrid misunderstanding romances of most other anime. With its inconsistent politics, incoherent plot and insipid prose, the fact remains that Legend of the Galactic Heroes is not half as clever as it thinks it is.