Reading Twin Spica made me realize that outer space, like the Wild West before it, persists so fiercely in our cultural imagination because we have found so many ways to mythologize it. We named one of the first space shuttles Enterprise as a way of paying homage to a cultural force that made it possible. The more broadly we dream about space, the easier it becomes for our dreams to become real, and a society that doesn’t dream of where to go next — and worry about what we will become in the process — is staring at its own navel.
Yukinobu Hoshino’s 2001 Nights makes its mythologizing clear right from the title. The mythology of old (the cycle of tales from Arabia) and the mythology of the new (Kubrick and Clarke’s vision) work side by side here. From 2001 we get the arena and the technology; from the Nights, we get the way every situation becomes an opportunity to learn about human nature in miniature. It’s a mixed bag, as all anthologies tend to be, but at its best it is downright transcendent, and my only worry is that I’ll have that much more trouble unearthing future volumes.
Nights uses man’s exploration of space as a starting point for each of its stories, and runs from there into territory that spans magical realism, fantasy, and the kind of humanist musing that Osamu Tezuka bore as his standard for so long. The story “Posterity” opens with a technical premise: how is mankind to explore space when the distances are so fast and the time involved for travel to even the closest stars is so daunting? The answer, here, is to send a kind of seed ship into space, populated only with sperm and eggs that will be germinated upon arrival. The only living crew is the mother and father of the extended family that will be produced this way, who raise their children and give them all they need to colonize the world they’ll soon be setting foot on. (There is, of course, a final twist, but I wouldn’t dream of giving it away here.)
Sometimes the stories are slice-of-life, or in some cases slice-of-death. “Maelstrom III” gives us one man out in the void, staking his life on a gamble so that he might not simply vanish in the vast spaces between the planets. “Earthglow”, the one story closest to our own time, shows the space shuttle entrusted with cargo of inestimable value — a human being — as a last-ditch effort to stave off world war. The last story, “Lucifer Rising”, is the longest and most ambitions, and also the most successful, story of the bunch. We are presented with the concept of a massive planetoid on the outer fringes of the solar system, and the way the Catholic Church responds to its presence by attempting to fit it into a kind of cosmographic theology. An expedition sent to study this planet goes very wrong, although the plot construction here (one of the crewmembers is a killer, etc.) is secondary to the story’s urge to make us see the universe through the eyes of its spiritually-driven characters. It’s interesting to see a Japanese manga-ka use Western theology as a platform for his ideas, but it’s not without precedent: one of Japan’s greatest authors of the last century, Shusaku Endo, used his Catholicism to do much the same thing, and accomplished all that without writing sermons or being maudlin.
The largest flaw I see in 2001 Nights starts with, again, the title, and runs through much of the rest of it. It’s how the stories stray over from paying homage to 2001, and verge on borrowing wholesale from it. The design elements of the moon shuttle and the excavation itself on the moon, many of the spacecraft interiors — they’re all rather unsubtly inspired by 2001. I felt disappointed every time I turned the page and saw another such element — disappointed for the same reason Sayonara Jupiter bothered me, because it was clear the people involved could do great things on their own without falling back on quoting someone else.
But over time Hoshino shows more of his own creativity, and by the time we reach “Lucifer Rising” it’s clear he’s leaped out into territory entirely of his own making. He even finds ways to subtly kid his own cribbing: the story “Discovery” features a superintelligent computer that has clearly been created in the HAL 9000 mold, and not only Hoshino but the characters in the story themselves seem quite aware of it. It’s the one story in the whole cycle that is ultimately played for laughs, the more I think about it: the punchline is a howl, although I wonder if the joke we get was the original joke or a careful transliteration into English. (My bet is on the first, since Star Trek is at least as well known in Japan as it is here.)
What made 2001 Nights work so well for me, even in its lesser moments, was how it was most curious about humanity rather than just the mechanics of space travel. The last story is the best example of this: there’s an elegant explanation for how a planet made entirely of antimatter came to be, but that takes a backseat in importance to the larger questions of whether one man doing evil is a suitable response to mankind’s entire capacity for evil. You don’t have to agree with the theology espoused to find it compelling, and the end of the story brings in questions of sin and forgiveness that stand apart from any one belief system. What does it profit man if he gains the universe, but loses his species’ soul?
2001 Nights was one of the many series (along with Tezuka’s Adolf) that appeared under VIZ’s Cadence imprint. The whole of the Cadence line appears to be out of print, although many of its books surface from time to time as stone bargains. The first book, I found at The Strand in New York City for a pittance, and others appear to be available on Amazon for a few dollars each. Titles like this are, now that I think about it, a good argument for either digital distribution or print-on-demand solutions for manga titles. An animated adaptation of the story was released in 1987, although it appears only to have come out on LaserDisc; it has not been released on DVD.