Space is the place.
— Sun Ra
When I was a kid, I didn’t just want to be an astronaut. I wanted everyone else to be one, too. I imagined it’d get real lonely up there if I was the only one in orbit.
Twin Spica is not, strictly speaking, about becoming an astronaut. It is about the longing to become one — the way a dream deferred (as Langston Hughes put it) can lodge in the soul like a splinter. Or it can become rocket fuel to drive you on past the stars, and inspire others to follow in your wake.
Spica posits a kind of alternate present-and-near-future for Japan’s space program. In 2010, Japan launches its own manned craft, “The Lion”, the culmination of decades of effort. The launch is a disaster: the ship crashes into a populated area and kills an untold number of people. The weight of that disaster has hung heavy across all of Japan — especially thirteen-year-old Asumi Kamogawa. Her mother was one of those that died because of the crash, leaving her with her overworked and underpaid father as the only parent for most of her life. Now, in 2024, Asumi quietly fills out an application to enter Tokyo Space School — without telling her father.
It’s not as if she wants to get out from under his thumb. He’s a good man, just beaten down by life, and he clings to his daughter a little more tightly than he probably should. When he finds out she’s planning to go, he’s upset — but more because this is a dream he wished she had shared with him sooner, and because his daughter’s dreams matter more to him than his own.
Spica takes a curious, very manga-esque approach (no better word for it, really) to Asumi’s obsession with space. Through much of her childhood and into the present, she has kept an imaginary playmate of sorts — a figure in a lion suit, an anthropomorphization of the spirit of The Lion and all who rode with it. This isn’t just some abstract goal for her: it’s someone who always walks just a few steps behind her, and reminds her (if not in so many words) that her mother did not have to die in vain.
Asumi is, much to her surprise, accepted into the training program, and is immediately placed into a test environment with two other applicants, both also girls. One’s Kei, who is friendly to Asumi and seems like she has even more gusto for the test than Asumi does — but she cracks under pressure. Mostly because of the other girl, Marika, who’s as remote, standoffish and snarky (if intelligent) as the others are solicitous and open. The test they’re put in makes the differences between them — socially, intellectually, spiritually — open up like fault lines: they’re locked in a cabin-like room for seven days and told to line up dominos on the floor.
The test nearly kills them. Maybe better to say it nearly compels them to kill each other. I was reminded of Harry Harrison’s short story “Pressure”, where three men of varying skills have to pool both their skills and their outlooks on life to survive while sealed into what amounts to a giant diving bell sent to probe the bottom of Saturn’s atmosphere. The men in that story made difficult decisions to earn that much more life; the girls here struggle to put aside the situation in front of them and think of themselves as a team, for better or worse. They can come out the other side hating each other’s guts, just so long as they come out the other side.
What’s made clear, though, is how what they’re put through is not about the mechanics of selecting the candidates. The real story is all about Asumi’s longings: how she wants to reach for the stars as a way to do right by her father and the mother she only remembers as a body in a coffin, and how finding a way to endure the rigors of the test (and the rivalries of her co-applicants) will give her that much more strength. She’s portrayed as a character first and not simply a plot marker representative of a particular faction — e.g., “the humans” or “the Japanese” — and so we identify with her that much more closely.
Harlan Ellison once said that while written SF understood plots and gizmos, it fell flat on its face with people. From what he had seen, literary SF had typically lagged when it comes to creating memorable characters: here, Dune’s Paul Atreides; there, Heinlein’s Lazarus Long; now, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan. It took TV and the movies to give us Luke Skywalker and James T. Kirk, Sarah Connor and HAL 9000, and I wonder if that was a by-product of those two media requiring, as a matter of course, that much more dramatic meat in their respective sandwiches.
I mention this because what I have seen of literary SF from Japan — including what’s produced for manga — has been almost entirely character-centric upfront. Plotting can be secondhand or entirely recycled as long as the human element, the tugging-at-the-heart that they have down to an art form, comes first. Even “hard” SF like Usurper of the Sun or All You Need Is Kill started with, focused on, and concluded with character and emotional connection — a specific person confronting an interesting situation — rather than just assuming the situation alone would be fuel enough in the tank. The same applies here. Asumi, the person, comes before Asumi the plot driver or Asumi the problem-solver — something reinforced by the extended side story that takes up most of the second half of the volume, where Asumi deals with her mother’s death as a child would — a child that is, one would gather, mother to the adolescent (and the woman) to come.
There are something like fourteen other volumes of Twin Spica lined up to be published, during which I imagine Asumi will reach space — a possibility which reminded me of a question floated not long ago in the wake of the Obama administration scrapping and reworking major chunks of the U.S.’s space program. Someone asked: Given how difficult and costly it is to send a man into space, why do it at all most of the time? Why not send a probe to go where men can’t most of the time anyway? The only answer I have for that is that picture we took of Buzz Aldrin’s boot-print on the moon: Wish you were here. Asumi has the same photo. And most likely the same feeling.