You never quite know what you'll find in the bookstore bargain bin. Most times, it's really marked down overruns that nobody wants; and on that rare occasion, you get a little gem whose value outshines its full price counterparts.
Case in point: Planetes by Makoto Yukimura.
Over Christmas, the National Bookstore Branch in Gaisano Mall had piles and piles of manga selling for P75. These were TokyoPop imports, hence already translated into English. Compulsively, I bought a few. Well, more than a few. Most were the kind of trashy juvenalia that insinuates itself into Japanese comics.
But not Planetes.
Planetes paints a near future when mankind is just starting to blossom into its Golden Age for outer space exploration. Much of it is driven by the dwindling natural resources on earth. While that premise in itself may sound cliche, it avoids that trap by using it only as a backdrop for the new space race instead of the central plot.
In Planetes' future, there are no faster-than-light drives. People are just starting to explore the solar system, establishing space stations and a moonbase. It's a hard future, but not bleak and hopeless. Everday joes work in outer space under mundane conditions that reflect our own; but they have dreams.
All that is typified in the lead characters of the story. At the center of it all is Hachirota "Hachimaki" Hoshino, a debris collector on sanitation/cargo ship. Yes, you heard that right: Hachimaki is a trash collector. The premise here, all too real, is that there are all sorts of junk floating out there that pose a threat to space activities. Something as small as a bolt, travelling at high speeds, can cause a catastrophic impact.
But Hachimaki has big dreams. He tells anyone who cares to hear (and many more who don't) that he plans to captain his own ship one day. Such a longshot for a lowly trashman. His stepping stone to that goal is to get on the first manned mission to Jupiter. His stint as space garbage collector serves to rack up his extra-vehicular activity (EVA) hours meant to qualify him for the program.
In lesser hands, Hachimaki's tale would become just another space adventure story, with one obstacle after another overcome with ease. Not so in Yukimura's treatment. Planetes becomes a journey for transformation for Hachimaki. Space becomes a dark mirror for his ambitions, his longings, and ultimately, his emptiness and his inadequacies.
The underlying lesson here: space is vast, too vast to take in, and it can drive one mad. As it almost does with Hachimaki.
From this abyss, though, Hachimaki is ultimately saved not by his own heroism but by his friends. It is these who keep him grounded, reeling him back into sanity when he would otherwise have been lost. Their dreams aren't nearly as big as his, but they become his beacons into reality.
A large part of the appeal of Planetes is the strong supporting cast. Major players have their own backstory, sometimes tragic, sometimes comical, but all fully fleshed out.
There are Hachimaki's teammates on the garbage ship: Yuri, who lost his wife in a debris accident and has spent all these years looking for that last memento of hers floating in space. There's Fee, commander of the crew, whose nicotine addiction drives her to an act of extreme and hilarious optimism.
And there are others, too: Hachimaki's father, a famous astronaut, who provides plenty of comedy relief; the obsessive lead scientist for the space program; terrorists who oppose the colonization of space; and most importantly, the family waiting for them back home. They all have their own motivations, but they're all sympathetically portrayed.
Planetes is told as a series of interconnecting short stories, twenty-six in all. Each story could stand on its own. Taken as a whole, it becomes a touching tapestry of ambitions, fears, loves, tragedies, heroism, and friendships. In short, it's a very human story.
For my money, it's the one of the best science fiction stories ever told.
Planetes is available as a five-volume manga (of which I managed to snag four, including the last volume). Planetes is heavily researched, and each volume includes a generous helping of backstory.
Planetes also been turned into a 26-episode anime by Bandai.