Review: Housuke Nojiri’s Rocket Girls, and The Last Planet (Haikasoru Week)

Housuke Nojiri: Rocket Girls (tr. Joseph Reeder)

Housuke Nojiri: The Last Planet (tr. Alexander O. Smith)

Review by Anil Menon


Given Japanese pop culture’s fascination with schoolgirls and science fiction’s fascination with outer space, it is all but inevitable that Japanese SF would try to merge the two subgenres into one: schoolgirls in space. Housuke Nojiri’s novels, “Rocket Girls” and “The Last Planet” turns this inevitability into a few hours of fun reading. These novels, the first two volumes in what is most probably an infinite series, deals with the space adventures of sixteen-year olds Yukari Morita, her half-sister Matsuri Morita and Akane Miura.

“Rocket Girls” begins with the failure of the sixth rocket launch of the Solomon Space Agency. The SSA, located on Maltide in the Solomon Islands and run by Director Isao Nasuda, is given one last chance to show it can pull off a manned space flight. Nasuda’s rationale for the outfit’s mission is framed in terms of bringing education and modernity to the natives on Solomon Islands, but as it turns out, the man just wants to put humanity, preferably Japanese, in outer space. Unfortunately, male astronauts, even the starved and much-abused Japanese astronaut Nasuda has imprisoned on the island, are simply too heavy for SSA’s rockets. Enter Yukari Morita.

Yukari arrives in Maltide in search of her father, a gent who had walked out on his wife, post-coitus, on their honeymoon. Fortunately, Yukari’s architect mother is more than able to handle stresses of this sort. For example, she raises no objection to her sixteen-year old daughter taking off for an island chain with a history of head hunting, some 3,500 miles away.

“I don’t know what good it will do,” her mother began. “But who knows? A trip like this on your own—it might be good for you.” And like that, her mother handed her five hundred thousand yen in cash.

Yukari’s genetic inheritance thus includes the right stuff, namely, an iron spine inherited from her mother and a certain devil-may-care attitude from her father. More importantly, she is about five feet, 31”-21”-32” and only weighs 37 kilos. For Director Nasuda, she’s not a schoolgirl; she’s his astronaut.

Yukari shortly discovers that her father, Mr Morita, is not only a chieftain on the island, but that she has a half-sister, Matsuri, from one of his many wives. Matsuri also has the right dimensions and is also quickly recruited by Nasuda as a potential backup for Yukari.

In a novel with many quirky characters, Matsuri tops them all. In her endearing innocence, unflappable cheerfulness and manic loyalty, she reminded me of South Park’s Butters. However, she’s Butters plus some serious survivalist skills.

These skills come useful in a startling aspect of the story. Murphy’s law in this novel takes the shape of evil spirits that the natives are supposedly able to invoke with their curses. The curses are not personal; they are, in fact, meant to help. The natives merely want to see some fireworks, some explosions. They believe the Japanese are working towards the same goal with their shiny silver rockets.

Almost half of “Rocket Girls” is taken up with getting Yukari and Matsuri ready for their space flight. The novel strikes just the right balance between pretending there’s nothing too improbable about schoolgirls in space and reminding us soberly how awfully risky the whole venture is. When things do go wrong, the technical details are kept to a necessary minimum. There’s a certain type of reader for whom good SF means a steady diet of orbital calculations. This book will manage to please such a reader but is not aimed at them.

The second volume, “The Last Planet,” continues with the adventures of Yukari and Matsuri. A third schoolgirl is introduced. Akane Miura, Yukari’s classmate at the Nellis Academy,  joins the Solomon Space Agency. The Rocket Girls proceed to teach NASA how to really run a space exploration outfit. The second volume was written a short while before Pluto was officially kicked out of the snooty planet club, so sadly, the “Last Planet” is about saving a NASA space mission to a non-existent planet. This volume follows the pattern set in “Rocket Girls”: discovery of talent, arduous training, minor frustrations, launch, crises…

The translators have done an excellent job. We get the feeling we’re dealing with Japanese characters, and not, a la Mikado, with English characters masquerading as Japanese. There’s not much variation in the writing (mostly exposition and dialogue), but by carefully controlling how the characters react in various situations, Nojiri is able to create the sense of distinct personalities. Much of the humor appears to have survived the translations as well. This is probably because the humor arises from the total sincerity of the characters. They’re funny the way Forrest Gump is funny.

I suppose I should mention the slinky spacesuits. The schoolgirls are decked out in ultrathin one-piece spacesuits, two millimeters thick, a “second skin.” When Satsuki, the rather lovable Nazi bitch who runs the medical program, yammers on about the suit’s thermal, elastic and osmotic properties, Yukari just sighs:

“The only part I understood was skintight. Sounds like a pervert’s dream.”

Indeed. When the rocket girls encounter the Russians and Americans, the astronauts are as discomfited as the conscientious reader. Actually, by Otaku (Japanese fanboy) standards, the books are about as risqué as an Amish quilting guide. And the suits are not a titillating feature meant only to appease the Otaku. In “Rocket Girls,” the sexual attractiveness of Yukari has some unexpected consequences when she encounters the Mir astronauts.

The Russians, alas, don’t come off too well in “Rocket Girls.” In a crucial scene, they behave treacherously and dishonorably, whereas in “The Last Planet,” the American astronauts come across as heroic (but bumbling).

In contrast, the Japanese see themselves as underdogs. They’re underfunded, under staffed, and working under great political pressure. All they have going for them is their ingenuity. “The Last Planet” is really about Director Nasuda proving to Director Holden of NASA that the Japanese can help with the construction of the International Space Station. Holden cuts Nasuda off in mid-speech, notices only the risks and flaws, not the Japanese enterprise or innovation, and he’s unwilling to acknowledge that the rocket girls are anything more than “charming little angels.”

I don’t wish to give the impression Nojiri is out to prove that one side is better than the other; there are plenty of fools on every side. But he’s obviously aching, as every space enthusiast probably aches, for a space agency willing to err on the side of courage and ambition.

Nothing represents this desire more than putting sixteen-year old schoolgirls in charge of space rockets. In Japanese culture, restraint appears to be contrasted, not with freedom as it is in the West, but with innocence. The rigid hidebound past is confronted with the novum’s giggles, disrespect, and eroticism. The giggles invite indulgence, the disrespect makes indulgence impossible, and the eroticism undermines all punishment; it’s a triple punch against which tradition has little protection. It is important that the novum be mostly unaware it represents these things, for nothing is more aging than awareness. The Rocket Girls aren’t posers. They aren’t trying to be different or original or represent some cause or the other. Most of the time, they’re simply trying to survive.

And is the premise—schoolgirls in space– that incredible? Samuel Pepys, president of the Royal Society, Cambridge alum, and pal of Isaac Newton, taught himself arithmetic only at 32. George Washington, who had only a couple of years of schooling, was  a major in the Virginia militia at 21, and his heroism in the Battle of the Monangahela made him a colonel two years later. Alexander Hamilton was just 20 years old when George Washington made him a Lieutenant Colonel. David Farragut, the first American admiral, was in his first bloody sea-fight at 10; he took command of his first ship at 12. Competence wasn’t always confounded with schooling.

Nojiri has fun with this confusion in the interactions between Yukari, Akane and the principal, some of the funniest scenes in “The Last Planet.” The principal of Nellis Academy, the school of Yukari and Akane, is all about discipline, tests and the class schedule. As he says, in justifying his expelling Yukari:

“Rules are rules, Miss Morita. And it is of the utmost importance to us that all of our girls learn the rules by which they must they lead their lives before we send them out into society–”

Unfortunately, the principal is right. And it is because he is right that we need many more rocket girls to help us achieve escape velocity from such repressive worlds.

These novels are a nice gift for that bright nephew or niece, but they’d also work for any lover of teen adventure stories. According to the infallible Wikipedia, Nancy Drew, the original schoolgirl-to-the-rescue, was a formative influence on women as varied as Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton and Sandra Day O’Connor. Here’s hoping Nojiri’s rocket girls will serve to inspire a new generation of movers and shakers.




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