Or, “The Beginner’s Guide to Not Liking Thing.”
Hey, remember when Digibro said that everyone loves Legend of the Galactic Heroes?
No? I’m the only one who’s been grinding an axe over that? That was a throwaway comment irrelevant to the actual point of the video? It would be pointless in the extreme to take it as a call to write a huge blog post detailing why I don’t like Legend of the Galactic Heroes?
This video would make an excellent jumping-off point to talk about Virtue Signalling and other twaddle. But no, I’m just here to complain about a show I didn’t like. I dropped it at around episode 25 or so. This is more time than I give to most things that I like, and far more than the “3 episodes/chapters/blocks or 5% of the content, whichever is larger” rule that I usually use to decide when to give up on something, so I think I gave it more than a fair shot.
(okay, I mean, obviously Digi didn’t actually mean everyone everyone, so I’m not gonna be the pedant insisting that we all use “almost” in almost every sentence, but still. I wanna bitch.)
So, LotGH. It’s a long anime about warring space-nations. Arguably the best said anime. Except, actually, it’s not about warring space-nations. It’s about warring horse-and-musket nations separated by oceans, that tries to pretend it’s set in space.
This isn’t news. It’s generally known that LotGH is really a paean to the Napoleonic era of warfare, filtered through a vaguely sci-fi coloured lens. Nonetheless, it is my first reason for disliking it. The show and the lens don’t fit. The above image really sums it up. I loved both the original games in question when I first played them. Both got HD remakes recently, both of which I played. But only Homeworld managed to pull me back in and make me love it again, because Cossacks just isn’t that great. It’s a fun recreation-of-sorts of a particular era of historical warfare, and it looks great to have these vast armies of musketeers and hussars flowing across the fields, but both on a tactical and strategic level, there’s not much depth. Most nations’ units are mechanically indistinct – often the only distinction between armies is their colour. The overall game strategy is also pretty much identical between nations – same buildings in the same order for the same purpose. It fundamentally fails as a strategy game, because it’s trying so hard to be historical. And flaws of the exact same pattern haunt LotGH also.
Homeworld 2, on the other hand, is quite possibly the best space strategy game ever made.
So my first complaint is that the show is purportedly science fiction warfare, but is actually historical recreation warfare. Any pretense of Space as a setting goes right out the window when you consistently forget the notion of a third dimension and sometimes have your ships form triangles and make actual cavalry charges at each other.
There’s the choice of medium. Animated works are great for specific things. For creating a visual style that outlasts the aging of your technology (great example: Psychonauts). For visual scenes that can’t be done with live-action, or would look terrible and inconsistent. For impossible camera angles and lighting effects and art styles that go beyond what costumes and make-up can begin to accomplish. This, I think, is why many of the best anime are genre fiction. Ones that aren’t, don’t need to be anime.
But look at LotGH. There are fight-scenes between spaceships, yes, but those have been being done with models since the dawn of TV sci-fi and no one’s minded. There’s no uncanny valley or the suchlike, after all, or at least there wasn’t at the time. Improvements in computer rendering are slowly creating one, but that’s another story. There are some pretty big “planetary-scale weaponry” scenes that maybe would look awful if not animated. But honestly, these scenes all looked pretty awful anyway. Without the benefits of nostalgia-vison, most of yesteryear’s big-budget eye-candy looks dreadful today (thanks hedonic treadmill). LotGH is no exception; another casualty in the inexorable grind of everything getting better all the time.
I’m not enough of an expert on visual media to explain why it looks so bad properly, but I’ll try anyway: there’s very poor sense of motion. It feels rigid. Details aren’t applied to where they need to be, and are often over-applied where they shouldn’t be. It looks for all the world like one of those old puppet-motion shows.
But the vast majority of the show just doesn’t need to be animated at all. People standing in rooms talking? Sounds like a good use of live-action to me. This would immediately fix all the show’s problems with wooden stances and expressions. The choice of medium is poor at best.
A point of praise is often noted to be the soundtrack, which is largely composed of classical European music. It’s very appropriate, considering the show is a Napoleonic costume drama. But that doesn’t necessarily make it the best possible choice. I’ve loved a whole bunch of choices with respect to soundtracks, but LotGH just doesn’t stand out. They wanted to seem fancy and refined, and chose classical music. Okay. Makes sense.
That is to say, the soundtrack is boring. Cliché. Uninspired in the absolute extreme. It’s not even a choice at all so much as the default. To say it leaves me unimpressed is an understatement of planet-busting magnitude.
And then there’s politics. “Ohhh, but it’s bad to not like a thing because you think its politics are wrong, you’re supposed to be objective.” Nope! If anything, the opposite. I’m not here to be objective: I’m here to complain.
If Utopianism and Dystopianism are flawed paradigms, then all the more so LotGH, which flirts with both. Granted it never falls into the worst traps, the starry-eyed optimism that ignores flaws or the dismissal of interesting questions by adding “… and then no one ever enjoyed anything ever again” as an unqualified assertion of the inevitable results of the author’s least favourite social policy. But nonetheless, for a show hyped for its amazing political commentary, LotGH is just So You’re A Reactionary: The Introductory Guide to Wishing for Kings. It pits an idealized monarchic state against a democracy that it clearly wants to be “warts and all” realistic, but the show can’t seem to bring itself to show anything except flaws. The ‘hero’ character of the republic is a mouthpiece to deploy further polemic, and a historian who loves the past. He has some lines mumbling something about believing in what he’s fighting for, but the sentiment is never really felt compared to his idolisation of bygone eras and admiration of his enemies.
Granted, the Empire is not all sunshine and roses in LotGH, but the hand on the scales of the political commentary is blatantly obvious and deeply obnoxious. Are political statements allowed to be art? Sure, I don’t see why not. But it’s harder to respect art that definitely picks a side, and art that picks a side while claiming not to do so is even worse, and art that picks the side you’re not on is always going to be less appealing still. But art that picks the side you’re not on and then tries to pass it off as objective or unbiased is borderline infuriating.
The sad thing is, I can see why people would love this aspect of it. No matter how much we dismiss the Puppies’ methods, specific aims, associations and general appearance of being destruction-seekers, their complaint that science-fiction has a leftist slant is pretty accurate. Of what rightist SF/F there is, most is pretty garbage. Finding something that flatters your preconceptions without going too far and being a transparent exercise in political propaganda is hard, and I don’t fault anyone for loving things that achieve that delicate balance for them.
I mean, I get it. Star Trek TNG in particular is egregiously left-of-center, and I can understand why people would be put off by that; please try to sympathise with my being put off by the exact mirror scenario.
The characters are also raved about. I won’t have much to say about them, though, since I can’t remember most of them. Some are obnoxious; some are contemptible, but the vast majority are just boring. No one in this show seems willing to stand up for their ideals (and no, “I really want to conquer the galaxy and rule all with an iron fist!” is not an ideal, no matter how nicely you phrase it), and no actual character conflict seems to occur. Characters are either Enemies, in which case they try to kill each other, or Allies, in which case they fight together (possibly while plotting betrayal for personal gain). Maybe they get to that later, but there’s a point where you go past “taking your time” into “taking the piss,” and that point is definitely less than 25 episodes into a show.
While I don’t want to dwell too much on the political angle, and I’m aware that reactionary readers would scorn such criticism, the show really lacks women. Like, people complain about Lord of the Rings for being sexist, but it at least has one strong-willed woman with goals and stuff. I’m not a fan of the Bechdel test, so here’s my test: could you randomize the genders of the cast without losing any important story aspects? If so, why didn’t you? The answer for both LotR and LotGH are that they’re a product of their era, and contain an implicit expectation that Fighting Is For Men. However, LotR is set in a fairly distant alternate past, and can be expected to take an ultra-conservative position – but instead includes the Shield-maiden for no reason other than it seemed cool and made sense. Whereas a good sci-fi author might try to extrapolate social trends into the future, which extrapolation for LotGH somehow concluded that the social structure centuries in the future would be uncannily identical to 17th century Prussia.
A list of questions the show never even pretended to answer:
How does interstellar travel work? What are the weapons the spacecraft use? What’s their effective range? Fighter-type craft are seen a few times – how is the balance between what look like battleship-type craft and carriers so near to perfect (in reality, naval combat turned from battleship-doctrine to carrier-doctrine very rapidly)? Why do space-battleships descend to planetary surfaces so often? How does interstellar communication work? Is it faster than travel, and if so, how? How do both sides maintain their large single-government existence across vast distances? How does the configuration of the strategic arena conspire to allow chokepoints such as Iserlohn (it’s outer space, just go around)? Speaking of Iserlohn, how is its energy generated? And why was it crewed exclusively by morons who can’t follow even the most basic security protocols? When a fleet’s supply lines are being discussed, what supplies are we talking about here? Food and water? What kind of timescales are we operating on (see earlier question about interstellar travel)? Why does anyone care about conquering anything at all when you have the technology to travel between stars? What possible desires are there left to satisfy by conquest? What happened to all the other, more plausible images of the future to prevent them happening (admittedly basically nothing ever addresses this one)? Why are static defenses used, ever? Why is Yang considered a genius for using “hit it with something moving very fast” against said defenses? Why are any of the heroic characters considered geniuses, given that frankly their strategies aren’t that brilliant and what we’re shown is simply that their presence in a fleet exerts some sort of auric influence that makes their ships shoot better, shrug off hits, etc? Seriously though, why did massive space battleships land themselves on planets like a bunch of delta-v-wasting chumps? Why did the original writer apparently not bother learning the basics of orbital mechanics, stellar physics, or it seems any science whatsoever before making the attempt? Did they think using fission weaponry against the entire surface of a planet would be efficient? Wait, are these spaceships carrying around fissile materials? Why not just lug a big ol’ box of rocks around space with you while you’re at it? Where are all the EVAs? The fancy futuristic spacesuits? Why did they end up fighting in an Ouroboros shape in the first episode? The Wattsonian reason, that is, the Doylist one is really obvious and really stupid. Why no relativistic kill vehicles? Are planets so individually valuable (in an entire galactic civilisation!) that you can’t afford to melt the crust of even one if doing so might put an end to an interminable bloody war? For that matter, why are mass drivers so rare in general?
You get the idea.
A lot of these questions may seem pointless. Surely all that irrelevant technobabble is what we want taken out of science fiction, to leave the pure essence of the story? No, it doesn’t work that way. The fundamental point of science fiction is that technology and story are inextricably bound up with one another. The constraints on what characters can do inform the audience’s expectations of what they will do, which in turns controls how the story can fulfill or defy those expectations. A great example of this, from the point of view of a character with near-godlike powers. But if you never learn what the constraints are, eventually the story dissolves into a disjointed series of events without any explanation. Oh such-and-such is travelling to wherever to stop so-and-so. Who will get there first? Hah, tough luck, there’s no way to determine that. It’ll happen when the story demands it and not a second sooner, y’hear! Maybe growing up reading fantasy stories that always include a map spoiled me.
Most importantly, why is explaining the above not even worthy of a throwaway line? “mumble mumble hyperspace inhibitors.” There, easy. That’s how Homeworld did it, and while it’s a total write-in of an explanation, it’s sufficient. Here’s my reasoning, which ties right back to the very first point. Legend of the Galactic Heroes is not science fiction. It’s literary fiction: the kind of fiction where you don’t have to explain anything because the assumption that the story takes place in the contemporary world and involves ordinary humans doing ultimately ordinary things is an assumption that is shared by the author and the audience. LotGH is a reskin of that, but the change is only surface deep.
It would be a lie to say I’m not interested in any literary fiction. It’s sometimes very good. But I am inevitably going to be dissatisfied with a literary piece trying to pass itself off as sci-fi, for the same reason that I’m not happy with even the very best coffee if it’s sold to me as tea. It doesn’t help that coffee is not a drink I enjoy even when I know what I’m getting in to.