Rocket Girls by Hōsuke Nojiri – Light Novel Review [Bellarius]
Straying from the beaten path, Bellarius moves into the realm of speculative fiction and gives a few thoughts on Rocket Girls by Hōsuke Nojiri.
“An entertaining entry point into the world of space exploration.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
Trying to give a brief analysis on Rocket Girls is simultaneously extremely simple to outline, but also surprisingly complex.
On the one hand its an amalgamation of various tropes and ideas any avid watcher of anime can instantly pick out, from the exaggerated caricatures of people to the hefty dose of zaniness which is thrown into them mix. It’s also lightly written, skipping a lot of the real meat you would expect to find on a on a book of its length and keeping details to a bare minimum.
On the other however, Nojiri wrote it with clear self awareness of just how the book was going to be seen and visibly wrote many sections to appeal to a young adult audience. What’s more is that many ideas present involving space travel were well ahead of their time, and for the most part the science is unexpectedly accurate and in-depth.
Set during an undisclosed year in the mid 1990s, Japan’s Solomon Space Agency is suffering setback after setback as its various experimental rockets continue to fail, exploding in the air or on the platform. Despite their every effort, the programme’s continued technical failings will soon mean doom for the SSA should they fail to make a successful manned launch and return to earth within the next few months. With this mounting pressure and the borderline insane measures of Director Nasuda to lighten the next rocket’s payload, the nerve of the SSA’s chosen pilot finally snaps and he flees the base. Fortunately for them, the short chase which ensues leads them to an unlikely replacement candidate: Yukari Morita, a girl looking for her missing father and willing to go any length to find him.
So yeah, anime exaggerated plot with a younger-than-they-should-be-in-this-profession protagonist, surrounding a core of mostly realistic science. It’s appealing to a very specific audience here, but the book itself is actually fairly good despite that fact. It’s hardly Clarke or Asimov levels of work, yet when you consider its audience and the approaches to younger audiences writing in this era, it’s rather intelligent. Many of the works attempting to promote a message or explore themes through young adult novels did so through a veil of a specific genre and with characters belonging to the audience’s age group, often disguising their true intention.
A famous example from this era would be the Animorphs saga. Despite the initial premise being human teens turning into animals to fight aliens, the series presented a surprisingly graphic account of guerrilla warfare, morality and science fiction tropes from more cerebral novels. Here we have the same thing, while there is plenty of action, zaniness, and the SSA’s colourful ensemble of staff pulls acts which would never fly in a real agency, it’s backed by careful research. Much of Yukari’s training is gone over detail by detail from the knowledge to physical trials, the technical details such as fuel and the use of the heat shield are explained in more depth than would be expected, and the technical systems for the rocket are outlined.
It’s hardly a blow-by-blow analysis, but it’s more than enough to give a starting point and frames the information in a story to help get people interested at a younger age. Even when it does focus upon these aspects, there is enough self awareness shown through humour or every-man comments to the technology which prevents it from sounding overly technical or preachy. Notably with Yukari’s reaction to her biosuit, which pokes fun at its design even as it predicts something which would be developed over ten years after the book’s publication.
The characters and figures seen in the book are hardly complex, often veering into one caricature or another, but what they do help represent in their cheerfulness and determination is a sense of optimism. Almost everything they are trying are ideas untested in the field but backed by prior knowledge, using new ideas and methods to try and overcome the logistical and technical problems holding them back. While this might sound generic, it’s emulating the basic themes of an age of discovery and exploration with the SSA pushing to break new boundaries. It helps to enhance the story with a sense of energy and enthusiasm, and the odd moments of silliness come across as if the book was trying to tap into the Golden Age of science fiction. That first time authors really pushed for new ideas and concepts involving the stars, space travel and scientific journeys.
This said, there are a few definite times the book pushes the humour far too hard to the point where it is forcing contrived events and seems to abandon much of the science. Sadly this mostly takes place during the latter half of the initial space flight, and while the story does reflect upon the impact of their accomplishment, certain events are far too easily brushed over or outright ignored. Really, where the module lands is almost enough to cause a thinking reader to give up there and then.
While the characters do work for the story, there are times when their apparent lack of depth does harm the tale. It can sometimes be hard to take it seriously when the subject of death or failure is seemingly brushed under the rug; and there are only a few key points in which seem truly meaningful or maturely handled. Easily the worst of all these are the Solomon Islands’ natives. Japan is not exactly known for its racial sensitivity, and while far from the worst example in the last few decades, the almost stereotypical presentation of the dark skinned tribe can severely undermine the story. This might not have been so bad were it not for the fact one of the major supporting characters in the book is one of these natives.
Furthermore, while it’s hard to criticise the lack of detail and odd approach to certain subjects thanks to the language and cultural barrier, the book suffers from a bizarre plot structure. Along with effectively shooting down a potentially major plot thread from the outset, many points take some very strange turns, and the middle act is far more episodic than the story initially suggests. Often focusing upon one issue at a time in isolated events rather than naturally flowing from one act to the next.
At the end of the day, Rocket Girls will largely appeal to certain audiences of a certain age but it’s far from bad. For all its flaws it never fails to be entertaining, and the very brief chapter structure, style and pacing make it easy to breeze through. It’s fun enough to hold your attention, and i’ll even admit it was enough for me to look up the next book, but there’s no denying Planetes is a better option for this sort of story. Give it a look if you truly want, but read a few extracts on Amazon first.