Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Last Robotech Novel [That I Read Out of Order]

I have an ambivalent relationship with the series of Robotech novels, based on the 1980s anime mash-up. On one hand, some of the novels introduced concepts that helped to soothe the various issues I had with the way other continuities handled my favourite characters and things, and also provided me with fanfic fodder. On the other, the novels are generally poorly-written, and also do horrible things with my own favourite concepts. It's a conundrum.

Because of this, I dragged my feet on finding the last two "Lost Generation" Robotech novels, the trio of "midquels" written when James Luceno was the only living half of the "Jack McKinney" duo. The other "Lost Generation" novel, The Zentraedi Rebellion, is, as I've said before, one with which I've made lemons out of lemonade, and which was founded on a solid concept.

However, The Zentradi Rebellion suffered from the same basic problems as the other two novels, which are excessive "grittiness", and redundancy. I'm sure they also mess with continuity, too, but I'm not so invested that I would spend time figuring out how exactly they do.

Recently, I managed to find the last of the "Lost Generation" novels, The Master's Gambit, in a used bookstore. It actually precedes Before the Invid Storm, which I read beforehand, but my apathy should be a clue as to why that doesn't matter too much. I read The Master's Gambit in three days, feeling the urge to wash my hands of it but unable to stop reading. It's one of the few times I've succumbed to that nerd disease known as completism.

The three novels roughly correspond with each "generation" of Robotech, and this one is parallel to the middle-segment Robotech Masters series. A lot of its content is supposedly based on Robotech: the Untold Story, a movie combining the anime film Megazone 23 and other footage to create a Robotech movie that never saw a wide release. I cop to not seeing either Megazone 23 or Robotech: the Untold Story, and look at this novel in terms of how it fits into the overall scheme of what I do know.

While others may not accept the spot-welding of three unrelated anime series, the world portrayed in The Master's Gambit seems even farther afield from the common ground the original series supposedly had. The more familiar world of military politics and impending alien arrival, is combined with a story about hackers, information trading, and neo-yakuza in future Tokyo, sending readers off-balance.

What The Master's Gambit does add to the plot and characters is almost universally, unrelentingly, bleak. This is a problem of all three "Lost Generation" novels, and I might as well re-articulate it here. The mainline novels already tried to up the sexual and violence quotient from the edited anime, but the Lost Gen novels go up higher, and add so much cynicism to them.

For example, there is the portrayal of Dana Sterling as a "wild child" which includes "seducing" the older Terry Weston, which is pretty wrong and horrible. An older man doesn't get "seduced" by a teen, okay? I don't care what erotic fanfic you like to write. Terry Weston was the protagonist of a minor Robotech comic series, so I'm not caring about the stain on his reputation, but it all sounds like something added to make the novel "edgy" without larger consideration. It simply doesn't compute with the world of Robotech to have this type of storyline, nor does it match with the cheery, peppy Dana Sterling of the animated series. Pair this with the very broken understanding of statutory rape, and we have a barrel of fun here.

(Another odd thing about the novel is that Luceno likes to pepper the Japan sequences with Japanese terms and phrases, most of which are translated, but it still reads like a bad anime fanfic. There is also a character named "Misa", which might be a reference to the original Macross.)

This is totally unsurprising given my Zentradi obsession, but the extremely dour perception of what would happen to the Zentradi stood out the most to me. However, even if you don't have any particular sentimental attachment to the Zentradi as a concept or as characters, their fate nicely shows the underlying problems of the "Lost Generation" novels, and is the example of lazy writing.

Yeah, the main series of novels did stupid things with the Zentradi, too, but the last two "Lost Generation" novels really do exceed them. They portray a world in which the humanity and human contact that the allied Zentradi wanted, everything they defected for, has completely gone to shit, due to a combination of xenophobic government policy, and the Zentradi's own inability to escape an ennui that comes with no longer being warriors. To that end, they have all self-exiled themselves to the non-functional Factory Satellite, where they basically sit around and wait to die, their only action taken being to become a sacrifice to protect the Earth.

Now, plenty of stories have been written to end in absolute failure, usually to make a larger philosophical statement. And I can see where Luceno might have gotten some of his ideas from: the later episodes of the TV series do show Zentradi having problems adjusting to human life, including turning on their allies and being unable to know what to do with their lives. However, there are still the questions of tone and quality to consider.

Macross is, even in the Robotech-dubbed form, a series about hope and sweetness and taking silly things seriously. It doesn't shy away from displaying the darker aspects to life, but that is only to bring its idealistic nature somewhat back down to earth. A grim tale of failure doesn't organically follow from a series about love triangles and giant alien fanboys. Problems with the Zentradi come off as bumps in the road, nothing to define the entire allied race or their future.

Furthermore, if a bleak ending is not justified by anything deeper than "Life's a bitch and then you die", it just seems like the author ran out of things to actually do with the characters or ways to build up their world/plot, and decided to just be lazy instead.

Conveniently, the only Zentraedi who could give lie to this perception of their race's future are either gone or dead. I'm still sore about Rico, Bron, and Konda being killed off due to an unexplained illness, but at least they were treated with some level of sentimentality and respect. The last two Lost Generation novels name-drop these characters but without any of that sentimentality, or dwelling on how their actions (spearheading a rebellion against their oppressive military structure and never being a danger to humanity) might contradict the views seen in these novels.

The basic idea is instead that even if the Zentradi thought they wanted freedom from the military lifestyle, their own instincts betrayed them even more than humanity's political backlash did. There is even a scene where Rolf Emerson, Dana's surrogate father and caretaker, actually pauses to wonder if Dana's temperamental behaviour is the result of her Zentradi genes, and the "gentle" genes from her human father helped to temper them. And this is supposed to be a heroic character? It doesn't manifest in his treatment of Dana at all, but it's still jarring.

It is particularly shocking because the Sentinels novels, which run parallel to these books, but were written before, have a much more sentimental treatment of the canonical Zentradi characters. There are several wrong-headed moves made, such as Breetai sacrificing himself to end a karmic cycle of violence, and Miriya quitting the military, but a reader gets the impression we're meant to care about these characters, and they're meant to be happy/doing the right thing. I wonder if these ideas were the product of Brian Daley, and Luceno had the darker vision of the Zentradi?

Another place where this is evident is in the portrayal of Exedore, my favourite character in the whole thing. In the Sentinels novels, he is presented as a benign figure, participating happily in scientific and social endeavours and having an amicable nature. In The Zentradi Rebellion, he is cynical and harsh instead. Now, I decided to interpret this as his jackassery being intentional, but a result of stress and an over-applied pragmatism, plus the mean streak that he already displayed in "Blitzkrieg", all that he eventually learned better from to become the nicer Sentinels Exedore. However, now I can easily see that these are simply two different views of the same character, without any intention of progression.

I might be generous and say that as far back as Carl Macek's original plans for a Robotech sequel, which these novels are based on, he wanted to suggest the Zentradi were very low in number, and that, due to the speed of novel production, Luceno just came up with something on the fly, without considering the larger implications involved. Even so, the results as well as the circumstances should be looked at critically.

And anyway, if the line is that Robotech is all one series, why try to get rid of elements from the first "season" when these elements could be integrated into the whole with a novel version, enhancing that perceived unity? It doesn't make sense. (An alternative explanation is simply that Macek was considering the total proportion of Zentradi, allied and not, who died, which in this case, the remaining defectors would be smaller in number, in comparison to the original intact, living army).

Are there any good things in this novel? Actually, I thought that Luceno's world-building, his little allusions into how societies and social hierarchies have changed after the near-apocalypse were interesting, actually feeling as though they were part of a developed setting that offered enough glimpses to make a reader feel satisfied without overwhelming them with exposition. The military and political manoeuvring would have been fascinating to read about if it did not enhance the character relationships in the TV series, and really didn't have that large an impact on the overall narrative. Nor does the part of the story with the Robotech Masters offer anything more about the race's vaguely-explained backstory. If the narrative had gone more places with these things, it would have been more fulfilling.

I would like to think that even if I had read these two novels while working through the strongest stages of my Robotech obsession, I would still be able to use the good things the other novels provided for me with a clear "conscience". However, I wouldn't like to try out that hypothesis, and am glad they were both encountered later, because god only knows the vast quantities of nerdrage they would have inspired when my interest was at its peak.

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