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Anime review: Crest of the Stars

This series I watched in a few days. Admittedly it's 13 episodes instead of 26, but that's not the real difference; the difference is that this one pressed most of my buttons. This, and the sequel Banner of the Stars, are minor classics in their own right. It can be described equally (if superficially) as "space opera with space elves", or "an understated teen romance/character piece". Compared to Bebop, I'd call it "consistent and coherent". Hell, it's that compared to a lot of science fiction, period. It reminds me a bit of Bujold's Cetagandans, too.

Admittedly, I'm cheating a bit: I'm judging not just what I saw (though that was fine enough) but what I know of the worldbuilding gleaned from webpages. Crest itself has been called "the Hobbit", with Banner being "the Lord of the Rings"; I could map it to the Chanur books (first book vs. 2-4) as well, as in "short prelude followed by longer epic". Both series are based on novels by Hiroyuki Morioka, and focus on the male human Jinto and the female Abh Lafiel; Crest shows them meeting and bonding through various travails such as a budding war, while Banner starts 3 years later as the war heats up. In Crest the two characters are nearly inseparable, so it's about them and their interaction, but we also get some of the history of the Abh, and hints of fairly coherent worldbuilding. Comparisons with Tolkien are helped by the fact that Baronh has devised a language for the Abh, Baronh, in enough detail that the first minute or so of each episode has a voiceover in Baronh, with subtitles for the Japanese (or English) audience.

I found the characters enjoyable. As teenagers (he's 17, she 16) they're pretty mature and serious, as befits their lives and stations; they have their episodes of young self-doubt or over self-assurance, but lack a lot of the tropes of media teens, anime teens, or anime romance. There's a lot of talking (long scenes of the two of them stuck in a shuttle), but I liked it. (There's also space battles, and near the end running gun battles on a planet, which for me are probably the weakest element: lots of getting shot at without getting hit, while Lafiel can reliably hit whoever she fires at.)

space elves: yes and no. Cover art shows a blue-haired girl with pointy ears. The Abh are genetically engineered humans designed to be a slace race for space exploration; their distinguishing features are actually the blue hair and a sensory cluster in the forehead. Only the royal family has pointy ears, but Lafiel is an Imperial princess, so we end up seeing a lot of them anyway. The Abh are adapted for zero-gee and radiation, which isn't obvious in the plot, have senses and brain structures that help with 3D navigation, and live youthfully past 200. So kind of elfy. Much of their sense of superiority is rooted in their culture though, not their genes; humans like Jinto who are given Abh status are given full respect, at least if they live up to the standards. Your value is in what you do, not what genes your parents gave you.

There's a fair bit of detail to be found online about their technology and culture, ideal for anyone who didn't mind Gandalf giving the history of the One Ring, let alone the appendices of the LotR. The technology in particular I deem well done, plausible or at least with high verisimilitude. Major points:

* gestation machines. These are necessary for the genetic purity and engineering, and also help support the sexual egalitarianism of the culture. Websites haven't mentioned it, but IIRC the series said that Abh who make their children without natural sex will happily borrow genes from same-sex Abh or from relatives, which is only logical given that all zygotes go through the lab. (Even if you conceive through sex and choose to bear the child naturally, the embryo still gets taken out for gene-checking).

* A rather wacky FTL mechanism. It's a hyperspace, accessed through natural though movable gateways. The hyperspace, called Planar Space, is two dimensional; ships survive by somehow generating a bubble of spacetime. (There's no hint of technobabble explaining that, which is good; some things shouldn't be tried.) I'd view this as a trick to allow 2D tactics and renditions... but the original stories were written, not visual. Hmm. And he gets further mileage, the bubbles act like particles in plane space, with 'spin', and controlling the spin orientation gives stationary state or motion, enabling non-Newtonian mechanics. Things like "photons" don't propagate in 2D space, so detection and communication is crude and low-bandwidth. It's magical handwaving that gives the illusion of justifying FTL, 2D fog of war instead of 3D fishbowl, and non-Newtonian mechanics, in one package. I'm impressed. Like the Aldeson Drive of The Mote in God's Eye, the important bit isn't the specific handwaving but that there are rules and boundaries.

* And despite all that, he doesn't resort to space fighters; battle is with ships and unmanned "mines". The FTL and artificial gravity are the only pieces of outright magic tech; the weapons are downright prosaic and plausible. Lasers, particle beams, nukes fired from coilguns, and "mines" which are more like missiles or torpedoes. They have their own spacetime bubble generators, and thus are the only long-range weapons in plane space, as they can separate from the ship and merge with the bubble of an enemy, to blow up. Other weapons have to wait for the warships to merge bubbles before being usable. For defenses they have laser and particle beam point defenses, and "magnetic shields" which would be enough to mess with particle beams, but supposedly also trap plasma, which can be optically think enough to block lasers and *maybe* hot or thick enough to destroy or fry objects. Good mines have their own magnetic shielding, thus penetrating the plasma so they can get shot at by point defenses instead.

* Power: they use antimatter as fuel and as mine payload. Where do they get it from? Power stations around stars, distilling AM from starlight. A detail not relevant to the plot but showing thoughtfulness: mines are loaded with antimatter only right before they're launched. When any breach will destroy the ship, it makes sense to minimize the number of possible breaches, and the number of things you have to check, e.g. store the AM in a central location with redundant magnetic fields. Then the mines' integrity can be checked only right before you load it, rather than all the time.

* Abh hand arms seem to be laser pistols using frequently changed chemical cartridges which can double as grenades. Human planetside police might have been using more conventional firearms.

An engineer with enough math might quibble, but it's all good enough for me, and compared to Doctor Who or Star Trek...

Feminism: the Abh are completely egalitarian, as befits people who grow most of their babies in machines, probably have servants to do the dirty work, have a strong but odd family culture where educating your kids is important but there's no marriage so it's always single parents, and are high-tech and space-adapted so the premium on upper body strength is nil, assuming their genes even give males superior upper body strength. Lafiel is strong and competent, the first Abh captain we see is a woman, the Empress is... an empress. It's almost too heavy handed; the first important male Abh we see is an insane degenerate noble. But I think it balances out over the whole cast of characters.

SF and democracy: we're put in the position of rooting for the Abh Empire, which is... an empire. Not just in name, it's got hereditary titles and conquest of planets (the Abh seek to control all space, ostensibly to prevent interstellar war, though they don't care what happens on planets), though there's a fair bit of meritocracy as well (the Imperial heirs compete through military service; useful humans get Abh status.) It's not clear that the human polities are any better; they call themselves democracies, but evidence is weak, and they put out rather dehumanizing propaganda about the Abh race.

The purple-haired girl in my icon is not an Abh, but Zefiris, a 5000 year old sentient war machine in Scrapped Princess. Her model looks like ten year old girls when they're in low power mode. When armed, they look like dragons as rendered by Vorlons/Shadows.



Damien Sullivan

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