Planetes and the Limits of Humanity

Planetes is a fantastic show because it has something to say about everything. It is both a slice-of-life and a hard science fic. It explores corporate culture, environmentalism, altruism, love and betrayal- heck, I originally thought of writing a piece on romanticisation (alas, that honour goes to 5 Centimeters Per Second). However, there is another theme that, while only hinted at in the beginning of the show, eventually becomes so predominant that I would describe it as the overarching message of Planetes.

It is not surprising that astronauts consistently remain near the top of the list of what children want to be when they grow up. Few people get the chance to go to outer space in their lifetimes. Space exploration tore through the clouds, enabling humans to discover what lay in the heavens above and the cosmos beyond. It tells us how far we have come, yet how small we continue to be. It is the quintessential embodiment of what it means to push against the limits of humanity.

Even as we grow older and discard our childhood fantasies for more realistic ones, the romance persists. We continue to be avid consumers of space-related popular media, and we fall in love with dreams that will empower us to push against the limits of humanity once more, just in different ways. We strive to expand upon our knowledge of the sciences, break old records in the sporting world, invent new devices that will improve our lives like never before.

These ambitions are easy to admire. Not easy to easy to achieve, nor easy to admire from the perspective of someone who has to support you until you make your first breakthrough, but easy to admire as an observer, standing from afar. It’s a difficult job, and it’s noble. You’re in a position to make some very substantial contributions.

Yet, by pushing against our human limits, we risk leaving everyone else behind.

Planetes explores this theme in two ways. On a geopolitical level, Planetes looks at a future in which the procurement of natural resources in space has become a viability, leading to aggressive territorial claims and a monopolisation of space exploration and trade by developed nations, which marginalises and perpetuates conflict in poorer, war-torn regions. Aboard space stations and space shuttles, elitism and discrimination run unfettered alongside the peaceful bourgeois culture. Claire Rondo, a woman of El Tanikan descent (a fictional nation in South America that suffers the consequences of space development), manages to break out of the poverty cycle by her own meritocratic abilities. No matter how hard she tries to fit in, however, she is unable to abandon her roots. To her, the whole place reeks of privilege. If space exploration is supposed to represent the human condition at its most romantic, she wonders why she can only see it at its ugliest.

On a personal level, Planetes explores the frightening prospect of having to abandon one’s relationships as a precondition to reaching for the stars. No doubt, space is a lonely place. Midway through the show, Hachimaki realises that his budding romance with Tanabe is going to be a form of emotional baggage as he prepares for a 7 year trip to Jupiter. He accepts that he wants to push against the limits of humanity for personal accomplishment and to have his name go down in history – all selfish reasons. He will be admired from afar, but hated by those who knew him, exceptional until his very last breath. After Hachimaki successfully discards the people around him, however, he begins to wonder why he wanted to go to space in the first place.

Make no mistake; these two sub-themes are intimately related. At times they run in parallel lines, at others they intertwine in spectacular bursts. In the end, it is Gigalt-sensei’s wisdom that prevails:

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Um, THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID.

(Okay, seriously, I cannot ignore the fact that Planetes has god-awful characterisation of gender roles. This is perhaps its biggest flaw. I would appreciate the metaphor so much more if the ships stopped referring to male astronauts and the harbours to their wives waiting at home.)

That aside, from an *ahem* gender-neutral perspective, it makes a lot of sense. What’s the point of pushing against the limits of humanity and reaching for that golden pedestal, if we turned around only to realise that we’d abandoned everyone else on our route to success? Are we still pushing against the limits of humanity, or have we pushed past humanity altogether? Where’s the beauty in blood diamonds, or a cut of veal if it was pried from a mother whose child meant the world to her?

The other day, someone dropped this on me: “I am a computer scientist, and I know that I am making the world a better place for everyone in the modern world, you included, through my job. Unlike you, I don’t need to demonise others to feel better about myself, because I’m better than that.”

I don’t doubt that this man is passionate about computer science, and that he wants to make a difference. I can understand why someone like him would dislike veganism. Computer science is, well, freakin’ computer science. It makes our lives easier and more convenient. It’s easy to admire. Veganism, on the other hand, is all about criticism. It denies people the means by which they might obtain pleasure or comfort, like bacon (though I’d venture that most bacon enthusiasts haven’t tried vegan bacon, so they too don’t know what they’re missing). In that sense, there’s a lot of negativity.

At the same time, I gotta ask: You’re making the world a better place. But better for whom? The privileged? What about everyone else?

Yes, we need people like him, and I appreciate his contributions. But we also need people with a different kind of ambition, one that is not easy to admire. We need people who are willing to fight to make the world care about those beneath us. All of humanity’s progresses in terms of racial equality, women’s rights and gay rights did not come by accident. They came off the shoulders of people who fought very hard and were willing to be hated for it. We laugh at the archaic notion of women being relegated to the property of men through marriage today because there were people who were willing to be laughed at for opposing that in their time. Even if we may disagree with Hakim’s actions, we know that he meant well.

If Hachimaki is a metaphor for those who aspire to push against the limits of humanity, then Tanabe is a metaphor for those who will keep us from pushing past it altogether – the marginalised, animals, Mother Nature. In fact, to reach out to them is another way in which we may push against the limits of humanity. Not the ones above us this time, but the ones below.

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