If I’ve learned anything from my long love affair with science fiction, it’s this: there’s no place like home. You can boldly go where no man has gone before, you can explore new worlds and new civilizations, and you can colonize the farthest reaches of space, but you risk losing your way if you can’t go back to Earth again.
In Saturn Apartments, the physical distance between us and our terrestrial home is small, but the emotional distance is great. The story takes place in a future where environmental devastation has prompted humans to decamp the Earth’s surface for its atmosphere, where they build an elaborate structure that encircles the planet. That floating city resembles Victorian London in its rigid class system and physical organization: the poorest people live in its bowels, in an artificially lit environment, while the richest live on the uppermost levels, enjoying natural light and unspoiled views of Earth.
Our guide to this stratified world is fourteen-year-old Mitsu, a professional window washer who lives on the lowest level. By virtue of his job, Mitsu has access to the entire city. For a boy who’s joined the workforce at an early age, who lives in a cramped room with few possessions, and whose neighbors suffer the ill effects of chronic light deprivation, his clients, most of whom live on the top floors, seem ridiculous and exacting. At the same time, however, they intrigue Mitsu; not only do they give him a glimpse into a more affluent way of life, they also own things — animals, machines, plants — that connect them to the Earth’s abandoned surface.
As these organisms and objects suggest, all of Saturn‘s characters suffer a strong sense of terrestrial homesickness. Midway through volume one, for example, Mitsu meets an eccentric zoologist who maintains an enormous private aquarium in his apartment. The man’s aquarium and his bizarre request that Mitsu splash water on the windows — something that’s impossible to do at an altitude of 35,000 kilometers — initially seem like a wealthy man’s whims; that is, until Mitsu learns that the zoologist is trying to create a more congenial environment for the aquarium’s prized specimen, the last surviving whale from a failed effort to reintroduce mammals into Earth’s oceans.
In other chapters, the characters’ longing to go home is more palpable. When Mitsu tackles his first assignment, for example, he finds himself at the very site where his father Akitoshi, also a window-washer, plunged to his death. Mitsu sees evidence of his father’s presence — a frayed rope, handprints on the side of the building — and though he interprets the evidence as proof of Akitoshi’s desperate struggle for survival, Mitsu is briefly seized by the thought that his father wanted to die, that Akitoshi cut the safety line so that he might fall back to Earth. Mitsu himself struggles with that same impulse; caught off guard by a strong solar wind, he finds himself dangling precariously above the Earth, mesmerized by the sight of the African continent spreading below him:
Only the intervention of Jin, an experienced co-worker, snaps Mitsu out of his dangerous reverie and spurs the boy to take corrective action. Once safely tethered to a lift, however, Mitsu peers over the side for another glimpse of the surface, resolving to one day “find the spot down there where Dad landed.”
Like Planetes, Saturn Apartments is less a tale of intergalactic derring-do than of ordinary people doing extraordinarily dangerous, tedious work in extreme environments. Most of what we learn about the characters comes from observing them on the job, as they banter with co-workers, perform routine tasks, and respond to crises. In Saturn Apartments, Akitoshi’s death — an event that took place five years before the story begins — casts a long shadow over the window washer’s guild. The mystery of what happened to Akitoshi plays an important role in advancing the plot, to be sure, but most of the story explores the way in which Mitsu comes to terms with his father’s death through learning Akitoshi’s profession and befriending Akitoshi’s colleagues.
The other thing that Saturn Apartments and Planetes have in common is beautiful, detailed artwork that conveys a strong sense of place. Hisae Iwaoka’s landscapes bustle with activity, showing us how the apartment dwellers go about their daily business. Each level has its own distinctive appearance, from the basement tenements — where Mitsu and Jin live — to the middle level — a tidy grid of schools and mid-rise buildings dotted with grassy parks — to the very top — a collection of spacious lofts with enormous windows. Iwaoka renders all of these environments in gently rounded, slightly imperfect lines that make the complex look warmly inviting, rather than sterile and prefabricated; even the very lowest levels of the complex are appealing, their close yet friendly quarters reminiscent of fin-de-siecle Delancey and Mulberry Streets.
Saturn Apartments is many things — a coming-of-age story, a set of character studies, a meditation on man’s place in the greater universe — but like all good space operas, its real purpose is to affirm the truth of T.S. Eliot’s words, “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” Highly recommended.
Review copy provided by VIZ Media, LLC. Volume one of Saturn Apartments will be released on May 18, 2010. To read the first eight chapters online, visit the SigIKKI website.
SATURN APARTMENTS, VOL. 1 • BY HISAE IWAOKA • VIZ • 192 pp. • TEEN (13+)
Kris saysMay 16, 2010 at 10:15 pm
Ah, I don’t want to read too much of this, as I’ll be writing my own review soon and don’t want to be influenced. :) But props for the TS Eliot quote. That was a nice touch. I read Saturn Apartments the other night, and thought it was very charming. A little bittersweet, too. I almost teared up a couple times.
Katherine Dacey saysMay 17, 2010 at 7:11 am
Thanks, Kris! Glad to know that course I took on Eliot, Joyce, and Pound wasn’t for naught. (I’m still in recovery from reading Finnegan’s Wake and Ulyssess in the same semester, and I’ve been out of college for a long time.) Looking forward to reading your review!
Kris saysMay 17, 2010 at 11:09 am
Oh, it won’t be nearly as insightful as yours. That’s why I stopped reading your review and just very quickly glanced here and there. I didn’t want your very lovely thoughts to embed themselves into my own as I write.
Hm…I took some interesting lit courses in college, too, but I don’t think I’ve gotten much use out of them either. Not a lot of places you can draw on Chaucer and Homer. Milton, maybe. I’m slightly ashamed to admit it (but only slightly, because I’m not much for poetry), but the only TS Eliot I’m actually familiar with is Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
Katherine Dacey saysMay 17, 2010 at 3:07 pm
Well, if it makes you feel any better, I’ve never read any Chaucer. I love Eliot’s Four Quartets (from which I quote above), but I’m not a poetry connoisseur; the fact that I know any contemporary poems is largely because I’ve studied Spanish and Russian. I took the Eliot, Joyce, and Pound class on a whim and deeply regretted it, as I didn’t really have the background to appreciate a lot of the texts we studied. Also: I developed an intense dislike for Ezra Pound’s writing. That didn’t help.
Jade saysMay 17, 2010 at 6:22 pm
I actually vastly prefer Dostoevsky just because of all the pomp surrounding Joyce. You can’t just sit down to read one of his books, you sit down to commune with the totally super bestest work of literature evar!!1! It’s almost as if you can only come into Portrait or Ulysses to join the gushing masses and stick another badge on your high-brow belt or to challenge all those smug creeps by refusing to enjoy it. He certainly was a sexy, sexy man though.
Katherine Dacey saysMay 17, 2010 at 6:52 pm
I wish I’d gotten my Scout badge in Contemporary Literature, dammit — it would have made that seminar on literary modernism a lot more bearable. Guess I’ll have to settle for calling Ulysess “the totally super bestest work of literature evar!!!” in a room full of professors.
Jade saysMay 17, 2010 at 7:06 pm
Ah, not to say that it’s a bad book at all! It can just be hard to enjoy his writing unbiased.
Wah! I really love your review too, I think you sum the series up nicely. This is probably one of the least talked about series on Ikki in relation to how good it is. Was that cat in the spacesuit in this volume?
Katherine Dacey saysMay 18, 2010 at 9:52 am
Thanks for praise, Jade! I hope more people get excited about this title, too — it isn’t as sexy as some of the other IKKI titles, but it’s so beautifully crafted it would be a shame for it to go unappreciated. As for the cat, yes, she does play an important role in the final story of volume one.
Jade saysMay 19, 2010 at 3:19 pm
Well, I say who needs sexy when you have a cat in an adorable spacesuit?!
It waves its little spacesuited paws in the air, people! You need to witness this!
tony sowers saysMay 26, 2010 at 10:03 pm
well thought out…