Legend of Galactic Heroes – often referred to by its common acronym LoGH – is one of the great pillars of Japanese science fiction. Created by Yoshiki Tanaka in 1981, Legend of Galactic Heroes is a seminal work that has had long-lasting impacts in the genre since its inception. Spanning eight novels, Legend of Galactic Heroes would later go on to be adapted into manga, anime, OVAs, and films. Today we will be looking at the first novel in the series, Dawn.
Legend of Galactic Heroes is basically a story about three societies caught up in the tides of war. The Empire and Free Planets Alliance are warring for control of humanity’s destiny through conflict on a truly staggering scale. These societies engage in battles involving starfleets with ships numbering in the tens of thousands. As titanic battles stretch across the stars, Phezzan acts as an intermediary between the two powers and is the true financial power of humankind. Phezzan fund both sides of the conflict and have just enough power of their own that, if they were threatened by one side, they could ally with the either and tip the scales. Throughout all of this we follow the two primary characters – Reinhard of the Galactic Empire and Yang of the Free Planets Alliance – as they rise through the ranks and test their wits against one another on the battlefield.
Setting – The setting that Yoshiki Tanaka creates is large, detailed, and interesting. The particulars of starship combat, communication technology, civilian life, and national politics are all fully-realized for the reader. There is a definite sense of verisimilitude as Tanaka discusses the various gears that make this setting turn. Each piece feels well thought out and understandable, and the reader really gets a sense that they are viewing a living, breathing world, and not just a fictional space. There is an attention to detail that is very much in the mold of classic science fiction, where the author wants to display a working fictional world as much as interesting characters or plot developments.
Scale – Legend of Galactic Heroes is a big setting, and not just because space is the backdrop. Hundreds of billions of people live in these warring societies, with millions of soldiers and fleet personnel waging war for domination. The fleets which engage in this conflict are incomprehensibly large, with both sides deploying tens of thousands of vessels, each carrying hundreds of crew and support craft. While most science fiction stories with a military or governmental angle might have a few political characters, Legend of Galactic Heroes has dozens in all three nations with specific titles and pay grades. Nothing is small or insignificant in this world.
Core Characters – The two primary characters in the Legend of Galactic Heroes saga are easily its strongest selling point. Count Reinhard von Lohengram of the Galactic Empire and Yang Wen Li of the Free Planets Alliance are the protagonists of the story, each taking up a prominent role on opposite sides of the conflict. Each of these soldiers is uniquely characterized with their own delightful supporting characters that play off of their unique strengths and weaknesses. Reinhard’s hunger for power and savvy political maneuvering through the Empire’s courtly intrigue is juxtaposed against Yang’s attempts to find peace and calm through the shifting currents in Alliance politics. The strengths and weaknesses of autocratic monarchy and popular democracy are explored on the grand scale as the reader is drawn into the deeply personal struggles of these two power players.
What Doesn’t Work
Pacing – Legend of Galactic Heroes is a slow burn, to put it mildly. Everything from the battles to the intrigue seems to move ponderously. Even when events seem to be moving quickly, there is little in the way of dramatic writing or witty analogies. Much of the prose is very matter-of-fact in setting the scene, and there is little in the way of colorful turns of phrase or snappy dialogue. Battles between sixty thousand starships are glorious in the mind’s eye, but feel rather dry on the page. In fact, the battles have a lot more in common with horse and musket conflicts than anything out of Star Wars or Mobile Suit Gundam. Fleets move in unwieldy formations with little to no terrain (it’s space, which is pretty empty) and almost every engagement turns into a slugfest.
Dialogue – The dialogue in Legend of Galactic Heroes is… odd. Now, this may have to do with cultural preferences, decisions in translation, or just the simple fact that thirty years ago science fiction did not feel the need to “pander” by having witty dialogue. Whatever the case, sometimes the way characters interact with one another just does not sound like people having a conversation. There is a stilted, almost robotic quality to how they interact with each other. No character seems to have much in the way of a unique voice or recognizable flourishes that make them stand out. None of it is confusing or unclear, but if you were to read the characters’ speech out loud… let’s just say most people do not speak that way.
Every Other Character – This is by far the biggest problem in the book. Most characters in the first book are absolutely terrible. Not in a moral sense, but in the sense of having depth and dimension. While Reinhard, Yang, and the three or four characters that commonly interact with these two are well done, just about every other character in the book is boring, poorly written, or both. To call them one-dimensional might be an offense to one-dimensional characters in other works. The most egregious archetype is the “stupid commander,” which is used by Tanaka for every single leader that is not Yang or Reinhard. Time and again these goofballs charge headlong into obvious defeat, ignore sound intelligence from underlings, and generally spend their time getting killed or embarrassed.
While this does serve to make Reinhard and Yang look more competent, the problem is that both of the stars are really not all that innovative. Their plans are just basic tactics – Yang says that aloud on more than one occasion – which makes them seem less interesting. It’s like they are the only halfway competent commanders out of millions of soldiers, while everyone else is a drooling halfwit. Non-military characters are just as prone to completely idiotic decisions. In fact, most situations not involving Reinhard/Yang play out something like this:
An important decisions looms, and those in charge gather to make the call.
Important Person: There is only one course of action – obviously stupid plan!
Advisor: But Important Person, what about all of the data that says otherwise? All of the intelligence we have gathered that suggests another course of action? Have you considered that your obviously stupid plan is morally reprehensible, and does not even begin to make sense?
Important Person: Quiet! Just because you are an advisor, you think you can give me advice? I will never listen to you, because I aggressively believe that my obviously stupid plan will work! Now be gone from my sight, I am tired of your prattling!
Advisor exits the scene and obviously stupid plan is put into action. The plan immediately begins to fail because it was so obviously stupid.
Important Person: What? How could this be? I am truly shocked! Who could have foreseen this? I have no choice now but to double-down and charge headlong into even worse results, because I am so embarrassed by my current level of failure!
Important Person ruins all the things and is killed/replaced/removed.
The worst thing is that this sort of scene happens over and over again. It is very taxing to read, and makes the book difficult to read for longer periods. Even if this is the point that Tanaka is trying to make, that people in power often make terrible decisions and will not change their ways, it still is far too overused to have any effect.
So while I did go on for a while about its flaws, I will still go with a recommendation for Legend of Galactic Heroes Dawn. Even with its problems, overall I did enjoy the book and will be going on to the next in the series. Yang and Reinhard really are the stars of the story and I want to see how their respective arcs play out. The clash of civilizations and ideas is also very well done, to the point where some of the political scenarios in the book have almost occurred beat-for-beat in the current election cycle here in the U.S. The detail of Tanaka’s world is a joy to read, and the thoughtfulness put into every aspect of the setting gives everything a feeling of consistency and reality.
However, the lack of other strong characters is really disappointing and the overused tropes are off-putting. This is only the first book in the series, so there is plenty of time for Tanaka to right the ship as it were. Perhaps this is just the phase where these characters are being cleared out and new, more competent threats will emerge for Yang and Reinhard to battle against. Similarly, the issues with the dialogue will hopefully fade away as time goes on. As long as the series shows some upward movement in those areas, then these early missteps can be forgiven.
The reader has to be aware that they are in for a slower-paced story with lots of detail and intrigue that moves with more purpose than speed. If that is the case then they will most likely enjoy Legend of Galactic Heroes Dawn.
Legend of Galactic Heroes: Dawn is available at major bookstores such as Amazon.