SUPERVERSIVE: Robotech – The Macross Novels

Tuesday , 23, February 2016 21 Comments

Robotech #3 Homecoming Young Josh was a voracious reader without video games or internet to distract him– and homeschooled to boot, so all that time spent not being distracted by other students meant he read literally everything in the science fiction section of the library. Or at least gave it a shot; I remember trying Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun at about that age, and I definitely needed another ten years before I found that I liked that enough to read it.

Anyways. I read everything. I read things as I could get them, which frequently meant out of order. (The Hobbit came in between Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.) And so when I picked up a book called Homecoming, the third volume in some series I’d never heard of, I just shrugged off the other two books. It was twenty-two years ago or so, and I was twelve. I had no job, and it was a little library in a little town.

Man, was I in for a shock. (Spoiler alert: I loved it.)

For those not in the know, Robotech was a mid-80’s US adaption of three animated Japanese scifi shows. It’s controversial for a fair number of reasons, but the original goal was to bring over Japan’s more serious anime without dumbing it down or altering it too much; the eventual multi-generation storyline was a concession to the way syndication worked in the 1980s.

But I’m not talking about the show, I’m talking about the novelization of the show. The novels take the show’s three-generational structure and flesh it out quite a bit, up to and including an ultimate resolution that the show never got to have. Jack McKinney (pen name of James Luceno and Brian Daley) took the show’s central conflict– control of a near infinite source of power, the Protoculture Matrix– and reworked it to provide a coherent, expansive space opera.

Robotech begins in what was then the near future: 1999. The Earth is embroiled in a Cold War that had spun out of control, only to have the war grind suddenly to a halt due to the crash of an alien battleship on Macross Island, a remote location in the South Pacific. In a rare moment of wisdom from politicians, the war ended and Earth’s resources were applied to reverse engineering the alien technology and rebuilding the battleship. After all, if there are aliens out there that feel the need to build giant battleships, there’s probably something in space that makes having a fleet of ships armed to the teeth a good idea.

Ten years later, a city has grown up around the ship, which has been rebuilt and christened the SDF-1. (“Super Dimensional Fortress.” It was originally an anime, after all.) The scientific advances from the ship have been collectively dubbed “Robotechnology” and resulted in a fledgling space fleet, the Robotech Defense Force. With no sign of anymore alien contact, things are going fairly well. The SDF-1’s maiden flight is about to begin amidst fanfare and the public’s first real introduction to the wonders of Robotechnology.

Which, of course, is exactly when the alien armada shows up. They’ve been trying to find humanity’s brand new battlefortress for the last ten years and they want it back.

In the middle of all this are two old friends: Roy Fokker, the RDF’s top ace and commander of the elite Skull Squadron, and Rick Hunter, a young pacifist and airshow pilot.  Time was, Roy flew for Rick’s father in an airshow; but then war and the SDF-1 happened, and Roy answered the call to serve his country (and world). It’s something that Rick hasn’t really forgiven him for, but he still takes Roy up on his invitation to see the launch of the SDF-1.

When the aliens attack, Rick finds himself thrust into the middle of all this, flying a brand new fighter plane that he really shouldn’t have been in in the first place, to make matters worse, the aliens are fifty foot tall giants, and the RDF’s new fighters happen to turn into giant robots for ground and urban combat. (Not exactly airshow flying.) While flailing around in a robot that used to be a military fighter, Rick comes across the beautiful (But young, spoiled, and horribly annoying) Lynn Minmei and takes his first real steps into combat– and into understanding why the military exists– in order to protect her.

Thing go from bad to worse when the SDF-1 tries to surprise the the invasion force by using the ship’s spacefold drives to jump to the far side of the moon and attack them from behind. The surprise, on one level works– only an idiot, or someone who’s never commanded such a ship, uses a spacefold that close to a planet’s surface. Turns out the spacefold actually takes a bubble of the surrounding universe with it, and in this case, it took Macross Island and a pair of aircraft carriers as well as all the civilian inhabitants of the island. Adding insult to injury, the inexperienced crew calculated the fold wrong, and they’re on the far side of Pluto.

Oh. And the fold drives have vanished into thin air.

Fortunately, the SDF-1’s a big ship, and has room to spare for the civilian inhabitants. Also, the aliens are most interested in the SDF-1, and don’t actually care about the Earth per se, so with the SDF-1 out of the neighborhood, Earth is safe. Unfortunately, the crew of the SDF-1 doesn’t know that, and either way, it’s going to be a long and dangerous trip back to Earth.

Character is one of the places these books stand out. It owes that, frankly, to its source material (The original Japanese franchise is collectively called Macross, and it is, by and large, known for cool planes, good music, and great characters.) but it would’ve been easy enough for Luceno and Daley to flub their transition into the printed word. Roy Fokker is one of the most memorable characters I’ve seen in SF, though whether or not that’s because of the influence the books eventually held over me, I can’t tell you. What I can tell you is that I’ve read these books so many times that they’re literally held together with packing tape and contact paper, and that the names of Fokker, Hunter, Minmei, Hayes, Sterling, et. al., have stuck with me through my adult life.

As I mentioned above, the authors did a lot to take a vague, overarching conflict and make it into something coherent. The first book, Genesis, opens with a prologue that the TV show never had, but does so much for establishing that there is Something Going On. The initial state of the SDF-1 after its crash is one of strange, almost Lovecraftian geometries. The inside is in shambles, ever reconfiguring in a way that doesn’t seem quite mechanical and doesn’t seem quite like a spacetime anomaly, and that goes a long way towards making the idea of fighter planes that suddenly change into fifty-foot tall power armor seem less ludicrous; change and metamorphosis are in some way at the heart of Robotechnology. The prologue also takes a character who is very, very minor in the TV show and turns him into someone that will be a driving force for the entire 40-year arc of the series.

Robotech was a game changer for me in a lot of ways. It broke Star Trek‘s monopoly on my imagination, and thus on my writing, which I was just starting to be serious about as a young teen. Combined with the influence of Babylon 5, I learned a lot about how to balance character drama and explosions, and I learned the value of having good characters.

The books themselves are relatively short– maybe 200 to 300 pages– but there are a lot of them. 21, to be precise, though the main story is “only” 18 books. (The other 3 are forgettable midquels.) Fortunately, though, Del Rey saw fit to package a lot of the books into an omnibus format that gives you three books at a shot. You can get the Macross novels (6 in total) in two omnibus paperbacks. And, surprisingly, on Kindle.

Josh Young is  a seminary student, Castalia House author (the forthcoming Do Buddhas Dream of Enlightened Sheep) and blogger at Superversivesf.com If you enjoyed this, we’d love to have you visit our main site!

21 Comments
  • cirsova says:

    I keep seeing these and wondering if I should check them out. I’m that guy who missed Robotech, watched Macross first and spoiled the other, but I get the appeal for the folks who are a bit older than me.

    The guy in my industrial band was a huge robotech fan and has recently started collecting those giant Valkerie fighter figures.

    • Josh says:

      I’m actually a really big Macross fan. I have Robotech on DVD, but I’ll be honest, my Robotech love is mostly focused on the novels. They were my first exposure to it, and I seriously prefer McKinney’s take on it to Harmony Gold’s ongoing and occasional attempts at bringing the TV series back.

      I’ll probably address this sooner or later, but despite the fact that Robotech starts off with Macross, it winds up telling a story that’s really very different from… True-Macross, I guess. The official continuity. Or even Macross II. And if Harmony Gold would stop being jerkfaces about copyright, I’d cheerfully argue that the Macross universe(s) are broad enough for both Robotech and Macross.

      • cirsova says:

        Yeah. For me, the thing about Robotech was when it was a straight adaptation of Macross, it was good, and while the newly introduced elements stuck out like a sore thumb, it was still pretty okay. I think what really burned me on Robotech was Masters. There was a lot of derping around waiting for the Invid to show up and kill everybody. When they did, I think I cheered.

        • Josh says:

          Masters is definitely the low point. But it’s also one of the great things about McKinney’s novelizations. We’re still stuck with Dana Sterling, but the books add the ever-present threat of the Invid being drawn due to the decay of the Protoculture Matrix. I don’t remember the Southern Cross sections of the show terribly well– it’s been a while– but I never got the feeling like the Invid were the looming threat they were in the books. The Masters desperately needed the Matrix to hold the Invid off back on Tyrol and the whole time, the Regis’ faction is bearing down on earth specifically because the Matrix is there.

          • cirsova says:

            So, hey, any plans for some superversive speculation on Do You Remember Love? as a propaganda piece existing within the Macross universe?

            DYRL? goes out of its way to paint Minmei as a sympathetic victim of circumstance, while in the show she was a real twit. But given Minmei’s importance in the Zentradi War and the subsequent peace, it would make sense from a culture-prop stance, if indeed DYRL? would’ve been watched by the children of those who’d fought, to paint Hikaru as cad and Minmei as having gracefully made love’s sacrifice rather than crawling in the mud and begging forgiveness.

          • Josh says:

            I’ve considered going over all the Macross stuff, actually. Zero, DYRL, Plus, Frontier, et al. Maybe even try to choke down Macross Seven again.

            What’s interesting to me is how actual continuity doesn’t seem to be either the show or the film, but somewhere in between the two. A lot of visual stuff from the film made it to the later entries– the ARMD platforms on the Macross instead of the carriers, for instance– but there is zero mention of a protoculture city on earth. (Which presumably was extrapolated into DYRL from the events of Zero?) It’ll be interesting to see when stuff starts to reference Frontier whether the films are more canon than the show. (I rather hope they are.)

          • Nathan says:

            I would love to see such a retrospective. I miss the space opera that used to be a mainstay of the medium, but seemingly vanished after Lost Universe and Martian Successor Nadesico.

          • Josh says:

            Nathan: I can probably make that happen, then. I do want to touch on the other generations of Robotech and then I’ll probably go over Macross itself a little bit afterwards.

    • Christopher says:

      I’ve still got my stand-alone copy of “Genesis” and the omnibus editions. I just sold, along with about 95% of my comic book collection, the Eternity, later Academy comics of Sentinels (see that was the low point of Robotech for me, more so than Masters), the Antarctic Press comics, and so forth. One thing I didn’t care for about the novelizations, was I thought they overly relied on mysticism or spiritual backdrop whereas I thought Robotech/Macross worked best as a straightforward war story. I might go back and reread the novels to see if I still feel that way about the storyline. I also do have a copy of Shadow Chronicles. One day, I might go back and finish that “what really happened to the SDF-3” ‘fic I started in college, which was meant to be a written chronicle of our Palladium Robotech RPG campaign (still have a few of those books) RIFTS crossover as a writing exercise 🙂

      • Josh says:

        I think Robotech and Babylon 5 slammed themselves into me at a formative period. B5 was in maybe season one or two when I discovered the Robotech novels, and for as much hard SF as I was reading at that point, the two of them managed to impress upon me a fondness for scifi with a mystical backdrop.

        Of course, as a seminarian, I see a mystical backdrop to everything anyways.

    • Stephen says:

      Possibly one of the best book series I’ve ever read. I was a huge fan of the cartoon in the 80’s, and devoured every one of the books in the 90’s. The books are so much better. As a author, I know that consciously and subconsciously I still draw on them for inspiration.

  • H. L. Caroll says:

    Seeing the cover of Robotech #3 here gave me a feeling very much akin to the one I had when I first saw it in the Diamond Catalog – excitement and breathless anticipation. I was already a Robotech fangirl by the time the novelizations came out – had watched the series, dipped into the comic books, and reread the first art book from cover to cover several times. Due to weird ordering practices by my comic shop, I actually ended up with vol. 5 “Force of Arms” before any of the others. It might not be the ideal place to start reading the series, but it does have romance and the destruction of the Earth. Kind of everything I like in my SF. 🙂

    I know there are some fans of the show who hate the novels, but I’ve really enjoyed them over the years. The characterization is solid, as is the world-building. One of the clever things Luceno and Daley did, as far as I was concerned anyway, was to open each chapter with an excerpt from some “book” that commented on the wars or the ones who fought them.

    Of the twelve original novels, I probably liked the Masters Trilogy the least, as it seemed to deviate most from the animation; but as I got farther away from the viewing experience, I came to appreciate them more. As you said, the Invid threat looms over them creating a satisfying sense of coming doom and we get a look at two cultures basically trying just to survive.

    Thanks, Josh, for posting about these novels and bringing back some great memories. After I finish “Gray Lensman,” I might have to pull Robotech off the shelf for a serious re-read.

    • Josh says:

      Awesome! I’m always thrilled to find out that someone else loves these books the way I do.

      My path was pretty crazy. I think the library had like… #3, #7, and #9. Going straight from Macross to Southern Cross was pretty crazy.

      I wound up getting them for Christmas and birthdays, albeit very slowly. And then cobbling together the RPG books, and finally getting a chance to really see the series when they released it on DVD in 2001. (I had a friend that had taped it off of TV, but I only got to see Macross.)

  • Trimegistus says:

    I remember being struck by the role of Roy Fokker in the series — it was so unlike the stereotypical roles that such a character would be slotted into in most US-produced fiction. He wasn’t the hero, even though he was the ultimate Ace Pilot. He wasn’t the asshole rival, either. Nor does he have the predictable self-sacrificing heroic death.

    I wonder if so much of the appeal of Japanese media for Americans is simply that their standard tropes are different from ours.

    • Josh says:

      I’ve wondered about that, too. I’ve certainly gotten a little more jaded to anime in the last few years, barring a few standouts. It’s tempting to blame the moe obsession of the last few years, but I’ve also just noticed that some tropes are getting worn thin. Maybe the novelty’s worn off, or maybe it’s just that I see more crap (and correspondingly less good) now that the internet makes it more readily available.

  • anonme says:

    The Robotech books are far, far better than they had any right to be. It’s a rare case of the Novelization being as good as, if not better, than the original work- instead of a shoddy chance to make a quick buck.

    I’d recommend these books to anyone. Even people who hate Robotech due to Harmony Gold.

  • Ryan says:

    Hi Josh: What books should we start with? Do we need to read them in order? Thanks!

    • Josh says:

      You should definitely read them in order. Start with #1, Genesis. After Reading #6, you can either go on to #7 and the next generation-arc, or skip over to the Sentinels #1 to follow the adventures of the Macross crew during the second and third generations of Robotech. Either way, you want to read both Robotech 1-12 and Robotech: Sentinels 1-5 before reading the final book, The End of the Circle. (#19-21 are the forgettable midquels.)

  • Ebonics Nigga says:

    Yo Yo Josh. pimp-tight review. Tell me three things. yo’ favorite Robotech book. What reading order ta read dem. What novel ta start wif. Thanks all ye damn hood ratz..

  • […] and Earth, I was thoroughly invested in his relationship with Delenn. In reading the Robotech novels, I discovered, to my teenaged discomfort, that I had very definite opinions about how  the […]

  • […] and Earth, I was thoroughly invested in his relationship with Delenn. In reading the Robotech novels, I discovered, to my teenaged discomfort, that I had very definite opinions about how  the […]

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