Depending on your definition of good science fiction, Legend of the Galactic Heroes is one of the finest SF stories ever. Leaning more towards space opera, LoGH combines political intrigue with a genuine look at how people and societies can change (or even regress) as they expand out into the universe. I mentioned the anime on Ogiue Maniax many years ago but never really got into great detail about the series, but now that it’s being released in English in both anime and original novel form I thought that it’s about as good a time as any to talk about what makes LoGH such a strong series by reviewing the first volume of the novel.
Legend of the Galactic Heroes is the story of a corrupt democracy versus a stagnant empire in a far-flung future where humankind has ventured deep into space. Two figures, the unassuming Yang Wen-Li on the side of the Free Planets Alliance and the righteous Reinhard von Lohengramm on the Galactic Empire, act as both heroes and rogues within their respective systems, and their actions change the fates of their societies in unforeseen ways.
As I have seen the entirety of the Legend of the Galactic Heroes anime most of the story is not new to me. It’s been quite a few year so I may have forgotten some details, but the major notes are still pretty fresh in my memory because of how much impact this series has. The prologue of the first volume is actually a short history of how the Galactic Empire and Free Planets Alliance came to be, and how they each try to erase the presence of the other for political reasons. Something as simple as the fact that the Free Planets Alliance (which came after the Galactic Empire was formed from a Hitler-esque powergrab in its predecessor the Galactic Republic) reverted to an older calendar system instead of the Empire’s standard shows just how complex political philosophies and their manifestations in everyday life can be. A similar example exists in the real world: Taiwan’s official name is still to this day the Republic of China because it denies the idea that the People’s Republic of China is the legitimate government of China (and the PRC does the same to Taiwan). Even in the first volume, it encourages thought about how governments and even people’s everyday actions can maintain hegemony.
For some, such as myself, it’s a fascinating read that provides the perfect context for what happens in the main narrative as Yang goes about questioning the blind fervor by which people toss around the term democracy, and Reinhard similarly tries to chip away at the ossified core of incompetency in the Empire. Their personalities, but also many of the characters around them, are so well-portrayed and so effectively invite readers to pursue connections and thematic similarities among the gigantic cast of LoGH that it makes the book a pretty easy read overall. The character of Paul von Oberstein is especially notable for creating more questions than answers, and to this day you’ll have debates over what his true motives are.
Reading the first volume of the novel, one thing that stood out to me that had actually never occurred as I was watching the anime were the parallels between Reinhard and Rudolph I, the original founder of the Galactic Empire many centuries ago. Both believe that their government is suffering from stagnation and corruption, and that the best way to deal with these issues is to seize power from within. While Reinhard believes that people should be judged by their merits and Rudolph I was a staunch proponent of eugenics, the conviction by which they have sought change are strikingly similar.
Similarly, though this isn’t nearly as strong a connection, Yang is portrayed as being a brilliant but lazy man who despite all of his talents and keen insight wishes to live a quiet life. The current Galactic Emperor is initially shown to be a somewhat lost and even incompetent man, but he seems to display sudden flashes of intelligence that imply he might know more than what people expect. However, just like Yang, he prefers a more idle life.
The translation for Legend of the Galactic Heroes is overall very solid. I have not read the original Japanese, so I can’t make so direct a comparison, but the language flows well, never gets too dense or overwhelming even in the most dry of sections, and characters’ personalities are conveyed in a matter of moments. If I have any criticism of the translation, it’s less of a language issue and more of a copy editing complaint. At various times throughout the story, the spelling of Reinhard’s best friend Siegfried Kircheis changes, from Siegfried to Sigfried and then back into Siegfried. It doesn’t impact the quality of the story by any means, but that’s the kind of mistake that shouldn’t be happening.
I don’t think I can recommend LoGH enough, but then again I know pretty much the whole story. That being said, while both the overarching movements of the narrative, as well as the small details that connect with each other, build into something much greater, the first volume does a tremendously good job of setting it all up.