Battle Angel: The Cameron Epic That Might Have Been (And Might Still Be)
Battle Angel Alita: Last Order, Volume 12
Graphic Novel (Manga)
VIZ Media LLC
Avatar, James Cameron‘s first feature film since Titanic is a transhuman film, sort of a $300 million Pocahontas story told through the world‘s most powerful graphics card by one of the most acclaimed directors in Hollywood. Yet not all science fiction fans are fully satisfied. For several years, Cameron vacillated between Avatar and another project, a live-action treatment of Battle Angel Alita, a popular, critically-acclaimed, and very long-running manga by Yukito Kishiro. Avatar won out. During a panel at this year‘s Comic-Con in New York, one fan broached the subject with Cameron: (paraphrasing) “We‘re all happy about Avatar… but what about Battle Angel?!” Cameron replied, “It‘s not a great time to ask a woman if she wants to have other kids when she‘s crowning.”
Point taken. But what about Battle Angel? There‘s a good reason for a fan to raise the issue at such an indelicate a moment — it‘s one of the best works of science fiction ever made. The first volume of the first series, titled Gunnm or “Gun Dream” in Japanese, appeared in 1990. The latest volume of the second series, Gunnm: Last Order appeared in the U.S. this October. Over two decades, Kishiro has traced the journey of Gally, a radically synthetic cyborg, across a post-apocalyptic, 26th century Earth. The American translation, inexplicably, changed her name to Alita and, sadly, changed the poetic “Gun Dream” to the prosaic “Battle Angel.”
Gally‘s story mainly concerns the experience of a mind discovering itself. Nothing of her organic body remains but her brain. Salvaged from a trash heap by a cyber-doctor, Gally has amnesia, but begins to recover memories as she battles for her life in harsh circumstances. Kishiro‘s future consists of two cities: the Scrapyard, a sprawling slum populated by cyborgs and a few struggling baseline humans, and Zalem, a floating city of genetically engineered Adonises. The Scrapyard delivers food from its outlying farms to Zalem, while Zalem provides the building blocks of the scrapyard in the form of trash.
Gally was a Martian terrorist, you see, trained in Panzer Kunst, or “Tank Art,” a martial art developed for cyborgs. When she fights, her training comes to the fore, sometimes carrying memories along with it. For two decades, Battle Angel has chronicled Gally‘s recollections and evolutions as a series of action scenes. In 1995, Kishiro completed the first run of nine volumes, but he was unhappy with the way he‘d ended Gally‘s odyssey. Five years later, he essentially drew a line through the last half of the last volume and started fresh. This new series is Battle Angel: Last Order, currently at twelve volumes.
Her first big challenger, a boy Nova rendered into a cyborg worm, laughingly quotes Nietzsche, “the mind is just the body‘s toy!”
Gunnm 12 is set in outer space. For much of Gally‘s manga career, her adventures took place against the backdrop of the conflict between Zalem and the Scrapyard, between the exploiters and the exploited. Each city also embodies a type of transhuman life. Where the Scrapyarders mostly have organic brains in inorganic bodies, the citizens of Zalem have their brains replaced by computer chips. Yet, as Gally penetrates deeper into the history between the two places, she finds that they are bound together against a common enemy. A great tower sprouts from Zalem, leading to yet another city high in orbit, Jeru. Most of Last Order concerns the interplanetary politics of Jeru and the whims of its mysterious governing supercomputer, Melchizedek.
Of course, Gally explores these mysteries mainly by beating them to death. Indeed, the last eight volumes of the manga can be considered a single fight, with occasional interludes, which themselves consist mostly of more fighting. In 12, one of the central conflicts concerns the intersection of genetic engineering with Space Karate. It seems the Venusians have cloned and improved upon a “Space Karateka” to enter into the “Zenith of Things Tournament,” a Solar System-wide fighting contest. Gally hopes to win the Z.O.T.T. in order to secure the autonomy of the Scrapyard and Zalem from Jeru. But she also intends to help her friends and plumb the depths of her own humanity — or, as Kishiro puts it, to confront her karma.
And karma is at the heart of Battle Angel. The series‘ antagonist is Desty Nova, a mad scientist who wanders the world searching for people of strong will. When he finds them, he provides them with bodies that give them the strength to pursue their desires. Nova empowers people as an experiment — he wants to see what fulfilling desire does. Nearly all of Gally‘s major opponents received Nova‘s attentions. By overcoming them, Gally distinguishes herself in Nova‘s eyes as “karmically talented.” These days, Nova serves the interests of Jeru — or at least one version of him does. He has a tendency to die and be reborn (through nanotech) with alarming frequency, a fact he himself comments on.
Self-reflection is the hallmark of Gunnm 12, as it the hallmark of the series as a whole. And Kishiro reflects most intensely on the question of the transformed body. Very early on, after Gally catches herself in a bellicose mood, she muses that she “was surely a gun or something in a prior life.” Even earlier, her first big challenger, a boy Nova rendered into a cyborg worm, laughingly quotes Nietzsche, “the mind is just the body‘s toy!” Now, Gally possesses a body more powerful than any she has ever known — and her brain, the last bit of her original flesh, has been replaced with a chip. Yet, Nova interrogates her as he always has: what will she do with her strength? Fully a machine, how will she manifest her humanity?
It‘s easy to see why Battle Angel intrigues Cameron. He is a great portraitist of strong women. We can only hope that her fans‘ eagerness to see his conception of Gally won‘t abort his desire to conceive.
Ray Huling is a freelance journalist living in Boston. He is working on a book about shellfishing in Rhode Island.