Back when I was a freshman in high school, we had what I expect is a right of passage for any high school student — the state history class. I can’t remember if it was specifically about state history or a combination of state history and civics, but I know it had both things.
All of that aside, we had a textbook that probably dated from the 1920s about state history. What struck my classmates and me about the book was not its stellar storytelling but that it was obviously an artifact from a different time.
What time was that? Well, the time when it was OK to describe Native Americans as “savages.”
Yes. That was actually in a textbook. That I used. In the 1990s.
I’ll just leave that there.
I bring this up because it was so obviously something that was from a different time. So this is something that I see in Galaxy Express 999 a lot. The science fiction is of a pulpy, fantastic tone that would be more comfortable in 1950s space opera than two years after Star Wars was released.
But for much of the show, it manages to talk about modern themes. There are episodes about class structure, hard work and justice. Race, science and war are frequent subjects of the show. The show braces these subjects in a mature and nuanced way. In fact, the one sure thing about Galaxy Express 999 is that nothing is certain. There are no universal messages.
That said, there are times when I can see the show’s age.
The two episodes I’m going to talk about today are one of those times. Well, maybe.
So let’s talk about Episodes 72 and 73, Africa of the Dark Nebula. I will supply a synopsis of what you need to know and links to the Galaxy Express 999 wiki along with the Fan’s Guide to Galaxy Express 999. Both are great resources.
You can also watch the show.
Anyway, let’s talk about Africa, the great dark nebula.
Africa in Space
Our story starts with an introduction to the destination. We learn the 999 is going through a dark patch in space that happens to be shaped like Africa.
So the way that they describe it borrows from this idea that Africa was a “dark” place where there was no civilization and people would vanish. I’m going to refrain from commentary here. I will save it for later.
Anyway, this Africa in space is an area of gas so thick that no light can escape it. The 999’s stopping point is, of course, Kilimanjaro. As they approach, the Conductor is kidnapped. We learn that life forms have snuck onto the tracks.
Things soon go from bad to worse. Tetsuro is blinded by the strange triple sun that circles the planet. And the 999 crashes onto Kilimanjaro. As they are getting their bearings, Maetel is kidnapped, and then Tetsuro is captured by the strange beings called Ghost Hoppers. The Ghost Hoppers are basically two-dimensional creatures, and they seem to blink in and out of existence.
The Hoppers’ back story is another tale of science gone wrong. See, they aren’t indigenous to Kilimanjaro. They left their own ruined planet in search of another home and came across this one. When they landed, the actual indigenous people surrounded the craft, and the Hoppers wiped them out.
I have to point out that the original people on the planet used stone tools, wore animal skins and were effectively meant to be seen as little better than animals.
We’ll talk about that later too.
Anyway, after the Hoppers kill everyone else, they decide to launch an artificial sun. This one actually works out just as good as the last one in the show did. (Galaxy Express 999 is completely anti-artificial suns.) It changes the Hoppers from normal and into shadow creatures.
The Ghost Hoppers kidnap Tetsuro, Maetel and the Conductor and eventually steal the 999 itself to find some way to change themselves back.
I have to point out that the Hoppers lack any restraint. They are convinced of their own brilliance and don’t see that their mistake caused the situation they find themselves in.
The only one that seems to understand the society’s sins is the queen, who helps the 999 and the crew escape. As the 999 is leaving, we find that the queen is leaving the planet with them. She tells Tetsuro she finds her people revolting.
So more things happen, but those are the high points that I need to talk about.
The Dark Continent
So the history of why Africa was called the Dark Continent is really rooted in racism and colonialism. While the idea was that Europeans had little knowledge of the continent’s interior, that is a little disingenuous, according to this Angela Thompsell article on ThoughtCo.
While Europeans hadn’t made inroads beyond the Middle Eastern countries along the Mediterranean, African kingdoms traded with those countries and with Asian counties for millennia. But the Enlightenment thinker wanted to make sure they experienced those places themselves. So they erased all of the landmarks they already had on maps, and explorers began journeying to find them.
To quote from the ThoughtCo. article.
“The phrase itself was actually popularized by the British explorer Henry M. Stanley, who with an eye to boosting sales titled one of his accounts “Through the Dark Continent,” and another, “In Darkest Africa.” However, Stanley himself recalled that before he left on his mission, he had read over 130 books on Africa.”
There were many benefits for Europe in seeing Africa as a dark place far away from civilization. It makes it a moral imperative to lift up these people and bring the light of Western thought and culture to them. It also makes it a place where people can go for adventure, and they can get rich.
This led to stories of daring-do by white savior characters as they made their way into the mysterious and uncivilized lands.
Again from the ThoughtCo. article:
“They imagined forests as implacable and filled with beasts; where crocodiles lay in wait, floating in sinister silence in the great rivers. Europeans believed danger, disease, and death were part of the uncharted reality and the exotic fantasy created in the minds of armchair explorers.”
This is the legacy that Matsumoto is tapping into when he brings up the Dark Continent and moves it into space. Even the way he describes it captures this Victorian-era idea that somehow Africa is a mysterious country filled with untold dangers and not for the faint of heart.
It’s an image of Africa that is very much of a different time. Well, maybe not that different of a time, but, at the very least, it feels outdated.
Kilimanjaro wasn’t populated by an indigenous civilization filled with learned men and a culture of their own. No. It was home to savages, who used stone tools and tried to charge the giant metal starship.
When I watched it, I had the same reaction I had when I read my high school textbook that called Native Americans, savages. I sighed. I thought this really is 40 years old, and I soldiered on.
The Empathy of Colonizers
I don’t want to take away from the fact that this episode trots out a caricature of Africa based on Victorian ideals of white saviors.
But if that was the only thing it presented, I probably wouldn’t be talking about this.
The thing about this episode is that the villains are not those savages we see when the Hoppers initially land. No, they are the Hoppers who charge blindly into Kilimanjaro and decimate the population they find there.
They do it without thought or care. Basically, they are not so different than those white folks that marched their way into Africa looking for riches. They took what they wanted, abused the people living there and left it a poorer place than when they first came.
Then the Ghost Hoppers are punished for their hubris. When they launch their artificial sun, they are immediately transformed.
What is their reaction? Well, I can tell you that it wasn’t to be thoughtful and reflective. They didn’t accept their lot stoically. They didn’t try to do the right thing or seek help from other races.
No. What they did was try to kidnap and torture their way to a solution. At one point, they say that they are a superior race. They deserve to take what they want, abuse who they wish to and experiment how they want. Because they deserve it.
Goddamnit. They are the enlightened folk, and everyone else should just understand their place.
This combination of elements left me wondering. See, there is no way of seeing that first part as trading on a caricature as a storytelling shorthand. The same way a hardboiled detective from the 80s might have a quirky sidekick character from a different racial background. It’s expected, but it’s also a bit cheap and trades on harmful stereotypes.
But the show tries to show that the actions taken by those same colonizers lack empathy. We are told in no uncertain terms that they are revolting. The people that benefited from those stereotypes are shown to be pretty lousy people.
I’m not sure what to make of this dichotomy. I don’t know how much of it is just another tale of science gone awry and how much as actually intended to comment on the colonial mindset.
Either way, it’s worth thinking about.
I suppose that is all that I can ask.
As always, thanks for reading.