As soon as he graduates from junior high, orphaned Mitsu follows in his late father’s footsteps and joins the workforce, cleaning the windows of the planet-ringing, low-orbit space station the Earth’s population now calls home. With the surface 35 kilometers below declared an off-limits nature preserve, the only concept most people have of their mother planet is that of a beautiful, untouchable landscape viewed from the station’s large public (and, if you have the money, private) windows. As he and his working-class colleagues labor under perpetually dangerous conditions to keep the windows clean and repair minor damage to the station’s hull, Mitsu takes in the breathtaking scenery below him as well as the glimpses into the living rooms and lives of his fellow humans on the other side of the glass.
There are a number of interconnected, engaging stories going on here. First, there’s Mitsu and his late father, whose presence could hardly be more felt if he were alive. The traits they share that draw them to the same work and the same human bonds give the boy a purpose and a family when he needs them most. Then there are the lives of the people around him. Besides the vignettes with his various clients, which help describe the limits of the class-divided culture on the station, the reader gets increasingly greater access into the private lives of Mitsu’s diverse friends and coworkers from the station’s lower level. Thus the reader begins to suspect that there is more to the plot than an expanded coming-of-age story as the gradually assembling pieces begin to draw a broad yet intimate picture not only of individual lives but of Mitsu’s entire displaced society and its potential secrets.
Iwaoka’s visual mix of detail and simplicity and her tentative, fragile linework give her endearingly frog-faced characters and their manmade environment both substance and a thematically appropriate physical and psychological vulnerability. Outside the cocooned, largely artificially-lit interior of the station lies a world of glass planes, glaring sunlight, and endless space, anchored by the haunting, mesmerizing terrestrial expanse that dominates the horizon below. Clinging to the barren station exterior and dangling from their safety lines, Mitsu and his coworkers look tiny and exposed; but the solitary well-to-do residents regarding them through the glass can seem just as frail and cut-off from existence. Iwaoka understands the barriers between people as well as she does their absence, and as the perspective changes between the cleaners outside and the clients inside, with the reader’s imagination-ears popping at the perceived pressure difference, it’s generally up to naturally empathetic, acts-before-he-thinks Mitsu to equalize their hearts and remind both them and the reader that they all call the same world home.
Saturn Apartments is a quiet, contemplative, wonderfully atmospheric science fiction / slice-of-life tale tinged with sadness, humor, and mystery. Its young protagonist stepping out into the adventure and responsibility of the adult world will appeal to teens and adults, alike, as will the themes of isolation and connection. The most mature elements so far are Mitsu’s talks with a former prostitute who feels undeserving of her new happiness and a few, perfectly understandable exclamations of “damn it!” from other cleaners when things take a frightening turn on the job. If you like slowly unfolding complexity and a story that lets you absorb, process, and interpret its subtle implications yourself, you’ll enjoy this thoughtful, poignant series.
Saturn Apartments, vols. 1-3
by Hisae Iwaoka
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781421533643
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781421533735
Vol. 3 ISBN: 9781421533742
Publisher Age Rating: T (13+ for adult situations and language)