Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!
When I mention Gundam, I'm expecting one of two reactions. To the non-anime fan, it's this huge commercial franchise that's earning tons of money from selling model kits and toys. To the anime fan, it's this paragon of the real robot (as opposed to the super robot) genre. Before all that occurred however, there was of course the first anime of the same title--Mobile Suit Gundam--from which this franchise began. What some might not realize is how the series is this big science fiction opus, not necessarily space opera, but one that incorporates various elements from the genre such as technology to politics.
If you've ever taken the time to watch this show from the late 70's, it's really a struggle and perhaps not as refined as the later Gundam shows. One reason for this is that the Gundam was living under the shadow of another prevalent genre, the super robot, which is the flashier type of robot show where instead of superheroes, you have these robots that save humanity. If Gundam's red and blue colors are hurtful to the eyes of hard science fiction aficionados, this is the reason. Yet at the end of Gundam's run (which survived an almost-cancellation), it managed to subvert the genre and formed what anime fans would later recognize as the real robot (in science fiction terms, the equivalent of the super robot genre is Star Wars, while the real robot genre almost approaches hard science fiction, the best analogy of an American TV show that I can think of is Babylon 5). But enough of the background, let's get around to the science fiction part.
The first element is the nature of the robot itself. The Gundam is actually a prototype--a robot designed for mass production for military use. Now in the series, the Gundam actually wasn't the first robot in existence. Perhaps the first "true" robot in the series was The Ball (see, space vehicles that are actually spheres do exist in science fiction shows!) which was originally a construction pod later fitted with weaponry and armor. The Gundam was a counter-technology to the Zaku which was the opposing side's (The Duchy of Zeon which I'll touch on later) robot that won them victories earlier in the war. Now any science fiction aficionado is asking: why construct a robot in humanoid form? Whereas most robot shows of that era took it for granted, Gundam attempts to give us a rational explanation for it: versatility. Zakus (and Gundams) can traverse a wide variety of terrain. In the Gundam universe, there is actually a war that is taking place on two fronts: space and Earth. The Zakus and Gundams could easily adapt into any environment, water and the air being the only exception (both robots are actually functional underwater but they aren't the "optimum" form while Zakus and Gundams can't really "fly"). Both robots even utilize interesting physics as while both robots are quite mobile in space (where there is no gravity), that's not necessarily the case when landing on a space station or a planet: they don't have flight capabilities (although there were experiments to build such a robot). Also unlike super robots of its era, beheading the robot wasn't fatal--that's not where the cockpit is located but rather the "head" serves more as a camera rather than a true brain center. What leads more credence to the show is that instead of super-powered robots battling it out, the robots are mass produced and even have serial numbers to identify the various models and prototypes. That's not to say Gundam doesn't have its own share of super science. Zakus and Gundams wouldn't exist without the help of Minovsky Physics (easily the counterpart of nuclear technology in the modern era or spice in the Dune universe) but there is a definite attempt to ground Gundam physics with actual science. I can babble on about the technology (the space stations in Gundam for example uses Lagrangian Points) but honestly, what makes a show science fiction isn't just limited to technology. Let's move on to the other themes.
The second element is the setting itself which is set amidst a war. There are two opposing forces: The Federation and The Duchy of Zeon. Now the protagonist in the series sides with the former although it is clearly shown in the show that neither side is truly good or evil. Both "nations" have their own sets of heroes and villains and have various justifications for their actions. Suffice to say, there is conflict between the two factions and each is trying to dominate the other. Now what's interesting is what each of these two factions represents. The Federation is basically the wealthy citizens of Earth who have chosen not to migrate to space and are instead living comfortable lives on the planet. The Duchy of Zeon, on the other hand, are those who migrated to space (whether forcefully or by their own volition) to satisfy the energy and resource requirements of Earth. Suffice to say, there is much tension between the two factions, the former wanting to maintain its subjugation while the latter striving for independence. Both sides eventually resort to unethical means to achieve what they want and gave rise to the current conflict. In many ways, the Duchy of Zeon is the future of man: they are those brave enough to leave earth and expand and colonize. The Federation, on the other hand, represents our innate fears, especially how we react when we feel jealousy or paranoia and attempt to maintain the status quo. This might seem like the Duchy of Zeon is easily the heroes of history but that's not necessarily true as well. For all their good intentions, the current ruler of the Duchy of Zeon achieved his current status by assassinating its former leader. Moreover, they launched a devastating attack on Earth by killing an entire space station using nerve gas and then hurled it against the planet (a "colony drop" so to speak). Gundam is easily a narrative about the atrocities of war and what each side is willing to do in order to achieve its ends. The story is more of a gray area rather than heralding the tale of one true protagonist.
The third element is the inclusion of "Newtypes", supposedly the next stage of man, easily the ubermensch. Newtypes are basically human beings with latent psionic powers, such as an enhanced intuition ("spider-sense tingling!"). Many of the protagonists of the series are Newtypes, although an interesting development in the series is that most of the Newtypes are those who lived in space colonies, the reaction of the human body to adapt to the rigors of space. Yet for the most part, in the show they are merely tools, exploited by the military and politicians for their gifts. One never sees a Newtype who isn't a civilian perhaps because this is a military tale after all. Yet their inclusion explains why there are "ace pilots" in the series and why the Federation for the most part have been disadvantaged in their battles. Of course the existence of Newtypes pose an interesting question: does humanity need to live in space in order to evolve further? What I find interesting is that Gundam is one of those science fiction titles that espouses the theory that humans need to migrate to space in order to survive and earth is a symbol of regression and stagnancy (which is also a theme explored in another science fiction series, The Legend of Galactic Heroes).
Behind the seemingly fantastical concept of a robot and its pilot, Mobile Suit Gundam is really quite the science fiction title and would serve not only as the foundation of all future Gundam series's but influence mecha shows succeeding it such as the ever popular Macross (or Robotech).