Robotech – The Masters

This is part 2 of 5 dealing with the Robotech novelizations. Part 1 is here.

Final NightmareI mentioned last week that Robotech, for all its vilification in anime circles, began life as an attempt to bring anime to the US without hacking it up into oblivion. (I haven’t ever actually watched Science Ninja Team Gatchaman/Battle for the Planets, but apparently what was done to that was pretty atrocious.) The mandates of TV syndication in the 1980s meant that Super Dimensional Fortress Macross didn’t have enough episodes to air in the US, and so Carl Macek of Harmony Gold brought two other series and rewrote the three to be a single story. TV wise, Macross made it through with the fewest changes; the other two series received the bulk of the changes.

This is doubly true in the novelizations. The second generation of Robotech, called “The Masters” or “The Southern Cross” depending on who you ask, started life as an rewrite of a relatively unsuccessful series (Super Dimensional Calvary Southern Cross. Man, I love 1980s anime names.) from the people that made Macross originally.  On TV, it always felt to me a little aimless; in the books, McKinney (A hive mind made up of James Luceno and Brian Daley) significantly fleshes out the story and pretty deftly uses a weaker entry to set up the third generation of Robotech.

The Masters begins a little less than two decades after Macross ends. The war with the Zentraedi is over, and victory has been had a terrible cost. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers for Macross here, but trust me, humanity pays for its victory.) In order to avoid another war, it’s been determined that a diplomatic mission will be sent to to Tyrol, the homeworld of the Robotech Masters, creators of the Zentraedi and of the Protoculture Matrix, the near-infinite source of energy that powered Tyrolian civilization, remains undiscovered in the sealed engines of the SDF-1. The Robotech Defense Force has reorganized itself into two bodies, the Robotech Expeditionary Force and the Armies of the Southern Cross. The REF’s was tasked with taking the newly constructed SDF-3 making peace with the Robotech Masters; unfortunately, Tyrol is a long way away and by the time Rick, Lisa, and the other members of the REF arrive in Tyrol’s space, they find that the Masters have been long gone. (The REF’s story is told in The Sentinels novels.)

Back on Earth, the Armies of the Southern Cross (Tyrol is located in the Southern Cross constellation) have been left to hold down the fort. The Masters saga follows the 15th Tactical Corps, a misfit squadron of veritech hovertank pilots commanded by Dana Sterling. Dana, is, frankly, an obnoxious wench, both to the reader and to the characters she interacts with, but she’s the daughter of two heroes of the first Robotech War (Ace veritech pilot Max Sterling and Zentraedi ace Miriya Parino, the first defector from the Zentraedi.) and a relatively talented squadron leader,  so the ASC felt it necessary to keep her around. And it’s a good thing, ultimately; as the only child of a human and Zentraedi, Dana Sterling is somehow special. The Zentraedi are a largely artificial race, engineered and altered by the Robotech Masters through the use of Protoculture, and Dana’s human-Zentraedi heritage means she has a connection a shadowy quasi-intelligence lurking in the depths of the Protoculture Matrix.

When the Robotech Masters arrive in orbit, they are in dire straits. The creator the Protoculture Matrix, a rogue Robotech Master by the name of Zor, hid the matrix in the engines of the SDF-1 and sent it to parts unknown in order to hide it from the Masters, who were using it to fuel their empire. What reserves the Masters had left were largely spent fighting the Invid, a formerly peaceful race betrayed by the Robotech Masters. Without the Protoculture Matrix, the Masters lack the energy to turn back the Invid war machine, and unfortunately for everyone involved, the Protoculture Matrix is derived from the Flower of Life, a now-extinct plant with which the Invid once had a symbiotic relationship. Humans have the Protoculture Matrix, but don’t know it; the Masters need the Protoculture Matrix, but won’t share it; and the Invid, still on the other side of the galaxy but an ever looming threat, are drawn to it, as it is the last remnants of the Flower of Life. The Masters have come to Earth with Zor Prime, a clone of the original scientist, in the hopes of retrieving the Matrix before the Invid can locate it.

These are probably my least favorite books in the whole Robotech saga, and much of that stems from the weak source material. SDF Macross and SDC Southern Cross were part of a “trilogy” of unrelated shows (The third being Super Dimensional Century Orguss) that featured transforming mecha, and wiki mentions that Southern Cross was fairly poorly received. Dana is rebellious and annoying, and I tend to find the mechanical design fairly ugly– which, admittedly, is less of an issue in a novel. But I have an enduring fondness for giant robots, and the Southern Cross mechs leave me a little cold in concept and execution.

So why should you read this? Well, every series has a low spot. (“Spock’s Brain,” anyone?) Luceno and Daley’s machinations do a lot to pull the Masters saga up and elevate it, but ironically, it’s all through really playing up the material from the three other story arcs of Robotech in ways that just rewriting the script of a show wouldn’t allow. The SDF-1’s wreckage, with a slowly decaying Protoculture Matrix inside of it features prominently as a sort of ticking timebomb; the instant the Matrix decays, it will release the seeds of the Flower of Life, drawing the Invid, who will feature prominently in both the third generation and The Sentinels. Dana and Zor Prime give us a window into the mystical aspects of Protoculture that, again, will feature prominently in coming story arcs.

When I first discovered Robotech, my library had books #3 (the midpoint of Macross) and two of the three books of the Masters saga. (#7 and #9, I think.) I remember going from Macross to The Masters and just absolutely hating Dana Sterling, but the growing world of Robotech still swept me in. I had this sort of odd, sick to my stomach feeling when I realized that the Zentraedi and the Masters were not who our heroes really should’ve been worrying about, and that as the Southern Cross fought the Masters, time was passing and leading on to an inevitable doom….

Part of the problem, I think, is that The Masters, which is okay, comes hot on the heals of Macross, which is fantastic. You know, if George Lucas had made The Phantom Menace first, we’d remember it as kind of a stupid movie that spawned a series of movies that would be fantastic, instead of as an insult to our childhoods. The Masters most definitely is not The Phantom Menace, but I do think that some of that is going on here. It’s weaker material sandwiched in between some fantastic and pretty great stuff. Ultimately, it’s still a quick and fun read, and it’s well worth dealing with B level material for the sake of the A+ stuff coming up.