“The time was fast approaching when Earth, like all mothers, must say farewell to her children.”
― Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey
If you’re reading this, you already know how rich the seam of science fiction is within the mountain of comics history. From Planet Comics to Weird Science to Mystery in Space to Heavy Metal, and far too many others to list, the industry has produced no shortage of excellent science fiction series. Yet none of them are quite like 2001 Nights, the visionary ten-issue manga by Yukinobu Hoshino.
Following the popular translations of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira (Epic Comics) and Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub (First Comics) in the late ‘80s, Hoshino, who works in a similarly slick, cinematic style, became one of the early manga artists whose work was translated into English. 2001 Nights (subtitled “A Space Fantasy” in Japan) was published by Viz Media, with assistance from Studio Proteus (a manga translation company), in 1990-91. The series was also collected into three paperbacks by Cadence Books in 1995-96.
What separates this particular series from the pack? For one thing, it is a rare work of “hard science fiction.” Most sci-fi comics fall into the space opera category where melodrama and adventure dominate, and visual dynamism drives the narrative. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a good space opera (who doesn’t love Star Wars and Star Trek?), but “hard science fiction” is much more difficult to write convincingly. What exactly is hard science fiction? The idea is that the story is rooted in, though not necessarily beholden to, actual science. According to the Hugo Award-winning author, Ben Bova, “‘Hard’ science fiction is based on reality, the real world, as science has discovered and explained it. But it goes a step farther, beyond the known and into realms that have not been discovered and explained - yet.”
2001 Nights is the story of humanity’s exploration of the universe. Told in a series of nineteen episodes, each successive “night” represents a milestone in the gradual journey. As the title implies, the series borrows its narrative structure from 1001 Nights, a collection of Islamic folk tales from the 7th Century, and its epic scope, which spans several centuries and thousands of light years, was also inspired by Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix series.
The opening story (“Night 1”) sets an optimistic tone for the series as the leaders of the U.S. and Russia come together for a clandestine summit aboard the Soviet space station. Written at the height of the Cold War (the series was first published in Japan from 1984 to 1986), this alternative political context served as the antithesis to the toxicity of the nuclear arms race. The breathtaking views of the Earth, which Hoshino depicts with flourish, spark a newfound appreciation for the planet and, realizing the folly of their brinksmanship politics, their shared revelation triggers a new era of cooperation and peace.
With this expanded perspective as its foundation, the timeline jumps forward about thirty years. In “Night Two,” the renewed spirit of global unity has led to the establishment of an international moon base, a joint effort between the world’s governments and private corporations. Its mission, of course, is to mine raw materials, but an unexpected discovery fundamentally transforms humanity’s perception of its place in the universe.
To fully appreciate this series, it is important to understand the extent to which Hoshino has adapted ideas from classic science fiction novels, particularly Arthur C. Clarke’s body of work. The title makes no secret of this influence, and the fossilized remains discovered in “Night 2” are clearly inspired by the alien monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are many other analogous plots, characters, and concepts lifted from the acclaimed author’s novels and short stories. For example, the main character in “Night 3” is named Frank C. Borman, an obvious reference to the real-life Commander of Apollo 8, the first mission to orbit the Moon, but with Clarke’s middle initial inserted for full transparency. In “Night 6,” everything from the Kubrick-inspired ship designs to the H.A.L. 9000-like computer, “K.A.R.C. 9000,” which not only gains sentience but even develops a sense of humor, are also taken from 2001. Similarly, the recurring concept of the “human seeding project,” in which frozen sperm and ova were sent out on unmanned ships to colonize future generations, was central in Clarke’s novel, The Songs of Distant Earth.
Clarke’s influence is perhaps most evident in “Lucifer Rising” (“Night 7”), which combines the concept of the Lucifer anti-matter planet, an integral part of 2010: Odyssey Two (1982), with the crisis of religious faith at the heart of his Hugo Award-winning short story, “The Star” (1955). While the discovery of anti-matter promises a limitless fuel source which would enable deep space exploration, back on Earth its revelation exposes a deep rift between church and state. Scientists and government officials understand the enormity of the discovery, but the Pope, recognizing the threat to the Catholic Church’s existence, embarks on an aggressive campaign to demonize “the Devil’s planet.”
Though its plot includes a murder mystery and plenty of dramatic space action, “Lucifer Rising” is ultimately a meditation on the profound implications that space travel has on traditional religions. This underlying search for meaning is one of 2001 Nights's core themes and throughout the series, Hoshino repeatedly explores such existential questions from a variety of perspectives, reinforcing the idea that space exploration is not merely a quest for scientific knowledge, but also a search for something much deeper and more intractably human. He magnifies this conflict by adding quotations from Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, accompanied by illustrations of ancient dragons and mythical beasts drawn in the classical style of Gustave Doré. Ultimately, the Jesuit priest/astrophysicist who accompanied the crew on its Lucifer mission comes to the same apostate revelation as Clarke’s narrator in “The Star”, concluding that “there comes a point when even the deepest faith must falter...”
Of course, Hoshino’s sci-fi influences extend well beyond Clarke. For example, “Night 14”’s orbiting satellite, which catapults food and supplies between Earth and the lunar base, was taken from Robert Heinlein’s Nebula Award-winning book, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966). Similarly, with its vast rainforests and oceans of sand, “Odyssey in Green” (“Night 18”) is a deliberate pastiche of Philip José Farmer’s novel, The Green Odyssey (1957). There are also references to the works of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and others.
At first, the large number of parallels in 2001 Nights might feel excessive. Has Hoshino taken too many liberties with other creators’ stories? Hardly. Dismissing 2001 Nights as derivative is a grave injustice both to Hoshino and his readers. What the series does, and quite exceptionally, is take the best ideas and concepts from those classic novels and expand them into wholly original stories. According to Gravett, “Hoshino does so much more than pay tribute to the classic sci fi novel(s) and movie(s) by taking on new themes and questions and arriving at answers all his own.” It’s worth noting that Jack Kirby did virtually the same thing with 2001 in 1976, adapting Kubrick’s movie in an oversized “Treasury” edition and then expanding it into an original ten issue series for Marvel Comics. Perhaps Clarke himself expressed it best when describing the differences between his novel and Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of 2001: “the two bare much the same relationship as an acorn and an oak tree.”
The middle “nights” describe the various scientific advances that enable space exploration and Hoshino depicts these new technologies (e.g., hibernation chambers, hyperspace drives, artificially-created microscopic black holes) in meticulously researched detail. Borrowing another technique from Tezuka, he occasionally pauses the narrative to explain, often with visual models, relevant technical concepts (e.g., the gravity lens effect that occurs within binary star systems).
The latter third of the series focuses on numerous expeditions to distant planets and star systems, the efforts to establish and sustain human colonies, the search for and exploitation of essential resources, and the first encounters with alien lifeforms (mercifully Hoshino avoids bug-eyed monsters and other comic book clichés). “Stranger’s Footsteps” (“Night 11”) is a particularly memorable tale told from the perspective of a conscious planet describing its first impressions of humanity after explorers land on its surface. “Symbiotic Planet” (“Night 12”), another standout, shows how bleak conditions back on Earth (war, famine, poverty, and disease) spark a parallel conflict on a distant planet. It’s a grim reminder that humanity’s political and militaristic nature is so deeply ingrained, even the unfathomable wonders of the universe cannot fully eradicate it.
Though at first the individual stories seem like standalone pieces, subsequent readings make clear that 2001 Nights has a distinct overarching metanarrative. The nineteen chapters, when considered together, chronicle the full history of humanity’s first “great advance” into the universe. However, the exuberant spirit of curiosity and adventure that was so prevalent in the early nights has faded by the end, replaced by feelings of insignificance and a yearning for home. The universe is too vast to comprehend and too inhospitable to human life.
In the final story, “Children of the Earth” (“Night 19”), the curtain drops with a fascinating confluence of past, present, and future as the current generation of humanity has finally given up on space travel, while “the new generation,” those children who were born and raised in space and have no connection to Earth other than their biological roots, take the baton. The irony of the title is that these are not “children of the earth” at all, but rather children of space. Many of them are over 300 years old due to the relative aging of deep space travel, and they represent not only the promise of the future, but the next stage in human evolution. Thus, their commitment to further explorations is both an ending and a beginning, a brilliant open-ended culmination for the ambitious story.
Throughout the series, Hoshino’s artwork transports readers to distant parts of the universe, illuminating celestial bodies, alien landscapes, and fantastic new forms of life with stunning clarity and detail. The incredible precision and specificity in his drawings is reminiscent of Al Williamson, Wally Wood, and even Frank Lloyd Wright. As Fred Burke, one of the series’ translators wrote, Hoshino “gives his pages a crisp clarity that makes 2001 Nights a visual joy, rendering every figure, every spaceship, as if it were a perfectly composed black and white photograph” (although he makes such fulsome use of tones, washes, shading, hatching, and other techniques, it’s almost misleading to describe his art as black and white). Much of this texturing was done by Hoshino’s assistants who drew mostly backgrounds while he illustrated the main action and scenery of each panel, inking them with fudes (small brush pens used for Japanese calligraphy).
His stories eschew the traditional manga tropes of doe-eyed caricatures with spiky hair and hyper-exaggerated expressions in favor of photorealistic characters who move across the pages with graceful naturalism. His figures always have weight (except when the lack of gravity necessitates otherwise) and his sense of anatomy and body language is immaculate. Similarly, Hoshino’s spacecraft, colonies, and other sundry apparatus of space travel are also designed with this scrupulous attention to detail, and the painstaking effort he pours into these depictions of technology are integral in creating the sense of “hard science fiction” realism. No matter how far-fetched, each drawing feels credibly grounded in actual physics, engineering, and architecture. For example, “Night 3” features “a heliogyro,” a mineral survey ship powered by a dozen ten-kilometer-long windmill blades covered with solar panels. The pinwheel design of this ship exemplifies both Hoshino’s understanding of technology and his extraordinary imagination, as well as his sense of symmetry, scale and perspective.
Unfortunately, though he has been a prolific mangaka for more than 40 years, only a small handful of Hoshino’s works are available in English. Saber Tiger, which was also translated by Viz in 1991 (the series was originally published in Japan ten years earlier), is an early science fiction work which, in many respects, reads like a prequel to 2001 Nights. Inspired by the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which featured a tribe of primitive man-apes, Saber Tiger focuses on a group of time travelers whose misguided actions inadvertently bring about the end of human civilization. Hoshino's American publisher clearly believed in the book, lavishing it with state-of-the-art design and production. Saber Tiger was given a plastic slipcover, wax paper inlay, and, along with Natsuo Sekikawa and Jiro Taniguchi’s Hotel Harbour View, was marketed as part of its short-lived “Spectrum Editions” line.
After Saber Tiger, Hoshino disappeared from American comics for fifteen years until, in 2006, Dark Horse Comics translated his 13-part adaptation of James Hogan's classic sci-fi novel, The Two Faces of Tomorrow (the manga version was originally published in Japan in 1993). Drawn in the same rigorous photorealistic style, the story, a cautionary tale about the perils of artificial intelligence, deals with humanity’s over-dependence on technology. Hoshino later adapted two more of Hogan’s novels - Inherit the Stars and Thrice Upon a Time - however neither has been translated.
The most recent of Hoshino’s work to appear in English is Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure, released in 2011. The publication coincided with an exhibition of his artwork which was on display at the Museum from October 2009 to January 2010. British Museum Adventure is a detective story which boldly delves into the thorny political complexities of the Museum’s legacy of colonialism and cultural appropriation. In Japan, Professor Munakata’s adventures have been serialized for over two decades in Big Comic, the long-running manga anthology, and have proven so popular some have even been adapted into television dramas.
In the late '50s and early '60s, science fiction and reality converged in a way that had never happened before. The space race between the Soviet Union and the U.S. had culminated in man’s conquering of the moon, an unparalleled triumph in human history, and suddenly the solar system and even the universe beyond didn’t seem quite so vast. With one astonishing mission after another, the Gemini and Apollo programs inspired an entire generation of classic science fiction, and Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came out less than a year before Neil Armstrong made his “giant leap for mankind,” was perhaps the most prominent of these works. Yukinobu Hoshino was a teenager when the movie came out and 15 years later that sense of awe and wonder still burned bright within him. Looking back, Clarke said they had aspired to create a “theme of mythic grandeur” in the film and 2001 Nights captures that spirit perfectly.
Unfortunately, since it’s been out of print for nearly thirty years, the series is largely forgotten today, though the issues are easy enough to find and not too expensive. In a perfect world, Viz or some other publisher would revive this underappreciated masterpiece, but until then, the next time you’re surfing through long boxes at your local comic shop or eBaying yourself to sleep, keep an eye out for it.
Bova, Ben. “What Is ‘Hard’ Science Fiction?” The Huffington Post, February 2, 2015.
Burke, Fred. “An Odyssey in Inner and Outer Space.” 2001 Nights #8. Viz Communications Japan, Inc., 1991.
Clarke, Arthur C. 2001: A Space Odyssey. New American Library, 1968.
Clarke, Arthur C. “The Star.” The Nine Billion Names of God: The Best Short Stories of Arthur Clarke. Signet/NAL, 1967.
Clements, Jonathan. “To the Stars: Yukinobu Hoshino.” Salon Futura, April 11, 2011.
De Grass Tyson, Neil. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. W. W. Norton & Company, May 2017.
Gravett, Paul. “Hoshino Yukinobu: Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure.” http://www.paulgravett.com/articles/article/hoshino_yukinobu, January 1, 2010.
Hoshino, Yukinobu. 2001 Nights #1-10. Viz Media, 1990-91.
Hoshino, Yukinobu. Saber Tiger. Viz Media, 1990-91.
Hoshino, Yukinobu. Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure. The British Museum Press, 2011.
Hoshino, Yukinobu and James Hogan. The Two Faces of Tomorrow. Dark Horse Comics, 2006-07.
Kaku, Michio. Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century. Anchor Books, September 1998.
McCarthy, Helen. “Yukinobu Hoshino: manga mysteries.” helenmccarthy.wordpress.com, November 25, 2009.
Rousmaniere, Nicole Coolidge. “Introduction” from Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure, The British Museum Press, 2011.
 Hoshino, one of Japan’s most acclaimed manga artists, was born in 1954 in Kushiro City on Hokkaidō, the northernmost island of Japan. He was 15 years old when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and has been writing and drawing manga ever since (for a brief period he studied to be a painter, but at the age of 21, he dropped out to pursue his passion full time). He made his debut with Kotetsu no Queen (Steel Queen), which was published in Weekly Shonen Jump Extra in 1975. Later that same year, his second work, Harukanaru Asa (Distant Morning), received the prestigious Osamu Tezuka prize for outstanding manga.
 For those who are curious, a few of the artist’s older series are available as bootleg scanlations. In particular I recommend Legend of Giants, a collection of three early short stories from the mid-‘70s which elucidates Hoshino’s fascination with mythology.
 Selected stories from 2001 Nights have also been adapted into anime, first in Space Fantasia 2001 Nights (1987) directed by Yoshio Takeuchi, and later as TO (2009) directed by Fumihiko Sori.