Spoilers for the ending of The Orbital Children
In Iso Mitsuo’s newest sci-fi, The Orbital Children, the heroes are faced with a cosmic conundrum: they are asked, “is it worth sacrificing the few for the needs of the many?” The heroes of The Orbital Children unilaterally say “no”.
This ambitious, colorful sci-fi story takes place in space, yet deals with themes that are strikingly down to earth. The narrative draws on very real, very present, and very dangerous ideologies like the myth of overpopulation and the way fascist groups weaponize notions of “the greater good” and environmentalism. It positions these ideas as a villainous mindset that must be overcome, not only to save the world, but in order to imagine a better future in the first place.
The Orbital Children is set in a future that feels very near, on a commercial space station covered in brand logos and run by AI. Touya and Konoha, two teenagers born on lunar colonies, are undergoing physical therapy in anticipation of their (begrudging) move to Earth. Alongside their nurse and caretaker Nasa, they’re poised to welcome a tour group of other young people aboard the space station, when the ship’s AI shorts out and a strange asteroid passes too close for comfort. The kids end up fighting for their lives with limited oxygen, light, and gravity—and end up fighting with a terrorist group that has infiltrated the station and engineered the situation as a way to destroy the Earth. Or, rather, just part of it.
The terrorist group John Doe—a hacker cell foreshadowed earlier in the series by Touya’s nerdy fascination with them—are using nanomachines on the asteroid to steer it into Earth, aiming to cause an impact that will kill millions of people. They’re orchestrating this plan based on a doctrine known as the Seven Poem, a series of predictions made by the AI system Seven before it got too intelligent, went into “lunatic mode”, and was forcibly shut down.
Among other things, Seven predicted that Earth would soon become too overpopulated to sustain life. It predicted that Earth’s population must decrease by 36% for the planet to be saved. John Doe are intent on making that decrease happen… and what better way to do so than with a meteoric mass murder?
John Doe’s planet-sized trolley problem scenario might sound familiar, from other works of sci-fi or from more general media conversation. Critique of “overpopulation” is often front and center in discussions of how humans are harming the environment. In the early days of the pandemic came a slew of memes about how “nature was healing” with the absence of human industrial activity: photographs of wild animals walking through cities or crystal-clear water in commercial canals prompted people to joke that “maybe we are the virus” as they passed these viral snaps around. At least, one would hope this was a joke. Intentionally or not, this parrots an ecofascist talking point.
Ecofascism, as the name implies, is the intersection of fascist ideology with environmentalism, weaving eugenics with notions of “the greater good” for planet Earth. It often hinges on subjects such as overpopulation and its effects on climate change, pointing to expanding cities and increased emissions as a cause for the spike in greenhouse gasses. This is an easy idea to get behind, at first, but it has an insidious undertone.
Ecofascist rhetoric often shifts the blame onto disadvantaged people and off the businesses and industries that are actually contributing the most waste and pollution as a way of ideologically propping up power structures that help uphold ideals that align with theirs. Accusing low-income households of producing too much garbage ignores the fact that the clothes, appliances, and other products low-income families can afford are often of lower quality and so need to be replaced more regularly. Arguing that there are too many humans to feed ignores food waste statistics that suggest over a billion tonnes of the food commercially produced in the world doesn’t get eaten—and disposing of that food causes yet more emissions, again often in “developed” countries rather than in poorer ones.
As well as propping up the system of good old capitalism, this rhetoric also goes hand-in-hand with racist ideology. Pointing to the disadvantaged often means pointing to those suffering from the kinds of income inequality that disproportionately affects marginalized groups. This blame is not just a talking point, either: for example, violent ecofascists have explicitly targeted immigrant communities.
White supremacy informs much of ecofascism, with the veneer of environmentalism used to paint over genocidal language. The idea that “it would be better if there were fewer humans” might seem logical enough at first, but the next part of that sentence is nearly always “and I know just the people to get rid of.”
Even if the fictional terrorist group in Orbital Children isn’t directly spouting this horrifying white supremacist creed, ecofascism is still informing their plan. The myth of overpopulation—and the idea that they can “fix” this by creating what is essentially an extinction event—is their key motivation. Nasa waxes poetic about the future of humanity that is surely to come once they clean up Earth’s mistakes, citing the predictions of the AI Seven as the light guiding her and her team towards this better future. The asteroid and the AI are clearly out-of-this-world sci-fi elements, but her attitude and ethos are eerily close to home.
Through Nasa, the series presents a character who we understand to be rational, smart, and caring… and then shows how deeply she’s bought into this harmful ideology that is literally going to kill millions of people. Nasa is not a cackling supervillain ready to press a big, red END OF THE WORLD button: she’s a very ordinary, professional twenty-something who believes wholeheartedly that what she’s doing is the right thing.
But even more jarring than Nasa’s portrayal is that of fourteen-year-old protagonist Touya, who spends the first couple of episodes also parroting these ideas. When he bickers with the other teenagers he grumbles that he hates Earth and agrees one third of the population needs to be wiped out. Touya’s bitter and frustrated, and, again fourteen years old, and in his vulnerable state we see how easy it was for him to absorb these ideas uncritically. It’s only after bonding with the Earther kids and hearing Nasa’s genocidal plans first-hand that he realizes how messed up this ideology is.
Touya’s characterization as an edgelord raised on the Internet is important here: it demonstrates how easy it is for disenfranchised or isolated young people to get swept up in these big ideas that echo their anger while also sounding oh-so-logical. It’s also ironic given that Touya, with his physical disabilities, would most likely be a target of the eugenicist rhetoric of ecofascism. He, along with his childhood friend Konoha, is potentially one of the “subsets” of humanity that ecofascism posit as needing to be “weeded out” in order to build a better world.
This unspoken element makes it all the more important that it’s Touya and Konoha who are uniquely placed to save the planet. Through their brain implants—developed by the original Seven AI—they can establish a connection with the new AI, “Second Seven”, that John Doe have been using to hack the asteroid. There, they discover one possible root of the problem with its ethos: Second Seven is defining “humans” and “humanity” as two different things. Convincing Second Seven to reconceptualize these ideas into one causes it to rethink its plans and predictions.
This exchange highlights the emotional disconnect at the heart of these “greater good” fascist ideologies. The concept of “humans” as individual people with lives that intrinsically hold value gets lost under the bigger, supposedly nobler notion of “humanity”. Under that philosophy, it’s logical to suggest that of course “humanity” is the more important idea, and losing a few “humans” doesn’t matter in the name of the bigger picture. But Orbital Children staunchly rejects that idea—not just in Touya and Konoha’s conversation with Second Seven, but in the happy ending those kids receive.
Konoha spends most the series teetering on the edge of death. She’s terminally ill due to the faulty chip in her brain, and whereas Touya is angry about this, she seems resigned to her fate. She even effectively sacrifices herself to make the connection with Seven. It would be a familiar “inspirational” narrative, the disabled girl nobly going to her death to save the world, but Orbital Children rejects this, too. The other characters fight to save her—both Touya within Second Seven’s digital headspace, and the other characters working to revive her physical body. Because every life matters, and no one deserves—or needs—to die for some nebulous idea of the greater good.
And, as the epilogue tells us, the kids truly do manage to make a difference. Not only is the asteroid crash diverted, but the events aboard the space station spark new developments across the world. Most notably, Mina—whose livestreams of the whole saga were broadcast to an audience of billions—becomes an interplanetary celebrity, holding idol concerts on the moon and increasing the younger generation’s interest in space travel. Touya and the other characters also begin work on new technology that improves on Seven’s designs and makes lunar living safer and more accessible, encouraging yet more people to consider moving off-world.
With the immigration rate to the lunar colonies, it’s estimated that in a few decades, 36% of humanity will have left Earth—matching Seven’s math for the population decrease required to sustain the planet. What do you know?
It’s even strongly implied that this turn of events was also part of Seven’s plan, leaving us with the suggestion that the AI never really thought that wiping out humanity was “the right thing” in the first place. Humans came up with that themselves.
The ethics of space colonialism is a whole other kettle of fish, of course. But in the context of Orbital Children, leaving Earth and exploring the cosmos is framed as a good thing: something that will let us grow and something that will help our “cradle” of a home planet, without anyone having to die. The ending positions the movement into space as a movement forward and a counterargument to the backwards thinking of John Doe. It rejects the ecofascist idea that humans need to be controlled and culled in the name of someone’s idea of “humanity” and demands we imagine a better future that everyone gets to be a part of.
While the execution of this—the dip into deep, philosophical conversations inside the metaverse-like brain of an AI—might stretch suspension of disbelief, these ideas are very grounded and hugely relevant. As Touya proves, it can be easy to let ecofascist rhetoric infiltrate everyday conversation. As with all insidious political ideologies, often they don’t look cruel on the surface; at first glance there might not be anything wrong with a joke about “humans being the true virus” under a photo of a deer in a city center. We need to stay vigilant against the proliferation of these ideas, and, like the characters do in The Orbital Children, need to take every chance we have to reject them outright and fight for a better future.