There are a lot of anime with a sci-fi backdrop. And I mean a lot. Some are silly little things like Aria and Manabi Straight. Some are long and grand like Legend of Galatic Heroes and all those Gundam shows. Some are sort of pandering like Vandread or Gravion. Every once a blue moon we get a mind twister like Serial Experiments Lain or Megazone 23. But more interestingly, we’ve got everything in between as well, as anime in a science fiction setting.
Trying to pin it all down is sort of hard, at first glance, but somehow it feels like they fall into three, non-exclusive, all-encompassing categories:
1. Drama-oriented. I’d squarely put shows like Manabi Straight and Gundam in here. Often times the plot revolves around some sci-fi/fantasy device based on the setting (eg. hijacking a school-wide video podcast or fighting some never-ending war between Earth and the Colonies), but for the most part the viewer can give a damn about them. In other words, these are the same old stuff, but lightly flavored to give us something special and neat. Some other examples would include Utawarerumono or Eva; LoGH is totally a space opera show, for obvious reasons. Tenchi Muyo is a franchise that, for practical purposes, is a Star Wars rip off…and no one cares. We just care who gets to sleep with the guy.
2. Setting-oriented. To be fair, setting here includes also the subject matter for discussion. Feeding the gnome-sized Tom Clancy fan in me, GITS:SAC is a whole lot of fun because of that elaborate geopolitic backdrop in a what-if future that’s all too humorous. It’s what makes Starship Operators so awesome, partly because of the politics but also of its focus on low-tech space warfare. Everyone’s favorite PLANETES does this very well. Last Exile has cute characters and developing personalities, but the steamy setting takes your breath away. Early and late episodes of Evangelion really hones in on this as well.
3. Idea-oriented. Here I’d categorize any show that harps on the idea over the substance of its setting, and the expression of the central idea(s) shadows the character drama. GITS is a bit in this realm, especially if you’re talking about the theatratical films. Serial Experiments Lain seems apt. Bubble Gum Crisis, maybe; but it really relies on the setting as well. Maybe the Eva movies.
Some anime are really strong in all three departments, but I think all sci-fi shows fall into at least one category. Just to practice on a few, something like Haruhi Suzumiya would be sort of setting and drama oriented, even at heart the show revolves around one idea. The plot as a juvenile sci-fi mystery focuses on “what happens” but the viewers are also concerned about “who and who’s” relationship. Eva is in all three categories, but it really focuses on the drama to get its basic ideas across. When it does, the show goes postal. A show like Scrapped Princess is also very similar, structure-wise. It has a simple theme so it didn’t have to beat you over the head. The elaborate setting, like Eva, is to just reel you in. Ergo Proxy, Solty Rei and Kurau all have that fantastic setting to get you started but those shows are just character drama with a sci-fi mystery plot as hook.
I guess I’m just trying to say that all these three things are while present in the genre categorically, they serve very different purposes. Asking for one is not likely to help you satisfy the want of another.