Saturday, September 25, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 234 (9/25) -- 7 Billion Needles, Vol. 1, by Nobuaki Tadano

Ignorance can be tremendously liberating, under the right circumstances. Even after a number of years of reading manga, I still don't have a good sense of what Japanese names are coded male and which female -- oh, sure, some few common given names are familiar, such as Akira or Ai, but that's about it -- and so I can read books without any real clue whether the creator was a man or a woman. It's not quite sex-blind reading, but it's a step on that road, and it can help keep the focus on the story rather than the story-teller.

Take 7 Billion Needles, for example. It was written and drawn by Nobuaki Tadano -- loosely based on Hal Clement's 1950s SF novel Needle, in ways I'll bring out more fully below -- and, up to this moment, I know no more about that person than the name. One quick google later, I learn -- assuming this is correct -- that Tadano is a he, and that 7 Billion Needles was his first longform manga story. But I knew neither of those things when I read 7 Billion Needles, and so my reading of it -- though beginning to be colored, now, by that knowledge -- was as close to pure as I could make it.

If a reader was unfamiliar with the Clement connection, 7 Billion Needles would seem most closely related to Hitoshi Iwaaki's Parasyte series, in which an alien (one of a race of anthropophagic invaders) accidentally colonized a Japanese boy's arm instead of eating his brain, leading the two to be forced to work together to kill other "Parasytes." 7 Billion also has an alien invader in the body of a Japanese teen -- in this case, quiet, recently orphaned Hikaru Takabe. But Hikaru's new symbiote, which calls itself Horizon, is a "policeman" -- one of the major borrowings from the Clement novel, where the alien in the teenager's body calls itself The Hunter and was explicitly chasing a "criminal" member of its own species.

In 7 Billion, Horizon is chasing an entity called Maelstrom -- but, in possibly stereotypically manga fashion, the stakes are much higher than they were in the Clement novel; Maelstrom grows from ingesting humans (forming a blob of amorphous, changing, semi-formed flesh, familiar from Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira and other stories), and he, or an entity like him, wiped out the dinosaurs. Horizon also says that Maelstrom could destroy all life in the universe, which sounds like hyperbole -- Maelstrom might want to destroy all life in the universe, but, as long as it sticks to eating things (even if it moves up to planet-sized things), there's far too much universe to eat in any countable span of time.

Still, Maelstrom is an immediate danger -- it knows that something followed it, and so the two aliens are in a cat-and-mouse game with each other. And these aliens have some nasty abilities, which Tadano depicts in a more matter-of-fact, cold way than most manga artists would. Both are amazingly fast, of course, and Maelstrom can sculpt the flesh of its host into whatever form it wants -- and ingest its victims to get more flesh to shape into larger, more dangerous forms. Horizon's main advantage is the element of surprise -- it knows that Maelstrom is near, and is trying to quietly find Maelstrom's host and get close enough to kill it quickly.

Tadano isn't done with this story here -- this is only the first of four volumes -- but there's a major confrontation going on the last pages of this volume, and the next book will certainly have a different tone than this one did. Tadano made this science fiction story -- with its monster-movie overtones, and a jolting dose of ultraviolence -- mostly quiet and subdued, with a heroine who falls into none of the usual manga stereotypes. Hal Clement might have had a hard time seeing his story in this, but I think he would have appreciated those quiet moments, and the communications between Horizon and Hikaru.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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