Saturday, March 08, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #66: Last Days of an Immortal by Gwen De Bonneval & Fabien Vehlmann

Comics have been fertile ground for sci-fi, but not so much for SF: nuance and detail get lost in bold panels with iconic characters and surging action. It doesn't have to be that way, though -- just as movies are easier to bend to action and stupidity but can also show intelligence and contemplation, comics can just as well depict smart SF.

One of the stronger proofs of that assertion is the impressively cool and cerebral Last Days of an Immortal, written by Fabien Vehlmann, drawn by Gwen De Bonneval (you may be surprised, as I was, to learn Gwen is a man), translated by Edward Gauvin, and published by Archaia about two years ago to, as far as I can tell, no reaction whatsoever. That's unfortunate, because Last Days of an Immortal is an impressively science-fictional graphic novel, dealing with the questions of communication among different sapient races, the burdens of memory, and the problems of maintaining interest in lives that are effectively endless. It would have been a fine nominee for Graphic Story Hugo, if enough of the SF community had seen it in time.

Last Days is set in the medium future, probably post-scarcity, where everyone has multiple "echo" bodies to do other work, most of them can transform their bodies at least somewhat, easy teleportation has shrunken the distances between stars, and the intelligent races are working together in a possibly galaxy-spanning Union. It's a world of peace and prosperity, of riches and wonders and amazements, and we enter it as an agent of the Philosophical Police interviews a man about his recent death at the hands of his alien co-worker.

Because, unlike what some stupid people would tell you, the possibility of interesting, compelling stories doesn't go away in a rich, peaceful future: as long as there are people (or whatever species or type), they will compete and bounce off each other and cause trouble. That death is the simplest, easiest job that policeman tackles in Last Days.

That Philosophical Policeman is named Elijah; he's our viewpoint character. As often happens in books like this, he's a bit old-fashioned: he can't transform, he's only generated a minimal number of echoes, and he has maintained an unbroken continuity of memory for his whole history. (Though we don't know how long that history is: it's at least several hundred years and may be quite substantially longer.) He's investigating a number of serious cases, having a slow motion breakup with his lover Iseult, and learning that Matthias -- who may have been just a good friend, or may have been a long-term lover -- died the year before, leaving one last echo to make his last excuses and goodbyes.

(Funerals are bittersweet social affairs, in which the subject of the celebration explains why it's time to end life, and then suicides quietly in front of gathered friends and compatriots. We see one such during the book, and realize the greatest hurt to Elijah is that he was not invited to Matthias's funeral.)

Elijah is busy enough already, but his bosses want him to intervene in a thorny diplomatic problem on a far world: the two races there (one multi-armed humanoids; the other a collection of intelligent waveforms who may have a second, corporeal form as well) have no means of communication, and things are steadily getting worse. To be blunter, the waveforms have never managed to communicate with anyone, so Elijah has his work cut out for him.

There is tension in Last Days, but this isn't a book about tension: it's a smart, assured story about a skilled competent man with a difficult job in a complicated universe. In written SF, it's closest to the quieter works of Iain M. Banks, or middle-period Silverberg. De Bonneval's gray tones, clean transitions, and assured lines support that story apparently effortlessly, evoking a Francophone Dash Shaw. Last Days of an Immortal is not just good SF for a graphic novel, it's good SF period: and that's rare enough in any format to be celebrated.

 Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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