Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #197: Black Science Vol. 1 by Remender, Scalera, & White

Mary Shelley has a lot to answer for. Sure, we might have still had that horrible "meddling in things men were not meant to know" idea even without her -- the Romantic era loved doom and gloom, failure and grand gestures and hubris clobbered by nemesis -- but it wouldn't have been so blatant, and so central to generations of bad science fiction stories.

Rick Remender clearly likes pulpy, bad science fiction -- sci-fi rather than SF, giant monsters rather than the inverse-square law, slavering aliens rather than solid cosmology, blasters rather than anything more subtle. His earlier Fear Agent series -- though I've only seen the jam-comics version of that, so far -- is deeply in that tradition, all tramp starships and heroes who drink more than Galloway Gallegher and aliens that want to eat things there's no way they could digest. And now Remender is back with a new series with only slightly better science and a title that plays to the worst of those post-Shelley Frankenstein cliches. It's not good science, but it is...Black Science!

And I'm sorry to say that the main character of these stories -- Grant McKay, the requisite mad scientist, whose too-far-ahead creations will Doom Us All -- is the self-declared head of the Anarchistic League of Scientists. And, yes, he is serious, and so is Remender. (Which is a pity, because a crazy inventor and his crew of anarchists could make for some great comedy.)

Black Science Vol. 1: How To Fall Forever collects the first six issues of the series, beginning very confusingly to hit the action right away and only backfilling little things like motivation and character relationships on the run and in between more action scenes. McKay does get to emote a lot, though, and his internal-dialogue captions are just this side of Dave Sim's parody of Frank Miller.

But this is a gorgeous-looking book, with pencil art by Matteo Scalera underlying fully painted pages by Dean White that make Black Science look a bit like something out of Heavy Metal in its heyday. (Less nudity, though: our heroes are wrapped up tightly in their dimensional-travel suits.) And, through the flashbacks and the wonderful art and McKay's self-lacerating voice, we eventually can piece together the story.

McKay, along with two assistants, has created a dimensional portal in the form of The Pillar. Their work was bankrolled by a smug bastard in a tieless dark suit, as required: this one is named Kadir, and we know he's up to no good because he doesn't fit the other smug bankrolling bastard cliche by constantly obsessing about how much money he's going to make from the Pillar. There's one security guy, Ward, and a young woman named Jen who dies really quickly, so we know this is serious. Oh, and McKay's two kids -- teenage daughter, slightly younger son -- are also along for the ride, perhaps to lampshade that McKay is incapable of making a single good decision.

The Pillar was sabotaged -- though the flashback timeline doesn't seem to have time for that to happen -- sending our small band careening through the multiverse on a random walk, with each jump coming at whatever delay best fits Remender's plot at that moment and sending them on to an unexpected world. I think this all was supposed to be a quick test of The Pillar -- out to somewhere innocuous, and quickly back -- but that wouldn't be fitting for a book of Black Science!, would it?

The workings of The Pillar are inscrutable: McKay is rushing to get a bucket of fresh water in the first pages, without which The Pillar will overheat and kill them all. We don't see him get the water or refill The Pillar, and the need for water never recurs -- perhaps it only needs to be topped off every 10,000 universes. And the universes they land in are all pulpily dangerous places, filled with half-naked fish-women with exceedingly unlikely mammalian attributes and world wars between Nazis and high-tech Native Americans. This, along with the random timing, ensures the maximum amount of tension -- and Rememder tries to kill off a cast member in most of the worlds, to keep that tension ratcheted.

Black Science can't be taken seriously in the slightest; it's silly from front to back. (Watch out for the way that the secondary characters realize that McKay is most important, and urge each other to save him, the protagonist! See them obsess over McKay's kids, since he is, once again, the most important person there, and all of his relationships that much more vital and central!) But it is a high-speed romp, with some interesting alternate-world ideas (if the series runs much longer, we will definitely see alternate versions of the characters who have already died, and they'll possibly even join the team) and stunning art.

But it teaches an insidious, utterly wrong-headed message. There is no such thing as black science. There is no such thing as areas of study that are "forbidden." If you want that structure to your fictional world, you need something like Pascal's God -- for something to be forbidden, there needs to be a specific power in your world that forbids it. Fiction can do this, if you really want it to, but you have to build that structure in. Remender hasn't: he's just using scraps of other people's ideas without thinking about them or making them fit. But what more can you expect from a book actually named Black Science?

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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