Saturday, September 27, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #268: Trillium by Jeff Lemire

Science fiction doesn't need to be all about the science. There's a long history of outdated, dodgy, and outright bad science in excellent SF works, so simply ignoring the inverse-square law or being a little fuzzy on what relativity means for FTL travel is excusable. And leaving things vague is often a good solution: it will be more difficult to nitpick what your super-nanotech does if your own characters don't really understand it. But sometimes a scientific element is so central, and so vaguely defined, that it causes problems for an entire work -- and that's annoying and distracting when that element is really just a MacGuffin to set your plot in motion.

Unfortunately, Jeff Lemire's recent SF comics miniseries Trillium falls into that category. Perhaps it's because Lemire hasn't done space-based SF before -- his The Nobody is an invisible-man story, and most of his other work has fantastic elements that fall on the magical/psychological side -- but this time out, he's got an antagonist that's hard to take seriously.

Trillium is a story set in two time periods: in 1921, William Pike is a shell-shocked WWI vet along on an expedition deep into the Amazon, under the leadership of his brother Clayton, to find a fabled Incan temple. (So far, so good.) The other half of the story is set in 3797, among a humanity that made it to the stars and was shattered there by an implacable enemy: Nika Tensmith is a scientist in one of the few outposts left, trying to find a way to help her people survive. (Also fine.) She's on Atabithi, where a white trillium flower grown by the natives (the usual primitive-and-tribal-looking aliens, familiar from late '60s SF and guaranteed to have Hidden Depth) just might stop humanity's enemy. But there's no clear communication with those natives: Nika is close to cracking their language, but right now she can only get scattered words, even with the aid of her AI Essie. Nika's superior, Commander Pohl, pushes to take the trilliums, with any force necessary: they're needed for humanity's survival. But Nika has the protagonist's instinct that failing to understand the natives will have massive consequences.

The natives' land is inside a walled area, with a field of the trilliums surrounding a temple -- one that looks remarkably like the Incan structure Pike finds after his expedition is attacked and mostly slaughtered by bloodthirsty locals on his end. Nika meets the natives on her side on last time, before Pohl's heavy-handed tactics take over, and they want her to eat a trillium flower.

Nika does, of course, and that sets the whole plot in motion. It's not a hugely original plot -- she meets William, via the linked temples, there's a lot of hugger-mugger on both sides, including a period where they switch worlds/lives, and in the end there's a transcendent moment that saves the two of them and at least some of the human race. But Lemire tells it well, with a real feeling for characters and his usual gritty art style, here enlivened by a new flair for imaginative page design and panel flow.

So what's the problem? It's that antagonist: Lemire describes it early on as a "sentient virus" -- it doesn't take over the bodies of humans like a parasite or zombie-creator, just kills them. He also says that nothing will kill it, not even space, which is bad-science enough. But all a star-spanning civilization needs to stop a virus is good quarantine protocols. Surely at least one human outpost decided to close itself off entirely and blow up any ships that dare come nearby? (That's a foolproof way to stop a virus: if there's no contact with outside life, it just won't get in, period.) It is difficult to believe in a story whose entire premise is silly: this virus is only dangerous to humans who allow others in -- it could rage across Asimov's Spacers universe and not hit a single human being.

Trillium was then a disappointment, for me at least: the science was just too dodgy and jury-rigged to believe in. All of Lemire's other strengths are strongly on display here, though: wounded, realistic characters; doom-laden plots; atmospheric locations. And his page design is more energetic here than I've ever seen him before. It's just a pity he didn't have a SF-savvy friend look at his plot early in the planning stages.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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