Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Descender, Vol. 6: The Machine War by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen

I don't think I can avoid spoiling this book entirely, so leave now if you care. Know that I am very much not recommending it.

The Machine War collects the end of  the space opera comics series Descender: the big finale in which several space fleets and a scattering of giant anthropomorphic robots meet, the main characters yell and run around for a couple of hundred pages, and it all gets tied up in a bow. (For the story of how we got here, see my posts on volumes one, two, three, four, and five.)

And, on a single two-page spread at almost the very end, creators Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen blithely list the deaths of twenty billion sentient beings. In context, it seems to be primarily to clean things up so they can do a different story for the follow-up, Ascender.

But fuck that.

You do not make a story that just includes the deaths of billions of people as an afterthought. ("So I survived, which is nice, but everybody else died -- sucks for them.") There is nothing in your story that could be more important than those deaths; you've framed your story horribly from the beginning and focused on the entirely wrong thing. This is not a background detail. It is not a sad moment. It is not a failure on the part of our heroes. This mega-death is the most important moment in the entire history of this civilization, the moment of the end of that civilization: the only way to tell that story, especially in a popular-fiction context where the expectation is that the heroes will save the world at the last minute, is to announce it from the start.

You don't get to fucking back into a tragedy after six hundred pages and say, "Oh, well. It's so, so sad. Come back next month for the thrilling adventures of a girl in a eerily depopulated universe of magic!"

Descender was a strong story up to this point, with good characters and interesting moral dilemmas and thorny conflicts and striking art from Nguyen. But this is bullshit, and it does not work at all.

I may have been the person who coined the phrase "Backswing Fantasy," [1] about post-apocalyptic stories where the authors kill off the vast majority of humanity so that the mightily-thewed hero will have a little more room for the backswing of his sword, so that his struggles are more meaningful.

I hate those fucking stories. I waste a lot of energy hating those fucking stories. This turned into one of those fucking stories at the last minute. Again: fuck that. Fuck all of that right down to the ground.

You can kill all of your characters: that's not a problem. You can even blow up all of the military ships they're on (OK, I did have some good friends on that Death Star), and it'll only be a minor reader quibble. But when you oops! an entire civilization as a thrilling plot twist five pages from the end and have your protagonist survive but be very, very sad... Fuck. That.

[1] It was more likely James Nicoll, though. He's both more quotable and more prolific.

1 comment:

-dsr- said...

I haven't read any of Descender, so I don't know: is this different from Iain M. Banks in Consider Phlebas, where the appendix (to a story about a series of incidents in a war) lists -- well, it's short enough to quote:


Length of war: forty-eight years, one month. Total casualties, including machines (reckoned on logarithmic sentience scale), medjel and non-combatants: 851.4 billion (± .3%). Losses: ships (all classes above interplanetary)—91,215,660 (± 200); Orbitals—14,334; planets and major moons—53; Rings—1; Spheres—3; stars (undergoing significant induced mass-loss or sequence-position alteration)—6.

Historical perspective

A small, short war that rarely extended throughout more than .02% of the galaxy by volume and .01% by stellar population."

Banks, I think, uses this as a nail to drive home the point that not only is war terrible, basically nothing that drove the plot of the novel had any effect on the war.

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