A Graphic Novel
by Tim Eldred
For Christmas this year I received this volume from my girlfriend. It manages to be one of the better light novels which I've read, being both well written and well drawn. It is a tale like many others about a young man and the world he lives in.
Spoiler Level: Minimal :: You can even read the first few chapters at the book's website.
In 2019, Earth and its people were ticking along nicely when suddenly it is attacked out of nowhere. Without warning an alien armada sweeps over the globe, destroying cities, randomly raining destruction, setting off earthquakes. The immediate result is the death of 60% of the human population of the planet.
Almost as sudden was the appearance of the Benefactors, aliens who decide at the crucial moment to help a shattered humanity, and lift us to the stars. They advance human technology several centuries and, controversially, bolster our numbers by uplifting Gorillas. The story begins about a century later on the Flagship Carrier "Fist of Earth," part of the defense force in orbit around Earth.
Robin Plotnik is a young mechanic, recently graduated with full marks from a Fighter Mechanics Training program, with a penchant for science fiction, comic books and electronics. In other words a socially awkward nerd out on his own in the world for the first time. He's got himself an assistantship with a fighter squadron. Robin gets placed under maverick head mechanic McGimben "Mac" Gimbensky, a fellow nerd, a creative and intelligent technician and an 800 pound Gorilla. The fighters are Barbarian Squadron, the top ranking squadron on the Fist of Earth and they happen to be all female in the most testosterone charged profession on the ship. So Robin finds himself in the center of gender and species politics and he doesn't even know how to get a date.
The plot carries young Plotnik through various dramas that crop up for people living in close quarters aboard a starship the size of a city. He gains friends and grows as a person while trying not to fall prey to the complex politics that rage throughout the carrier. He and Mac become fast friends and find themselves at odds with bureaucratic superiors, corrupt fighter squadrons, parents, history and their own personal demons. But the story remains largely light and focuses on how the characters change over the course of Robin's tour aboard the Fist of Earth. The writing is reminiscent of a SciFi novel but it is paced very effectively as a comic book. A good comparison as SciFi goes is Orbital Resonance by John Barnes, with a similar setting in many respects.
The storyline of several chapters is exposition on the background, which is a serious of interesting and noncontiguous storylines that expose the political beliefs of the characters and point out their individual backstories. Despite their usefulness however I found them a touch distracting. I felt that the characters were given no background from before they boarded the Fist of Earth, even when Mac and Robin's parents show up they shed no light on the past of the characters. What I find most jarring is the views of Earth are only in the backstory and the present only takes place on the Fist of Earth, leaving the main characters' lives on Earth in mystery. The sole weakness of the book is the wanting for more retroactive development of the characters.
Eldred's art is vintage American-style but shows signs of his work with Japanese-style manga Star Blazers. The characters are well shaded and realistic in black and white. The character design and the technology design remind me of various late 80s and early 90s American cartoons such as Exosquad. In many ways this is an attempt to bring the light simple narrative that has roots in Japanese styles to an American audience.
I think this is an excellent volume, it is a SciFi novel that is not about action but about drama, which it pulls off with comedic flair. It talks about race, gender and conservation politics with the perspective of someone who is steeped in many of his own issues, making the scope of drama within the story both narrow and wide. The writing is sharp and the comedy entertaining. If America is to make a reply to light shonen manga, this is what it looks like.