June 15th, 2002

The "I've been thinking about it for two weeks" review: Akira

Most people who know me know I enjoy reading good comics as much as I do books. The mix of sequential art and powerful writing can come together in a way that's not matched by anything else. Sure, some people may say "it's just like a film", but that's not it - the key to sequential art is what happens between the frames, where he power of imagination meets the artist's work.

One of the most influential pieces of sequential art of the last 20 years is Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira. Recently republished in 6 volumes by Dark Horse, this is the first time it's been possible for the west to see Akira in its true form, as over 2000 pages of fine ink art. The story is complex - something destroyed Tokya and triggered World War III. Now the city has been rebuilt and is ready to host the Olympics. A bike gang stumbles across a strange figure in the night, a secret military operation, and a new drug. From the simple start everything spirals out of control: rebellion, hidden psychics, the real reason for the destruction of Tokyo, and the absolute corruption that can only come from absolute power.

This is a science fiction story, one that follows on from Alfred Bester and from the hidden fears of Japan. Death and destruction violate the lives of the characters, as they struggle to reclaim normality in the face of the unknown. We follow a small band as they transition from bit players to the keys that may free Neo-Tokyo. Nothing feels forced, it's all logical, as relationships shift and loyalties bind them closer together. Enemy becomes friend and friend enemy as chaos rips the city to shreds, and forces everyone and everything on to a new path.

It's also worth viewing the anime. Here the story is very different, covering just the first two volumes of the manga, but coming to a very different conclusion. IT's interesting to see how Katsuhiro Otomo treats film, and how he tells the story in a very different way in each medium. The limitations of film are clear, we miss many key characters, and the complex motivations of each side in the drama are simplified for the shorter story. It's almost as if the notes for the larger work suddenly developed a life of their own while Katsuhiro Otomo was still finding his way to the real Akira.

You'll spend days coming to grips with Akira. It's not designed for western readers, and little cues and stylistic tricks familar to western comic readers aren't there or are subtly distorted. Don't be put off by the resulting discomfort - above all Katsuhiro Otomo is a story teller, with something very important to say about how we treat power and the powerful. He's also a wonderful artist. Some how I think these are 6 hefty volumes I'm going to keep coming back to. What more can I say, apart from: highly recommended.
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The "Saturday morning review": Revelation Space

Falling through Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space is a strange experience. For the eponymous Revelation Space is more than just answers, it's also questions - deep questions about the place of life in the galaxy, and about what a race must do to survive in a viciously hostile universe. For the future history Reynold's has been carving out in a series of short stories, novellas and novels is not a happy one. The galaxy has been shattered by war, and we are the inheritors of the ruins. Leftover artifacts are as much trap as treasure, and in the darkness of the gaps between the stars, even the immense lighthugger starships are silent and lonely places.

Revelation Space is a tale of archaeology - of lives as well as of ruins. Dan Sylveste is constructed on the ruins of his father's great experiment, and his own great work, the discovery of what happened to the aborigines of the dead world of Resurgam, is about to collapse in yet another round of politics and mutiny. But great events move Sylveste, and an immense cycle of revenge and loss is about to reach out and grab him, and suck him into a story millions of years long. For the Dawn War that shattered the galaxy isn't over, and before the novel ends Sylveste and his compatriots (wives, friends, enemies, would-be assassins, simulations and wild alien engrams) will be forced to make decisions that could mean the end of humanity. The decaying, dissolving, ruins of the starships sweep us all on into the unknown.

A first novel, Revelation Space isn't perfect. However, it shows great promise. Sylveste's tragedy is a powerful, almost Shakesperean story, and the back drop of Reynold's future is complex and detailed, full of conflict and passion. With the sequel, Redemption Ark only a few weeks away, this was a re-read to prepare myself for yet more terrible revelations about the angry stars of Reynold's imagination.

I am now ready. Bring it on.

(For a sampler of Reynold's work - try Infinity Plus for two shorts and an excerpt from his second novel Chasm City)
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