Tuesday, March 13, 2012

2001 Nights

(cross-posted from DKos)

It's not very often that you see a comic book that can be classified as Hard Science Fiction, but Yukinobu Hushino's 2001 Nights certainly qualifies. It was originally published in the mid-'80s in the manga magazine Monthly Super Action and then translated into English by Viz Comics as a series of graphic novels in 1996.

The title evokes the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is an important source of inspiration for the series, combined with the Thousand and One Nights. Instead of following the adventures of a single protagonist, the series is a collection of tales, each one called a "Night", tracing the story of mankind's journey to the stars.

Hushino's artwork is rich and meticulously detailed. Unlike a lot of manga, which lavishes loving attention to buildings and mecha but has characters who are stylized and cartoony, Hushino has a naturalistic style. Although you won't mistake his artwork for Neal Adams or George Perez, neither will you see a lot of manga hair and anime eyes. He achieves a rare balance in comics: not only does he make the technology visually plausible, but he makes the characters believably human and not exaggerated superbeings.

The first story, "Night 1: Earthglow", illustrates a recurring theme of the series. It is set in the immediate future. Mideast tensions have brought the world to the brink of nuclear war and the pilots of a US Space Shuttle wonder if their secret mission will precipitate it. Their flight plan brings them to a Soviet Space Station and they learn that their secret cargo is the President, who is going to meet with the Soviet Premier in a place where they can see the earth without borders, as a single planet. This story offers both the hope that the promises of technology and of space can solve our problems, and the fear that the conflicts of the past will remain with us.

Both that hope and that fear echo through many of the stories. In "Night 11: Stranger's Footsteps", two nations vie to establish colonies on the same planet; In "Night 12: Symbiotic Planet", colonies established on a planet by rival nations learn a lesson in cooperation by the planet's ecosystem.

At the end of "Night Night 7: Lucifer Rising", Father Chavez, the priest accompanying a mission to a newly-discovered planet beyond the orbit of Pluto, prays:

To Man, who in the distant past lost Paradise and now prepares to journey of his own will away from even the glory of the sun... please grant mercy and forgiveness... that our descendants not spread into the universe still as sinful as we... Please, Lord...
The series is not an optimistic look at the future. Many of the space colonies fail; some spectacularly. By the end of the series, mankind has grown tired of the expansion and has begun to withdraw back to the Solar System. But humanity has also spawned a "New Generation," people who may be the next stage of evolution who will remain traveling the stars after their planet-bound fathers have returned to Earth.

Several of the stories follow a single family, the Robinsons, as succeeding generations travel farther and farther out into space. Early in the series, a colony ship is sent out carrying banks of sperm and ova that will be grown into colonists. A generation or two later, FTL travel has been developed and one of the descendants of the original donors puts his fortune into terraforming the planet that colony ship is bound for so that his cousins will have a hospitable place to land when it arrives. Other members of the Space Family Robinson play important parts in other stories and the "The Final Night: Children of Earth" brings many of the generational plot threads back together.

Most of the stories are fairly short, maybe a dozen pages or so; but a couple of them are more lengthy and deserve special comment. One is "Lucifer Rising." Mankind is still limited to the Solar System, although a couple of extra-solar missions have been launched; (one an unmanned probe called Discovery, described in Night 6, and which contains the most obvious 2001 references; the other the Robinson Family seeder ship, which we first encounter in "Night 4: Posterity"). A hitherto unknown planet is discovered outside the orbit of Pluto composed entirely of antimatter. The Vatican sends a priest on the mission to the planet, called Lucifer, in order to prove that it is indeed the "Devil's star" and that further space exploration is contrary to God's Will. But Father Sanchez, the Vatican's emissary, is a scientist as well as a priest. As he grapples with his conflicting missions, he also grapples with his own guilt over failing to save a crewman who died in a space accident. And in addition, someone is performing acts of sabotage on the ship. Hushino interweaves his story with asides about the formation of the Solar System, evolution, and excerpts from Paradise Lost.

The penultimate tale in the collection, "Night 18: Odyssey in Green", is another epic, taking up a volume and a half of the Viz collection. Mankind is starting to withdraw back to the Solar System. Most of the colonies have failed; habitable planets are few and far between. But one thing could revitalize man's exploring spirit: if they could find evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. So far, humans have discovered life on other worlds, but no other people. Then a spacecraft passing near Betelgeuse encounters a rapidly-moving object being propelled from the planet by a laser drive; an enormous beam of energy coming from the planet's surface and pushing it. While investigating the planet, the ship is damaged by a second laser pulse, and the surviving crew are stranded on a jungle world trying to find the civilization which built the laser. What they find is nothing like they expect.

The final night brings the last of the roving Robinsons to the planet in the Tau Ceti system where the children of the original Robinson Project, sent from Earth long ago, have formed an idyllic colony; along with the New Generation, who have plans of their own. The meeting marks the end of the first wave of human exploration, but also the beginning of a new one. Even in leaving the Earth, mankind seems unable to shake the clay of past sins, past grudges, past mistakes off its feet. And yet hope remains, and the stars are there to beckon us on.

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