Descender is a space opera in glorious watercolour with a sweet, vulnerable and potentially lethal little boy at its heart.
Two brothers who were torn apart ten years earlier are searching for each other in the context of the build-up to intergalactic war. The catastrophe that separated them involved huge robotic machines called Harvesters, which wrought havoc on the planets governed by United Galactic Council and then disappeared. Since then, the agents of the UGC and others who are simply robot-phobic have been trying to destroy all artificial intelligence machines. Freelance bounty hunters, ‘scrappers’, roam space ferreting out even the most innocent robots, ‘robbies’, including those that are essential to human life on tiny planets. The repugnant inhabitants of the planet Gnish have made a virtual religion of pitching robbies against each other in gladiatorial combat. Meanwhile, the UGC are secretly building their own version of a Harvester, in the hope of securing the software that will make it an invincible weapon; and The Hardwire, an underground robot resistance, is building a huge army and hoping to call on the Harvesters (whom they worship as gods) as allies in a great war to eliminate humans.
All of that is background revealed in the first couple of books as it impinges on the lives of a handful of vividly realised characters.
There are the brothers, Andy and Tim-21. Tim–21 is a robot created to be his companion. We learn through a series of flashbacks that they were devoted to each other as small boys, that Andy’s mother treated Tim-21 with kindness and respect for his sentient nature, that Tim-21 developed a capacity for compassion, affection and loyalty. He was in sleep mode when the Harvesters struck and stayed asleep until accidentally woken ten year later. Meanwhile, Andy was filled with vengeful rage and became a scrapper.
The sweet-natured, vulnerable Tim–21 contains within himself the coding that will reveal the secrets of the Harvesters – so he is a sought-after prize by all the big players. He does have allies: Quon, the man who ‘created’ him, Telsa (not Tesla) an officer of the UGC sent by her father to retrieve Tim–21 (she is unaware that her father wants to weaponise his coding); and his brother Andy.
The little band is captured, released, split up, infiltrated. There’s plenty of explosions and bang-crash-pow. But the narrative is kept alive by the complex web of ambivalent relationships and the underlying Blade-Runner-ish question of what it means to be human: Tim–21 has a human ‘brother’ in Andy, and a robot ‘brother’ in Tim–22, both of whom claim his affection and also plan to destroy him; he grieves for his deceased human mother, sees Quon as a kind of father, and is claimed as a son by the leader of the Hardwire; Andy’s ex-wife Effie identifies as part robot since being patched up after an accident, and insists that her name is Queen Between; a barely-intelligent robot named Driller turns out to have deep reserves of remorse for a murderous act of revenge.
The back stories of the characters unfold, full of satisfying twists, as the adventure lurches forward. At the end of Volume 4, things are looking grim: one character is about to drown, the weaponising secrets are about to fall into the wrong hands, one of the little bands of adventurers is about to be wiped out by The Hardware, and the galaxy as we know it may well be about to be destroyed. Then Tim–21 recognises Andy on a screen and cries out, ‘That’s my brother!’ The end of Book Four.
It’s terrific story-telling, with moments of sly satire, as when the Gnishians are crowning a new king: instead of a crown they place on his head an orange hairpiece that is eerily familiar to anyone who follows US presidential politics.
I wasn’t drawn to Dustin Nguyen’s watercolour art in the first volume but either it’s settled down or I’ve settled in, but now I’m loving it. My conversion was completed by a series of spreads early in Volume 4 where three narrative strands play out wordlessly – across the top of each spread, the two Tims are alone on a lunar landscape; across the middle Andy and Effie/Queen Between revive their former mutual passion; in the bottom panels Quon and Telsa fight off a Hardwire guard and search for Tim–21. Each level has its distinctive style, and the sex and the violence are both handled with conviction but without prurience. At a couple of moments it may be hard to tell exactly what’s happening (my complaint about Volume 1), but there is good reason for that: sometimes the reader needs not to know everything.
According to Amazon, volume 5, The Rise of the Robots, will be published in January 2018, and it’s ‘what it has all been building to … as the origins of The Harvesters are finally revealed and the galaxy is thrown into all out war’. But Amazon says nothing of what happens to Tim and Andy. I’ll just have to wait.