Saturday, February 3, 2007

Book Review: 2001 Nights Volume 1

2001 Nights, Volume 1: The Death Trilogy Overture by Yukinobu Hoshino. English translation and adaptation by Fred Burke and Matt Thorn, with touch-up and lettering by Wayne Truman. Cadence Books, San Francisco: 1995. ISBN: 1-56931-056-4.

2001 Nights is not your daddy's manga.

Hoshino's artwork is detailed, exact, and beautiful. He does suffer the Japanese cartoonist's malady of being able only to draw about five different faces, but otherwise the artwork is solid.

Besides that, this comic may be one of the best sf short story collections you'll ever read. It's actually seven nights in this volume, not 2001, but that will be more than enough to satisfy a Jupiter-sized craving for space exploration.

As the title suggests, 2001 Nights owes a debt to Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some of the references are oblique, some direct. In "Night 6: Discovery," for example, there's an artificial intelligence that looks much like Stanley Kubrick's interpretation of Hal 9000, the berserk AI from Clarke's novel. But more than that, 2001 Nights follows the outline of Clarke's book, telling the story of mankind's gradual movement out into space, from a Cold War-style short story at the beginning to an epic-sized, chilling, and religion-laden finale in "Night 7: Lucifer Rising."

I wish to focus on "Lucifer Rising," but cannot without giving away too much, so I will here make the standard SPOILER WARNING and forge ahead anyway.

"Lucifer Rising" chronicles the discovery of a gigantic gas giant, almost as big as the sun, made of antimatter and orbiting beyond Pluto. Intriguing as that is, Hoshino doesn't stop there, but exhibits Arthur C. Clarke's habit of incorporating religious ideas--and of manufacturing objections to religion rather than dealing with real ones.

The main character in "Lucifer Rising" is a Jesuit priest sent on a mission by a fanatical, possibly heretical pope to prove that this new planet, Lucifer, is a representation of Satan himself, and to prevent its exploration, which the pope warns would be a "second original sin." This notion of a second original sin, though perennially popular with fantasists (such as Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials), has no place in Christian theology.

The priest actually demonstrates compellingly that the pope's idea has some merit. Using numerous quotes from Milton's Paradise Lost, Hoshino weaves a gripping tale of discovery in the midst of mayhem, accidents, and a series of gruesome deep-space murders.

Hoshino proposes first that the sun represents God. Fair enough, given Psalm 84.12. He goes on to suggest that the solar system began with "war in heaven," consisting of a battle between matter and antimatter, with matter coming out the winner, leaving a smaller antimatter system in the "outer darkness" beyond the solar system's borders. At one time a viable sun, this antimatter star had its own watery antimatter planet with its own antimatter lifeforms, appropriately depicted as leviathan-like sea dragons. The antimatter star cooled to a gas giant (he seems to be playing loose with science here), and the planet broke up into a ring with dragons conveniently frozen and visible in its ice. Not only that, but an antimatter meteor from the Lucifer system struck Earth, wiped out the dinosaurs, allowed mammals to find their niche, and produced humans--in other words, Lucifer brought about original sin.

The "second original sin" Hoshino has in mind is the harnessing of the most efficient and dangerous form of energy production in the universe, the matter/antimatter reaction, which can propel humanity at last to the stars. The story ends with an image of Michaelangelo's much used and much abused "Creation of Adam," with God and Adam slowly drifting apart over a series of panels, representing man journeying away from the sun and, consequently, away from God. At the end of the story, the pope--a religious fanatic--dies, as does another character who proves to be a science fanatic, equally dangerous and more vicious besides, leaving open the question of whether harnessing antimatter is a good idea or not.

The story reminds of Clarke's "The Star" as well as Gene Wolfe's "All the Hues of Hell." As in Clarke's famous short story, the religious struggle is contrived and forced. We're in little danger of discovering, as Clarke's protagonist did in "The Star," that the Star of Bethlehem was a supernova that wiped out a peaceful, intelligent species. We're also in little danger of making one-to-one equations between planetary bodies and spiritual entities, no matter how the solar system formed. Nonetheless, the contrivance allows Hoshino to tell a story with big implications. "Is a matter/antimatter reactor a second original sin?" is a more entertaining question than "Is a matter/antimatter reactor safe to build?" which is what we would really be asking if the events of this story actually occurred.

It is worth noting that the story ends with the priest's prayer, asking God to grant that the humans who spread into the universe might be less sinful than their progenitors. Perhaps Hoshino writes this in memory of the perpetual arguments Arthur C. Clarke had with C. S. Lewis, who believed that humans colonizing the universe would inevitably debase it, as Lewis depicts in his Space Trilogy. Lewis once referred to cosmic distances as God's quarantine measures and considered space colonization a serious threat. Clarke denied this. Hoshino neither exactly affirms nor denies, but does give the idea an imaginative and powerful meditation in this fine story.
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