My reading list this month is dominated by books demands spawned by the two book clubs I’ve joined: the Secret Lair Book Club and my gaming group’s own graphic novel book club. The first two books are Market Forces, a Car Wars meets Wall Street novel by Richard K. Morgan and The Sky People, a tale of Venus as a pulp-style jungle world colonized by Americans and a Sino-Russian alliance by S.M. Sterling, The last is Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, a manga graphic novel and Japanese fairy tale by Hayao Miyazaki.
The Sky People
I’ve never read any of Edgar Rice Burrows’ pulp science fiction novels but I’m familiar with the concepts: ancient Martian civilizations living in a desert planet that’s dying, but not yet dead, Venus as a world-jungle populated with dinosaurs and other living relics of Earth’s past.
It’s our future past, a dream of what could of been, yet sadly, will never be realized (at least not in our lifetimes, and not without some serious terraforming).
S.M. Sterling’s novel The Sky People returns us to that imagined Venus, postulating an alternative history where Mars and Venus turned out to be habitable. As such, the space race didn’t end at the Moon; it spread to Mars and Venus as America and Russia sought footholds on these alien worlds … and sought to make contact with their surprisingly human-like inhabitants. The book takes us to an American camp on Venus, and follows a rescue expedition into the depths of the Venusian wilderness. It’s a great concept, but I think Sterling struggles to bring the dino-haunted wilds alive — the creatures seem too generic, too familiar, particularly compared to the excellent job that Michael Crichton did describing thunder lizards in Jurassic Park. Still, while the execution isn’t perfect, it does make for a good alien safari.
In Market Forces by Richard Morgan we meet Chris Faulkner, a professional road warrior driving for a corporation specializing in conflict management, which is a euphemism for funding third world wars in ways that best support transnational profits.
Take the most radical of the anti-globalization rhetoric, mix it in with real-world geo-politics, and throw in some Mad Max, and you’ll have a good idea of what Market Forces is about. In the book, corporations like Shorn Associates manage conflicts in two ways: by providing financing for or against various factions, and by engaging in auto-duels against rival conflict management corporations around the world. Chris is one such duelist, and the book sees him engaged in several such battles against competitors. At the same time though, he’s tormented by what he does. The job pays well, and keeps him and his wife living in the upper-class, protected areas of Britain, rather than the dangerous, nomads land of the Cordoned Areas, but the cold-blooded killings that his company demands of him weigh heavy on his mind. It’s not just enough to defeat anther driver; he has to kill him or her to prove and maintain his own status as a top driver.
The economic and class rhetoric of the book was unsubtle and occasionally preachy, but the auto-duels themselves made for good reads. Those sympathetic to the book’s anti-globalization message will probably enjoy it more than I did.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Although I’m grew up watching Star Blazers and Robotech I never made the jump to becoming a full-blown anime fan. And while I’ve read a few comic books based on those properties, the same goes for manga; it’s just never been something I’ve explored much.
That’s changed with our Graphic Novel of the Month Club’s current selection, which has select, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Recommended by Damon, it’s the story of a post-apocalyptic micro-nation. Centuries (if not millennia) earlier, the world was devastated by great industrial nations that grew too large, consumed too many resources, and ultimately unleashed too many horrors upon the world. She and her people of the Valley of the Wind survive in one of the few lands not touched by the biological insect plague spawned in the previous age.
Her father, the king, is dying, and it falls to her to fly the kingdom’s ancient gunship into battle on behalf of the emperor. But it seems the ancient treaties of fealty are fraying when the survivors of another nation show up claiming that the emperor betrayed them.
Reading the book is a weird experience — originally written in Japanese, the book is bound on the right-hand side, rather than the left, and as such, feels like I’m reading it backwards. Further, the panel order is also right to left, so you’re also reading it backwards (relative to how we normally read such things in English). Conceptually, I knew this, but in practice I found myself reading the panels left to right, just as I have in my regular comics for the last 20 years or so. As you’d expect, that made the story a confusing jumble, so I had to start over again the right way. It’s a constant struggle to not revert back to my conventional way of doing things.
So far, the story itself is interesting, but ultimately I think it’s the experience of trying out the manga format that will prove the most valuable part of reading this book. It’s making my brain work in unfamiliar ways … and that’s a good thing.