Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Malachi Ward, Part 2: From Now On

Concluding a two-week look at Malachi Ward, here's a review of his collection of sci-fi/fantasy short stories, From Now On. 

This is a surprisingly coherent collection of stories. Some of that is intentional, as a particular story is told from the point of view of three different characters. One of them is the time traveler from "Top Five", which I reviewed last week. Adding texture and context to that story are "The Oviraptor" and "Disconnect", which follow the stories of the two other time travelers. We learn, for example, that the group badly overshot their goal of going back to watch early humans and neanderthals interact, instead going back to a much earlier era where dinosaurs were still active. One of the travelers permanently exiled herself from her only remaining compatriot, and "The Oviraptor" offers a touching attempt by the other traveler to reach her when he came across a bird-like dinosaur, after she had earlier mourned that she would never see a bird again. "Disconnect" is one of the best stories in the whole book, as it follows the arc of another traveler, as she faced a lifetime of alienation and loneliness before she went on the mission. She wound up getting there about forty years before the rest of her group, and the year-by-year narrative (including being visited and living with aliens, and then fleeing when some more aliens came along to attack them) that runs panel-by-panel is an effective and clever device. She spends the whole time trying to find her compatriots, not knowing that they weren't there yet, and there's a heartbreaking ending when she sees them after they've just arrived--still young. The deeply muted colors and naturalistic style reflect that sense of loneliness, and the color does a lot of the narrative work when Ward starts cramming panels on each page.

In terms of Ward displaying sheer drawing chops, nothing beats one of his earliest stories, "Utu". It established a number of Ward's favorite techniques. There's a double genre-flip, as it starts out as a fantasy story, then it's revealed to really be a sci-fi story, and then that turns into a sad-boy comic. There's the colonial urge shown by its main character, who uses his position of being from the future in an effort to change the past, thinking he knows better than the savages of yore. There's that sense of dystopian ennui, as all the advantages of the future don't make it any easier for the time-fiddler to escape his own sense of loneliness and inability to relate to women. Ward also shows off his drawing and design chops, especially in the way he transitions from light to darkness and drops a variety of revelations on the reader. "Hero Of Science" is simultaneously a more refined and more visceral version of these concepts in a manner similar to Jesse Moynihan's Forming comics. The character design is a tad cartoonier, but the commentary is more pointed. The story is about a yet another time traveler who has "gone native" with a primitive tribe, and he stages a murderous attack on other travelers from the future who are looking for him. It's in many ways not unlike a Mr. Kurtz situation from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, where it's not so much that a colonizer goes mad with power so much as it is the painful revelation that colonization is in and of itself an act of violence. What the traveler does here is just a logical extension of that premise.

Stories like "Henix", "Beasts of Kay-7" and "The Scout" all have double-twists after the initial premise seems obvious. Or rather, the consequences of the twist are unexpected. In "Henix", the High Protectorate (aka the queen) is visited by an elf that tells her that there was a prisoner in her dungeon that she needed to see. When the prisoner, half-elf and half-human, tells her that his father was a member of her court and put him in prison, she accepts his service in exchange for his service in perpetuity. The twist in the story is not the identify of his father, but rather her reaction when she finds out. This story is comparatively spare for Ward, focusing more on character than world-building.

"Beasts of Kay-7" features a scientist whose flexibility of thinking prevents him and his crew from being turned into food by a group of monstrous aliens on the planet they're exploring. Notably, the scientist is one of the few characters in the book who's pure of motive. He doesn't want to conquer or colonize; rather, he simply wants to understand the life that's on the planet for the sheer sake of learning. He's an abrasive and insensitive character at times, but his dedication to science and the mission at hand give him a purity that the other characters in the volume don't possess. Once again, Ward's skill as a draftsman is on full display, as the bizarre half animal/half plant creatures on the planet are terrifying. The punchline of the story--that the mere act of observation and recording is a kind of intervention on its own--is clever and well-designed, especially in the way it shows how easy it is to not only become dependent on technology, but to take its existence entirely for granted.

"The Scout" is about the way in which colonization leads to inevitable violence, told through incredibly clever trope of an explorer's clone being repeatedly sent to a cave that looks promising for annexing. What keeps killing the clones? The originals, one after another, coming to the conclusion that what it's doing is wrong. Here, the genre doesn't flip as much as the story's point of view does. It's a neat trick and part of Ward's career-long exploration of when people should leave well enough alone but choose not to. Ward is always careful to come up with a premise and then carry it out in an entirely logical way. It's not quite so-called "hard" science-fiction, but rather, science-fiction that comes with a set of rules that it must follow and carry the structure of the narrative within that set of rules. Character is still more important than world-building, because the latter is just the scaffolding that the ugly human emotions at the heart of each story reside. Ward's mastery of that scaffolding allows him to craft increasingly intricate stories that explore the edge of morality and ethics.

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