There’s something about “Descender”, the new sci-fi tale created by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen, that just grabs your attention and holds it firmly. Maybe it’s Nguyen’s breathtaking artwork or maybe it’s Lemire’s subtle wordsmithing – most likely it’s a of combination of both that makes the book such a strangely captivating read.
As the story of “Descender” tells things, at some point in the future humankind has reached the pinnacle of technological progress. We’ve left the homeworld, colonized other planets and even achieved a form of sentience in our machines.
These are all themes that have been explored before, but again, there is something – some haunting quality – about “Descender” that makes all of this feel fresh. It’s difficult to narrow it down to just one thing, but I think a lot of it has to do with the innocence of Tim-21, an automaton designed to resemble and behave like a little boy, set against the harsh reality of a civilization on the brink of collapse.
This issue opens in a odd place – with Tim-21, partially rescued by the misanthropic Driller, undergoing what I can only describe as the robotic version of an out of body experience. The scene is revisited several times throughout the issue, and each time a little more of the “place” where Tim finds himself is revealed.
It immediately reminded me of the scene from “I,Robot” where Sonny sketches the memory of his “dream” for Will Smith’s and Bridget Moynahan’s characters.
Like that film, “Descender” prompts questions about consciousness, namely, what is it and is it something unique to humans? If it isn’t and it’s something that can be experienced by a thing that is fundamentally “other” (robots), what would it look like? The machine’s experience of consciousness that is; it’s a question that a lot of popular fiction seems to ask these days.
Lemire follows suit, but does so in a way that isn’t as heavy-handed as I’ve seen in other places. The elements of not just world, but galaxy-building, along with the implication of the bond that Tim-21 shared with his human “family” help to expand and to personalize the story alternately. It’s as if Lemire is answering the question that we’ve only just begun to learn to ask; that is, the creatures that come after us, whether they be machine or organically based, will still be our “children”. At least in a metaphorical sense, if nothing else.
From the way that Dustin Nguyen illustrates the book, it’s evident that he’s thought about the idea of transhumanism quite a bit as well. The artwork evokes feelings of longing and nostalgia that I hadn’t expected from a book set in a conceivable, but somewhat distant future. The soft almost pastel tones and water-color style give the book an understated appearance – everything progresses naturally, flowing from one panel seamlessly into the next.
Three issues in and Descender is still pretty close to a perfect work of contemporary science fiction.