Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Chimpanzee Complex

Script: Richard Marazano
Art: Jean-Michel Ponzio
Translator: Jerome Saincantin
Lettering and text layout: Imadjinn
Publisher: Cinebook

What's it about?
The Chimpanzee Complex runs over 3 books: Paradox, The Sons of Ares, and Civilisation.  It starts in 2035.  Helen Freeman is an astronaut and was going to be the first woman to set foot on Mars.  This was her life's ambition, so when the government cuts money to the space programme she is devastated.  Then a space module from the 20th century drops into the ocean.  As a trusted NASA employee Helen is sent to talk to the passengers.  What she is told seems impossible, a paradox.
Meanwhile back home, her pre-teen daughter is wracked with anger and jealousy over her mother's commitment to her work, which she interprets as a lack of love for herself.

In The Sons of Ares Helen leads a mission to Mars to discover the truth about the space module.  They find the Soviet Base and more besides.  Back home, her daughter Sofia grows ever more angry and scared.

In Civilisation the mystery is unravelled.  Crew members wake up from an extended cryosleep and yet again reality seems wrong.  Pieces start falling into place and an understanding is reached.  Their survival seems precarious and Helen dwells on her daughter and what she may have lost.
The Chimpanzee Complex of the title refers to the stress suffered by chimps when placed in space.  The chimpanzees are intelligent enough to have a limited understanding of their predicament, and so they suffer extreme stress through being in an experiment over which they have no control.

What's good about it?
This story takes place on two levels - Helen's relationship with her daughter on Earth, and the experiences of the astronauts on Mars.

Helen's conflict between her career and her daughter is part of what drives the story.  I've seen narratives like this condemn the mother.  In The Chimpanzee Complex no judgement is made.  Sofia is angry and bitter and sad because of her age.  She wants to be the number one priority in her mother's world but she just can't compete with space and she resents that.  Helen is torn up by her daughter's disappointment in her but is equally ravaged by the thought of giving up her career.  I may not have children but I can relate to competing pressures around womanhood and self-fulfilment.  I don't envy Helen her position but I very much sympathise with her struggle.
As for the astronauts - well, in bad sci-fi the author forgets about the human side of the stories and focuses on the technology.  Here, the technology is ever present but doesn't overwhelm the characters.  They work with it, they rely on it, they live in it, but it's not the most important part.  What is important is the choices the characters make; how they cope being in the confined space of a space shuttle; how they relate to each other; how they keep going in the face of despair; and how they love and how they laugh.  Yes that last bit may sound trite, but that's why I'm not a novelist.  What I'm trying to say is, the deep bonds of friendship and comradeship between the major players in the book is a big part of what makes this so thrilling.

The science is at the right level - not too caught up in its imaginary developments, but believable enough and big enough to impress.  It's on a grand scale and it's epic and it feels right.  We live in an era of space travel today and it's full of wonders.  You feel this awe throughout the book.
The ending is satisfying.  The delivery is flawless.  It's full of desperation and love and isolation.  I would say that this is begging to be made into a film, but I suspect Hollywood would ruin it.

If you like sci-fi you *must* read these books. 

What's bad about it?
The binding on volume 3 isn't great so some pages are threatening to come loose.  However volumes 1 and 2 are fine so I suspect that this is a one off.  I've got a lot of other books from Cinebook and never had this problem in any others.  I suspect that if you bought a book with dodgy binding and told them about it they'd replace it for you.

What's the art like?
It's a photo realistic style which I usually do not like, yet in this book it works perfectly.  I cannot imagine it being drawn any other way.

There's a rich palette of colour used.  Just as the story is driven through the characters, so the art focuses on characters' faces and body language.  This is a series wrought with emotion, yet not overly reliant on speech.  Ponzio's work expertly backs up and complements the story, adding nuance and depth.

The space scenes are magnificent.  I'm in danger of overusing adjectives but they really are breathtaking.  Proper, great sci-fi should make space awe inspiring.  This does so.

Note - all images have been culled from the internet so the quality varies.

More information
Buy them from Cinebook.  Each volume is £6.99 in hardcopy.
ISBNs as follows:
Paradox: 9781849180023
The Sons of Ares: 9781849180153
Civilisation: 9781849180436

If you click through to the Cinebook link and then to each individual book you can also view the first 5 pages and buy them digitally.

If you're hungry for more space stories then can I recommend Laika.  This isn't sci-fi, but is equally brilliant.  We've done reviews of a few other sci-fi comics but none are quite like The Chimpanzee Complex.

Many thanks to Cinebook for providing me with a review copy of volume 1.   You'll all be pleased to know that I adored it so much I gladly paid for the second two volumes.

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