The Webcomic Overlook #134: Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life
The one sci-fi book that left the deepest impression on me is quite possibly Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Some hardcore sci-fi readers might probably sneer at this endorsement, dismissing the book and the “trilogy” it spawned as “Monty Python In Space.” Which it is, by the way. The greatest aspect of Hitchhiker’s Guide is that it’s very funny.
I like to think that there’s something more than just the humor that keeps the Hitchhiker’s Guide fandom strong, though. At the core of all the silliness about Vogons and towels and Marvin the Paranoid Android and the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, there’s a kernel of utter existential despair. The characters spend all their time looking for an answer to the meaning of their existence. When they find it, they realize that the answer is ultimately useless. Furthermore, they pretty much already know the answer anyway: there is no answer, and even if you did find something that claimed to have the answer, it would be utterly useless. This despair ultimately got the best of Mr. Adams. His last two books, So Long and Thanks for the Fish and Mostly Harmless, get so dark and joyless that there’s a strong cadre of fans who like to pretend that they don’t exist. Adams’ widow had to approach Eion Colfer to write a coda (And Another Thing…) that wasn’t so damn depressing.
Still, I think it’s that kernel of despair — alongside with the satire, the goofy footnotes, and the nutty characters — that makes Hitchhhiker’s Guide so loved by many. Fans might also notice that the same eccentric mix can also be found in the webcomic I’m reviewing today: Kit Roebuck’s Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life … which, frankly, has a title that makes it sound like some indie film Oscar bait. Also, no word yet on why we’re still counting Pluto.
In Nine Planets, the solar system is ruled by robots. Humanity has died out in a fairly mutually amicable way. There was no huge war with Skynet, nor were humans turned into batteries to power their mechanical overlords. Nope, humans went extinct because robots were just too damn sexy. Living the life of luxury without war or real needs, human men and women grew to Jabba the Hut proportions. As a result their shapely robots servants were just too preferable to their fatty, fleshy mates. This leads to zero offspring (genetic and organic offspring, anyway), which leads to extinction.
In their place, robots accomplished all the things that humans dreamed of: explore deep space, meet alien species, and practically take stewardship over the entire solar system. Their metallic frames were longer lasting and more adaptable to hostile environments. The extreme heat of Mercury and the lack of oxygen in space does not bother these rugged fellas. Plus, these robots are functionally immortal. If twenty five years pass, it may seem like a week for a robot. These robots are not so much usurpers as they are humanity’s descendants … the next stage of evolution.
If it were not for the new exoskeletons, few would see the difference between a world ruled by humans and one ruled by robots. After all, these robots were programmed in humanity’s image. They have sexual urges, get hungry, and wax philosophical. The biggest difference is that robots don’t have free will… and that may not be that big a deal.
Nine Planets begins when our two robot protagonists, Chris and Ben, get laid off at the factory on Mercury. Facing a life without a planned purpose, the two decide to go on a road trip of the solar system. They go on adventures, meet interesting new people, and find bizarre offshoots of civilization. The technology is charmingly anachronistic. The two travel between planets on buses, classic cars, and motorcycles… things us humans might see on Route 66 but with with the “space” prefix.
This isn’t hard sci-fi in the mold of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. Instead, like Hitchhiker’s Guide, it’s used more to make humorous commentary about modern life. Instead of the Improbability Drive, we have the Bohemian Drive, which I think makes robots smell like dirty hippies but give ’em some indie cred (that’s the theory, anyway). The planets themselves are caricatures of society. The one about Earth deals mainly with what makes ups human. The section on Venus deals with unfulfilled desires beyond the purely carnal. Mars becomes a satire of society continually at war. Jupiter, named after the god of gods, explores a society built around blind faith.
That last one is set in what seems like a perfect suburban society. Incidentally, that should be the tip-off: nothing ever set in a world of perfect white picket fences is depicted as being 100% sincere. The citizens live by the belief that a scientist will one day create a time machine, and to prove their belief, the robots stand in line to gleefully jump off a cliff. Now, the scientist himself doesn’t think a time machine can can be built, and he doesn’t even attempt it. Instead, he builds an army of replica robots to rescue the jumpers, who then go one to take the jumper out to a nice dinner. Now, I’m sure that Mr. Roebuck is making a satire about religion (specifically evangelical Christians). However, I’m not sure that the purpose is to condemn. Chris and Ben are disaffected, purposeless. While Roebuck is saying that the purpose is based on lies (and even that can be debate; who in this bizarre future can really say that a time machine can’t be built?), at least the robots living on Europa are happy because they have a purpose.
Nine Planets manages to leave a lot of absolutes open to interpretation most of the time. This is why I felt that the weakest entry was the one where Chris and Ben get stranded on Mars. It’s a farcical piece where everyone’s at a constant state of war. Merely going to the bathroom requires a special ops team or two. It is pretty funny, by the way, especially when Chris finds that the way down the stairs has been suddenly blocked by a watchtower. However, the point, which seems to be “combat is ridiculous and everyone who fights is stupid as rocks,” is mentioned so many times that it starts to sound a little shrill and too smugly one-sided. (For a webcomic that’s hosted on “bohemiandrive.com,” it’s a tad bit of preaching to the choir.)
The webcomic is one of the few webcomics successfully deploying the infinite canvas. Sometimes strips stretch out horizontally and sometimes the stretch out vertically. At first, I thought this to be one of the more egregious uses of the infinite canvas. Why do I need to do the extra work of moving the scroll bar just to read a friggin’ webcomic? Yet, the more I read Nine Planets, the more the infinite canvas made sense.
Beyond all the absurd trappings, Nine Planets is, like Hitchhiker’s Guide, about existential despair. It’s about feeling confused, isolated, and lonely. It’s about contemplating your surroundings and being lost in deep thought. That’s why the comic works in the context of space: the wide open vastness of the universe can make you feel very insignificant. The planets are unpopulated expanses, while the spaces in between are long and empty. Through the use of small, same sized panels and repetitive image, you get a sense that everything is spoken in a world that’s mostly awash in silence.
What better way to convey this emotion than by limiting the reader’s eyes to a single panel at a time? At most, we see the main panel, a short glimpse of the past, and a short glimpse of the future. It does a lot to control one’s sense of time and space. There’s a sequence, for example, where Chris and Ben, board a bus from Mercury to Venus. The entire trip, we’re told, tales 71 days. In other words, our version of a long, cross-country bus ride. The panel is laid vertically, and as we scroll down we get a very strong sense of both the tedium and the claustrophobic quarters.
It also adds a touch of elegance to the quite character pieces, like a moment on Saturn where Ben gets back in touch with his ex-wife, a robot who looks like something straight out of Hajime Sorayama’s imagination. The coloring is warmer, and the character models are more detailed than in earlier strips. Yet the infinite canvas helps a lot, too. It’s as if we’re watching a movie unfold, and the two characters are dreamily and romantically circling around each other.
The characters, by the way, are strong three-dimensional creations. Ben looks every inch like a blustery big drunk who, on a whim, might join a biker gang… but a poet? And self-conscious? And a romantic? And yet, all these traits feel completely natural. Chris doesn’t have quite a colorful background, but that’s his role in life as a drifter who’s completely paralyzed by destiny. The irony is that while Chris wants to be a free spirit, Ben’s already there.
However, Nine Planets‘ approach to life is not quite as cynical as Hitchhiker’s Guide. Perhaps the answer to life, the universe, and everything is the eternal search for answers. To find an answer may by satisfying, but more often than not it’s a dead end. Perhaps Kit Roebuck is saying that true fulfillment is the journey to find the answers, and to be uncertain is to be enlightened.
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Posted on September 7, 2010, in 5 Stars, adventure webcomic, comedy webcomic, political webcomic, sci-fi webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life. Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.