Think Like a Floating Transparent Pyramid
In Lint, Steve Aylett’s "biography" of writer Jeff Lint, Aylett recounted Lint’s aborted 1960’s Star Trek script "The Encroaching Threat." The titular threat was the encroachment of a crazy and creative universe full of original ideas on the Enterprise’s gray bubble of unoriginality and blandness.
Lint’s depiction of the Enterprise could just as easily describe much of comics science fiction. That genre generally seems unable to devise ideas that haven’t already been test-marketed in Hollywood films or violent video games. Warren Ellis’ Orbiter, Alan Moore’s The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Grant Morrison’s We3 are intelligent exceptions in a field dominated by sixth-rate Star Wars imitators.
In addition there is Matt Howarth’s series Keif Llama — Xenotech. It may be set in outer space, but the series’ heroine relies on her mental adaptability and dedication to finding long-term solutions to meet the problems thrown at her.
The series is set in a galaxy teeming with very non-humanoid civilizations. It may be a wonderland for fans of Hal Clement’s science fiction. Yet the galaxy’s diversity of life means nothing if contact cannot be established between very different species. The ubiquity of faster-than-light starship drives makes possible physical contact between divergent species. The communication problem is solved thanks to the Beal Vocoder Unit (a.k.a. a xeno-coder), whose models range in sophistication from translating simple human sensory functions to handling the complexities of communication via quantum motion.
The tricky part is establishing cultural contact. Very few beings can understand another species’ thinking process without succumbing to frustration or incomprehension. The few gifted with this special ability are known as xenotechs. Titular heroine Keif Llama (pronounced "keef yamma") is a female xenotech who works for Confed, a.k.a. the galactic government, on problem-solving missions. But Llama’s desire to find fair solutions to her tasks often clashes with both other beings’ personal agendas and Confed’s own desire for quick fix answers.
"Obscured By Clouds" takes Llama to the gas giant Vtaccek, home to Feed-U’s nutrient cloud farming operation. Regularly emitted and powerful wide-band X-ray blasts have loused up Feed-U’s spacelane guidance circuitry, leading to frequent spaceship collisions and the serious gumming-up of the company’s business. The origin of these X-ray blasts is a number of towering objects known as the Brokk. These objects remind one of Sauron’s tower from Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings adaptation.
Llama’s official job is to stop these intense X-ray blasts. However, completing that job soon requires her to determine whether the Brokk are actually living creatures. The xenotech gets hit with several theories answering that question. Director Ose, Feed-U’s Nute-Farm director, believes the Brokk are not alive. But the director’s judgment could be tainted by the need to protect Feed-U’s interests. Dr. Leinoh, Feed-U’s head of R & D, is convinced the Brokk are a new life form that deserves the chance to evolve. The scientist will attack doubters as genocidal scum. Ferrar Fungus, an ex-Feed-U employee who became a local priest, feels the Brokk are legendary creatures of spectacular evil known as the Brokkvalvadiccives. But that pronouncement comes from a being whose religious pronouncements seem nonsensical. To Llama, none of these theories explain why the Brokk awoke from hibernation or fail to display life signs.
The young xenotech makes an engaging futuristic civil servant. She has not become so jaded that she can’t find joy in visiting her first gas giant. But her openness to encountering different alien species does not mean checking her skepticism at the door. Dr. Leinoh’s theory about the Brokk causes her to roll her eyes or regard the scientist with a "you’re wasting my time" glare.
Llama’s dedication to her work shows the xenotech’s lineage comes from the problem solving heroes who frequently starred in John W. Campbell era Astounding Science Fiction stories. Classic science fiction readers might be put off by how this tale shows Llama to constantly be a couple of figurative steps behind the aliens. Yet Howarth demonstrates that the xenotech’s problem is not a slowness of wit but a constant struggle to distinguish between useful information and claptrap.
One of this series’ joys is seeing what non-humanoid aliens Howarth creates. Director Ose resembles a transparent floating pyramid. Dr. Leinoh looks like a rolling cocktail glass with two small arms plus two wafers jutting out from its rim. Yet the most impressive alien in this story is casually introduced.
The series’ other visual joy comes from seeing how Howarth’s insane amount of artistic detail creates stunning visual effects. The hundreds of line segments needed to render an alien condo-pod gives the place the palpable texture of a cave with weathered ledges. Llama’s first sighting of a Brokk is displayed in a panel which suggests a dead tree on a mossy hill surrounded by half a dozen dancing clouds.
Llama’s bug-eyed looks and jaded grimaces may be mistaken for silent-film actor over-expressiveness. Her reactions merely show that she can still be surprised by what the universe throws at her, but not to the point that she is paralyzed into inaction.