Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Webcomics Worth Wreading, Entry 46: Quantum Vibe

I may have mentioned previously that I am a sucker for science fiction. I love stories about the future, about robots and spaceships and offworld colonies. Even implausible, poorly realized visions of the future appeal to me, but I am all the more captivated when a speculative work is carefully thought out and self-consistent. Better still if it contains intricate plots and wonderfully imaginative concepts and is populated by complex, three-dimensional characters, the likes of which you’ll find in Quantum Vibe.

Quantum Vibe is an action-packed romp through the solar system, following the members of a scientific expedition as they find intrigue and danger at every corner. Many of the problems they encounter are directly related to their project, but our solar system is a dangerous place, and anyone traveling around to most of its major destinations on a tight schedule is bound to run into some complications.

This is a vibrant setting, inhabited by a cast of eccentric and fascinating personalities. As much of the drama is the result of personal interactions and relationship progression as comes from external conspiracies or obstacles to the characters’ goals. Much of the story is driven by friendships, both old and new. There are a lot of people in the solar system, but some characters have been alive long enough to meet a good portion of them. The interpersonal relationships in Quantum Vibe are every bit as fascinating as the tales of high-level corporate espionage.

Note: Quantum Vibe is definitely narrative-driven, and I highly recommend reading it all from the beginning.There is a recent recap covering the whole story up to that point, which starts here. If you feel like jumping in with the minimal amount of catching up, feel free to give that a read and get yourself current. I think that taking the time to go through the archive is a better reading experience, though. There’s a lot of nuance and character development that is as entertaining to read as it is relevant to later plot events, and I wouldn’t like to miss out on all of that. (The recap is advantageous even to those who’ve read through the archive, as it provides reminders of details that may have been forgotten, and even lays out some information that actually slipped me by while I was reading the comic the first time around.)

There’s also an About section, starting here, which gives an overview of the characters and setting, and which provides some information that hasn’t yet been stated explicitly in the comic itself.

It’s great to have that additional material, because the setting of Quantum Vibe contains such layers of detail that there’s no way the comic will ever cover everything I could want to know. That’s a good thing; as long as the story continues, I expect to keep discovering new and delightful information about the future being portrayed. As long as there is something else for me to discover, I will never be a bored reader.

In my last post I talked about Vattu and the significance of compelling worldbuilding. Quantum Vibe is another example of worldbuilding done extremely well. The reader can clearly see how the current cultural, political and technological landscape may have evolved into the one presented in the comic, yet there are still wondrous and bizarre surprises around every corner.

One matter that stories set in the future have to address is that of social change. Most people agree that social injustice is currently a problem that needs to be addressed (though there’s a tremendous amount of disagreement as to how it ought to be addressed). When looking to the future, most authors address the question “Will things get better? Or are they going to get worse?”

Depending on the answer, the work will often be set either in a utopia, wherein all sentient beings coexist peacefully and are treated with equality, or a dystopia, wherein the majority of sentient beings are downtrodden in one way or another.

The future presented in Quantum Vibe is not one where all social injustice has been resolved, nor is it one where matters have degraded to a degree that all hope seems lost. Rather than social and political systems being guided one way or the other, it’s clear that they’ve evolved organically, meeting needs as they arose, making adjustments as technology and populations changed, and causing benefit or harm to the population in different places at different times.

In some places life is pretty good for most people. In others, life is pretty fucked up for most people. And in lots of places, there’s a mixture of harmful policies put in place by well-meaning people or corrupt individuals finding ways to twist ostensibly fair systems. Life in Quantum Vibe is in some ways much like life on Earth today: Depending on where you live and what group you belong to, it may be free and easy or horrendously difficult.

While the political developments in Quantum Vibe sound quite familiar, the technological advances are marvelous. Sentient androids (called “artifolk” if you want to be politically correct) and genetically-engineered humans work alongside one another on terraforming projects. Holograms have practically replaced clothing in some locations, and body modification is practical on a scale that is extreme by current standards.

There’s even a reasonable extrapolation of the modern internet, as people communicate, call up information, and arrange purchases by using implants that allow them to access a network just with their thoughts. It’s rare to see the internet in representations of the future, partly because for a long time science fiction authors just didn’t realize that the internet was coming, and partly because a lot of people rely on cutting off communication channels between characters to facilitate drama. It’s a relief to see examples like Quantum Vibe, where the internet is not only present in the future, but it’s been plausibly adapted and updated to make use of ever-changing communications technologies.

Cultural developments are possibly even harder to predict than technological ones. A lot of authors solve this problem by assuming that current cultural touchstones will become well-regarded classics in the future. Quantum Vibe handles this issue with a sense of humor and realism. Characters clearly regard our own time as a part of their history; they know a few things about us and a few of our pop culture references have continued through the ages, but that stuff’s all in the distant past, and they relate to it differently than we do. Certain things may stand the test of time, but they will not pass through history unchanged.

I’ve spent a lot of time on the setting, because it’s brilliant, but what really makes Quantum Vibe work are the characters. Every one of them has such depth that they feel like real people, living in a real place. Nicole Oresme, the protagonist, goes through hell and high water over the course of the story. Like any action star, she’s strong enough to get through the difficult times and keep fighting, but what sets her and Quantum Vibe apart is that we can see how deeply the violence and hardships affect her. And knowing how much she’s been hurt, we can appreciate how strong she truly has to be.

While other characters don’t get the same amount of attention as Nicole, it’s clear that they have just as much activity going on beneath the surface. Others have also dealt with trauma and come through it, and their histories inform their current actions. The reader can’t make assumptions; people are strange and unpredictable, and there’s always more going on than is readily apparent. On occasion, someone shows up who seems to be completely unlikeable, but they turn out to be more sympathetic, or at least more helpful to our heroes, than they first appear.

Some of those characters are spaceships!

If you’re in the mood to escape into a speculative future, or just want to get to know some fascinating characters, or if you’re wondering why these people are risking life and limb all over the solar system, you should check out Quantum Vibe. There’s quite a tapestry here, one that I can’t do justice to with only a few paragraphs of text and some visual aids. I can only speak for myself, but Quantum Vibe gives me almost everything I could possibly want in a science fiction story. Hopefully it will be some of the things you want in a science fiction story, too.

Quantum Vibe is written and drawn by Scott Bieser and colored by Zeke Bieser. It updates on weekdays. Go forth and fall in love with this comic, as I have done. I think you’ll find it a truly rewarding experience.

Now, presented for your amusement: The confusion an individual may experience when encountering sales tax for the first time.

Previous Entry: Vattu

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Webcomics Worth Wreading, Entry 45: Vattu

Today is all about world-building. When we tell stories, those stories take place somewhere. They may take place pretty much right here and right now. They may take place long ago, or far in the future. The storyteller has to determine which aspects of the setting are familiar, and invent fitting concepts for those that are strange.  If a setting has little or no connection to reality, then the storyteller must invent everything that fills it, from ecosystems to cultures to technology. Sometimes a storyteller will only invent what is necessarily revealed by the plot. Sometimes a storyteller will get so caught up in the world they’ve invented that the story and characters in that world feel secondary. Rarely, a storyteller strikes the perfect balance, presenting a rich, lush world inhabited by compelling characters going on meaningful journeys. In these cases, you get stories like Vattu.

Vattu is the tale of a defiant young girl who consistently fights for her right to self-determination. That’s a familiar premise, the kind that is made or broken by its execution. In this case, the complexity and otherness of the setting are what make the story stand out. There’s clearly much more going on than what the reader ever gets to see. Just enough information is provided to demonstrate that there’s a larger, complete picture, and while the reader can make certain inferences, most of it remains a mystery. For instance, the people marked in white view the river as a god, while the Sahtans likely held a similar reverence for the river long ago, since their name for it is closely connected to the name for their god. (It’s entirely possible that I’m off the mark with this but the similarity totally stuck out to me.)

One of the major sources of conflict in this story is the clash of cultures, where dissimilar groups meet and have little means to understand one another. As Vattu is out of place in an unfamiliar city, center of an empire she hadn’t known existed until recently, she and the reader are at similar disadvantages, taking information about the city and those who live there as it comes. The reader has something of an edge on Vattu, since she comes from a nomadic tribe without a written language, and has little world experience nor education about anything outside her tribe’s experience. On the other hand, Vattu probably has a decent understanding of her tribe’s culture, at least, whereas the reader has all of that to learn or guess at, as well.

Note: Vattu is a story-driven comic that must be read in order from the beginning. So much of reading Vattu is about the pacing and the atmosphere that I’m not so concerned about spoilers. This is a journey-over-destination type story; even if you know where it’s going, you should be more interested in how it gets there.

I cannot stress enough the appeal in glimpsing different cultures that show up in Vattu and drawing comparisons. I already mentioned the river being treated as a god, which parallels certain aspects of human development in lands fed by river water. There’s also the use of marks on one’s forehead to indicate name or accomplishment. And then there are the aspects of cultures in Vattu that come from interactions with a phenomenon unique to that setting. What’s amazing is that these cultural developments still have parallels in human behavior, despite emerging from something totally alien.

Unweight is fascinating. Cultures aside, unweight is probably my favorite thing in Vattu. It exhibits some sort of extraordinary gravity-defying property. I’d call it buoyancy except *engineer hat on* buoyancy has to do with displacement, meaning you can only lift up the same mass as the air that would fill the volume you’re inhabiting. Unweight clearly lifts far greater mass than the volume of air it displaces, so its lift must come from something else. *engineer hat off*

Lifting force aside, unweight is apparently an intoxicant, used as a holy sacrament by the Surin, who extract it, and as a pricey street drug by the Sahtan. Surin chemists study unweight and learn how to extract it, but they treat this practice as religion, not science. Students must treat High Chemists with appropriate deference, and questioning is strongly discouraged. They seek not to gain greater understanding of unweight, but to maintain the practices and methods that were already established long ago.

Vattu is a beautiful comic, one that makes excellent use of visual storytelling. Sometimes long passages will go by without any spoken dialog, letting the reader in on quiet moments, the process of traveling or practicing a skill, where words would be redundant at best or a distraction at worst.

A particular race, the war-men, are mute, meaning that everything we see of them and their history is communicated through pictures. Their communication with other characters is done entirely through gesture, and it’s wonderful seeing how expressive they are, even lacking the ability that humans most often associate with self-expression.

I alluded to pacing earlier, but I didn’t go into detail. Vattu is a story that takes its time, lingering on details when introducing new places or characters, letting the reader take in everything that’s happening. Even so (at least in my case), there are details that escape notice, simply because there’s so much to pay attention to. This is one of those comics that rewards rereading. It’s hard to pay attention to the details when you’re still trying to get a grasp on the big picture. Going back once you already have an idea of how these cultures fits together provides room to notice smaller things, and to gain appreciation for the depth of the story’s setting.

Conversations often make ample use of what my high school drama teacher referred to as filled silence. Characters take their time in speaking or reacting, important revelations take place over multiple pages, and dialog is given time to sink in. Finding examples to include in this post has been challenging, because in order to get a good feel for Vattu you kind of need to read at least a few pages in succession. For the most part, a single page is a bad unit by which to judge this comic; the individual pages are but necessary subdivisions of a sprawling tapestry of storytelling.

That’s not to suggest that Vattu is slow-paced. There’s plenty of action and excitement, and a few key events have gone by so quickly that initially I found it hard to believe they’d actually happened. It’s also a quick read. At this point, I can get through the archive in a couple of hours. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend reading it that fast, because then you miss a chance to linger on details, but you don’t need to be worried about getting bogged down in a long, intractable story.

Vattu is the third long-form work set in the world of Overside. You don’t need to worry about reading those first; they’re all independent stories set in different regions and eras in the same larger world. I read Vattu before I’d read anything else on that website, and I was no worse off for it. If you enjoy Vattu and you’re looking for more, then feel free to check out Rice Boy and Order of Tales. Much of what I’ve said about Vattu applies to these other works, particularly the depth and intricacy of the world-building. These different stories have different tones, and certainly feel like different reading experiences, but they’re all beautiful and strange and compelling.

Read Vattu, and you will be rewarded with action, adventure, friendship, exploration, mystery, all those keywords that make for a good fantasy tale. Read the story of a girl who just refuses to accept a bad situation without doing something to fight it, and while those around her all find their own ways to deal with changes to their world.

Vattu is written and drawn by Evan Dahm and updates Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Do you like stories that toss you into a strange and unfamiliar setting and let you get acclimated at your own pace? I love it when stories do that. It’s like teaching you a language by dropping you off in a foreign country, except with far fewer chances of getting robbed or ending up hopelessly lost. Let the characters put themselves in danger for your amusement while you stay safe at home, and watch history unfold before your eyes.

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