It’s fairly well established that Brandon Graham conceived of 8House as not just a connected series of stories, set in the same science fiction universe, but as a “label”, under which any number of stories could be told. Science fiction world-building is nothing new, but it has an unfortunate tendency, at times, to prioritize vistas and concepts over character and story, mainly through excessive exposition and the introduction of too many strange elements, too soon. I was happy to see that the first arc of the 8House series, Arclight, didn’t suffer from these problems and instead took a refined and graceful approach to a genre too often suffocated in Snyder-esque “heaviness” and “darkness” for its own sake. (A word to the wise: being “dark” and “intense” isn’t the same as good storytelling. It’s often a lazy dodge that betrays impatience with the art of writing and reveals a childish obsession with action sequences and poses.) The second 8House story, titled Kiem, once again after the name of the lead character, is a bit more conventional, but no less arresting and interesting. Co-written with Xuroxo G. Penalta, Graham shows us another of the “8 houses” (hence the title), and gives hints as to the conflict between them. But mostly this is a very typical “first issue” of a science fiction story, allowing us to see the world through the eyes of one character that provides exposition and explanation where necessary, and seems to have an important destiny within the story. If the ideas aren’t quite as fresh or graceful as Arclight, which to be fair, was one of the most original and graceful pieces of science fiction ever to come down the comic pipe, it’s still recognizably 8House, with that blend of sci-fi and magic fantasy that recalls the original Star Wars.
Kiem lives in the “dry southlands of the Kingdom of Stone”, a wasted and desolate part of the 8House universe, the central city of which, Eurthum, is arranged as a circle. Upon closer inspection, the city operates with geometric architecture reminiscent of Hopi settlements in the American southwest, or the Greek city of Petra. Unlike in Arclight, which alluded to conflicts between the houses but kept the drama focused on the internal struggle of one character, the Kiem series explicitly references a continuing conflict between this house and at least one other (the “blood” house). Kiem herself is a soldier in that army, and when we meet her, she’s recovering from battle wounds. As the story progresses, we learn more about the way the battles are being fought, the technology involved and learn new things about Kiem, whose destiny may lie not on the battlefield but in some stranger, more metaphorical and magical place.
Much of this arc makes use of familiar sci-fi tropes, including the geometric high-tech cells of Eurthum, straight out of Ron Cobb’s designs for the original Alien, a Brave New World-like system of robots manipulating the physical and medical affairs of humans, albeit not with malevolence, the high-tech tough-talking soldier types of Starship Troopers and even the virtual proxy war of Avatar or Ender’s Game. For 24 pages, it’s all quite familiar stuff. But scattered through the story, visually and dramatically, is Kiem’s obsession with crystals. In a world where everything is carefully refined into cubes and other regular geometric shapes, with bland earth tones, these crystals are bright, irregular, and multi-coloured. They’re the most unusual and interesting thing in the world, and Kiem seems almost alone, at least amongst her military colleagues, in collecting and treasuring them. It’s all very metaphorical, and makes for an unexpected and welcome twist in the final pages.
One image that came to mind repeatedly, reading this arc, is Deleuze’s metaphor of society and philosophy, the “smooth” vs the “stratified”. To be almost comically simple (I can hear my academic colleagues scoffing even as I type these words), Deleuze proposed considering the way societies relate to power, as well as the way ideas develop, as falling into patterns that are either stratified and homogeneous or smooth and heterogeneous. The “state”, to use his word, is built on structures that are stratified and homogenous, with clear demarcations between ideas or classes, and utter homogeneity within those zones of demarcation. One look at the architecture of the city of Eurthum is as clear a representation of this as any other: each “block” in the geometric city looks the same, but each block also has its place, and authority is absolute.
Whereas ideas, or individuals or groups, who act in a way contrary to the state are sometimes termed “nomads”. The “nomad” embraces an aesthetic that is smooth and heterogeneous, with a organic connection between diverse people and ideas, in which differences are not clearly demarcated but rather “blend” with each other into a cohesive whole that retains diversity. Kiem’s crystals are a wonderful evocation of the spirit of that, as is the way the “lower” city is represented in the final pages of the book. Kiem may be being positioned as a philosophical and literal “nomad”, who is able to move around nomadic space and create new ideas within the framework of the state structure by embracing the nomadic ideal. At least, that’s one interpretation, but it’s rare that I find Deleuze so well-represented in a science fiction work. (As I’ve written previously in my academic life, Joss Whedon’s Firefly is another great example.)
However it will transcend well-used tropes and cliches, I have some faith that 8House: Kiem will do just that, and add to the wonderful richness of this compelling and artful science fiction series.