Despite the epic sweep of this science fiction adventure, the best moments in this latest issue of Descender come in the form of a simple conversation between the two TIM robots, now being taken through hyperspace to the machine homeworld. The emotion in these two little boys (they’re robots, but programmed to act like young children) is palpable, and their sweetness and relative innocence is a like a beacon through a fog of technology and world building. So often in this book, and others, Jeff Lemire is able to find those quiet moments and write heartfelt and realistic dialogue between children. It’s on great display here.
In the previous issue, we spent time with Andy, TIM-21’s old human companion, now a scrapper, but now we see our main characters again, including Dr. Quon (being fitted for a new hand), Driller and Bandit (still fighting in the gladiatorial arena on Gnish) and Captain Telsa, growing frustrated by the whole situation. Telsa is the character most conscious of the overall mission, while the others have seemingly forgotten about the history of the harvesters and the codex and become wrapped up in their own immediate problems. She also, of course, has lost all respect for Quon, upon the revelation that he basically stole the codex from an ancient robot and placed it into his new creations, unaware of the consequences. This metaphor — of a scientist playing around with technology beyond his understanding and giving rise to unintended consequences — is rather well-worn, but it’s only a small part of the larger tapestry of Descender.
There’s more than a little bit of “Somewhere Out There” in the feel of this issue. Andy is searching for TIM, and TIM-21 is certainly missing his human quite a bit. The relationship between humans and robots, particularly between children and their robot companions, is sort of like a human-pet relationship, only with far more emotional gravitas. TIM-21 was programmed to love Andy, and Andy returned that love in kind, weeping and feeling horrible about leaving him behind. TIM, on the other hand, does miss his human, but he misses little Bandit more — even the robots have pets in this universe. A long conversation between the two TIMs about the nature of their existence is the centrepiece of this particular issue, with dialogue of gut-wrenching effectiveness such as, “I miss Bandit… It feels sad.” They wonder why the humans gave them the ability to feel such deep emotions, and wonder what it would be like if they couldn’t.
Telsa, on the other hand, is impatient with the emotional robots and their emotional creator, Quon. She spends the whole issue snipping and griping about all the emotional beings surrounding her, wishing to just get on with the job at hand. It’s worth noting that the sensitive, emotional nature of the TIM series comes from its creator, Dr. Quon, and he himself is an emotional person, given to caring, perhaps at times too much, what happens in the galaxy and feeling guilt about his part in the course of events. As the issue begins, Quon is being fitted for a robot arm, having lost his own under torture by the robots themselves, and Telsa simply tells him to shut up and stop complaining about how much it hurts. But without those feelings, those emotions, Quon wouldn’t be human. For a book so concerned with an ongoing battle between machines and humans, it’s ironic that the unemotional sorts on both sides are the ones in conflict, and the emotional robots and emotional humans are quasi-allies. Telsa herself seems to be some sort of alien cyborg, and straddles the line between the organic and the metallic, but emotionally she’s all business, not unlike the robots she is studying.
Meanwhile, Andy is still tracking TIM-21 and finds his way to Gnish, where he begins to wander into the main spotlight of the story. Without spoiling, it’s fair to say that his path and that of our main characters will cross sooner rather than later. There’s a tantalizing tease at the end of this issue about a hitherto unknown character, waiting to be revealed in issue #10, as well as a setup for a big science fiction action sequence involving the planet of the machines.
All of this setup and environment, however, is really just window dressing for a story that’s primarily about little boys and their pets, and the friends to whom we devote ourselves in times of need and pain. As much as Telsa’s ruthless anti-sentimentality has its uses, most readers will probably find themselves drawn to the simple and profound emotional truths rendered out by two robots who, while they don’t exactly want to be human (this isn’t Pinocchio), they do want their lives to have meaning. It’s that simple human feeling that elevates Descender to greatness in each and every issue.