The moral sides are rather sharply drawn now in issue #11 of Descender. We’ve met humanoid fanatics, bent on the destruction of all robotic life (The Scrappers of Gnish) and now we’ve met the other side, determined to finish what the Harvesters started. The “robots vs humans” story is well-trodden ground in science fiction, but Jeff Lemire’s book, to its credit, features characters stuck between those two worlds. We have humans who love robots (Quon), and robots who love humans (TIM-21), as well as charming robot heroes (Driller and Bandit) and human rogues (Andy), all characters who struggle with the simple humanoid vs robot equation. Hunted by both sides and at home nowhere, these are unlikely and vulnerable heroes for a science fiction epic.
Somehow it all works, and although this issue feels a little briskly paced at times (there’s a lot of exposition to get through and not many pages in which to do it), Lemire and artist Dustin Nguyen find the sweet spot more often than not. A particularly effective sequence occurs towards the end of the issue, where Captain Telsa and Dr. Quon stumble upon a terrible secret. Here the pace is just right: we follow the two characters through Bespin-inspired corridors that lead to two two revelations, one we could’ve predicted, and one we probably couldn’t. It seems that every major character in this book has a secret, and we haven’t seen all of the secrets just yet.
The big twist at the end (which I won’t reveal) is set up rather obviously right at the beginning of this issue. We haven’t heard much from Dr. Quon lately, but here he is front-and-centre again, facing interrogation by a group of robots trying to understand their origin, and the origin of the Harvester codex. At the beginning of Descender, we were led to believe that Quon was the mastermind behind that codex, only to be shown a little later than he stole the whole thing from an ancient robot civilization he barely understood. The law of unintended consequences sprung into action, and here we are with human civilization in ruins at the hands of an all-powerful robotic process. We the readers have assumed, just as the characters in the book, that there was nothing more for Quon to share with us on the subject. Tortured, mutilated and professionally humiliated, Quon has been hanging around in the margins of Descender for most recent issues. He steps forward here like a man waking from a nightmare, and begins to contribute. Telsa’s opinion of him goes from rock-bottom to simply low (real progress for the cynical Captain). For the character that I (and perhaps others) thought would be the protagonist of the whole story, this is a great twist.
Andy, on the other hand, is now back on Sampson, the earliest human colony, enlisting the help of his ex-wife in finding his beloved TIM-21. He has Driller and Bandit with him, and for once Driller, having survived gladiatorial combat on Gnish, is keeping quiet. Driller, as he would put it, knows now that he’s a real killer, so he doesn’t have to say it so often anymore. Unfortunately, having robots with them of any kind, especially ones stolen from the Gnishian slave quarters, is bound to draw attention. Andy is barely finished patching things up with his ex when trouble finds them again.
Quon is a defeated person regaining some dignity, Captain Telsa is a no-nonsense warrior trying to make sense of it all, but Andy (and TIM-21) are motivated by pure love and a desire to reclaim something that the Harvesters stole from them: their childhood together. Without Andy and TIM, Descender would be half the book it is. As it stands, their relationship gives the plot heart and humanity, balancing off the big space opera themes of history, revenge and the final battle. It’s the reason these characters are indispensable to the book, and why there’s every reason to believe that (no spoilers) what happens in the final panel here is not the end of the game.
In his end notes for this issue, Lemire says that this issue finishes off a storyline and he and Nguyen will take some time off, returning with the next arc in June with issue #12. For longtime fans, that seems like a long time to wait to find out what comes next for these fascinating characters in one of modern comics’ best space operas.