Required Reading is DoomRocket’s love chest, opened twice monthly to champion a book we just can’t seem to get enough of. This week Arpad recommends ‘Downward to the Earth’, out now from Humanoids.
By Arpad Okay. Forget the path of colored crystals through the wastelands, the sentient vegetation that will skin you alive. Never mind the elephants. There’s colonialism and critique, there’s sex, there’s an ancient ritual with the aligning of heavenly bodies. Yet Downward to the Earth is a book concerned with man.
One man, really, ex-soldier turned jungle guide, ever changing and somehow still the same, Eddie Gundersen. “Gundy.” Robert Silverberg and Philippe Thirault place him in a culture of former conquerors, where a subjugated planet has been freed but the damage is still done. Gundy is here to explore the colonizer’s role as an alien and a man’s role as alien inside himself.
Silverberg’s novel and Thirault’s adaptation dive deep into space so that they can examine what should be an impossible cultural exchange. The humans came, controlled, imprinted their ways on “Holman’s World,” and withdrew. Even though the other side is red, long in limb, tooth, and claw, reptilian and simian (or elephant-like with four tusks, a trio of tentacles at the end of their trunks, spines, with beady, forward-facing eyes), their culture and Earth’s are woven together. As long as there’s a hotel, those who were once savages will serve as porters.
It’s no coincidence. The ecology and horticulture, the trappings, they were selected by Earth because Belzagor was a planet to be colonized. This isn’t Solaris. Earth found this planet to exploit its resources and people. We travel across the galaxy seeking things that feel familiar and then we pretend they’re alien and incomprehensible so that we can use them and dispose of them without guilt.
The lines are complicated further by Gundy’s involvement. His return to the planet was to shepherd scientists to observe a forbidden elephantine ritual. As the night of rebirth arrives, Gundy, his nemesis, his companions, and other unexpected voyagers are drawn to the dance. Can humans participate in an alien’s ritual? Is participation in a sacred rite empty without cultural understanding? They call them elephants, but they have a deep intelligence, a mystique, that the humans don’t comprehend.
As the plot thickens, so does Gundy’s character. At first he was an anachronism with ghosts — which has a certain charm, that even in the future there are people who are behind the times — but once he is again immersed in the world he left behind, Gundy matures. His relationship with the “elephants” becomes stronger than his connection with humans.
It’s an interesting book to bring to the graphic novel format. There are definitely scenes of wonder to punch up the difference between cultures. But the story, and thus the framing, is largely locked on the six humans and their interactions. This is a book of anthropology, not biology. Some of the weirdest scenes, like Gundy’s tête-à-tête with an elephant elder, are still anchored to humanity by mirrored experiences in the two species. In this case, both fellows enjoy a good soak.
Laura Zuccheri brings art with a distinctly European magazine style, though it has the faintest air of vintage Weekly Shonen Jump as well. Her panels focus on characters, with thin, realistic linework, superb expressions, and clear bodies that stand out against fully realized fantastic backgrounds. She has a gift for capturing Wayne Barlowe-esque alien anatomy and an eye for architecture and interior design that screams futuristic in a Ron Cobb vein. She is perfectly suited to bring both personal drama and imaginary topography to palpable life.
Silvia Fabris colors the book with a variety of hot and cool tones that are uniformly desaturated, giving the pages a pulpy, paperback feel. Downward to the Earth looks like an ancient tome. There is a studious authenticity to everything animal, vegetable, mineral, mechanical.
No clichés arrive with the alignment of the planet, nor are there easy answers given at the climax. Gundy has already undergone a rebirth arriving on Belzagor. Belzagor has undergone several itself, from colonization to liberation to homogenization. The whole of Downward to the Earth, and beyond it, serves as a spirit quest for Eddie Gundersen. Perhaps for the socially conscious reader, as well.
Written by Philippe Thirault.
Illustrated by Laura Zuccheri.
Colors by Silvia Fabris.
Translated by Montana Kane.
US Edition edited by Alex Donoghue and Tim Pilcher.
Adapted from the work of Robert Silverberg.