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July 24, 2017

Caliban (Review)

Written by Garth Ennis
Publisher: Avatar Press
Trade paperback, published January 2015

The universe is a very big place, and for many that means the odds of the Earth being the only planet with life on it, intelligent or otherwise, would appear to be slim. But what would an alien lifeform actually look like? That is the sort of question that science fiction has been asking since the genre’s inception (We have previously discussed the science fiction genre’s illogical preferences for Earth-type chondrates) Often the answer to that is whatever is out there might not only look nothing like us, it may be hostile to boot.

Writer Garth Ennis goes that route in the mini-series Caliban, published by Avatar Press. Dedicated to avant-garde Swiss artist H.R. Giger, who designed the creatures in Alien (1979, Twentieth Century Fox), Mr Ennis is clearly working from the model established most famously by that same motion picture. The plot of Alien depicts the human crew of an industrial spacecraft in an encounter with a hostile, seemingly unkillable lifeform on a distant planet. The “xenomorph”, as it is called in the terminology of Alien’s universe, managed to get aboard the ship, systematically killing the members of the crew until only the tough-as-nails protagonist named Ellen Ripley remained alive. Mr Ennis in an interview for the website “Bloody Disgusting” openly says, “As I mentioned earlier, ‘Alien’ is the main and obvious influence here. It’s impossible to watch any of the sci-fi/horror flicks that have appeared since and not see “Alien” lurking somewhere in the background: “Pitch Black”, “Event Horizon”, “Pandorum” and various others all carry that particular genre. Sometimes they say something new and sometimes they don’t, but with “Caliban” I like to think I do.”

Caliban has many of those plot elements. What the reader sees here is Ennis’ take on the subgenre of “deep space nightmare”, and what he delivers comes with its own slightly unique manifestation of psychological and body horror. The story begins with the Caliban, a mining ship, ferrying its “cargo” of cryogenically sleeping miners to their next job. While the miners sleep, the Caliban’s crew, roughly thirty people, keeps the ship moving through a faster-than-light “warp” dimension (a plot contrivance for interstellar travel often seen in science fiction stories).

As it is, the narrator for the first chapter, a young woman named Nomi, is not expecting problems. As a backdrop for this story, when humanity reached the stars, they found no evidence of other life anywhere, and no habitable planets. As such, most space travel consists of missions like that of the Caliban, carting laborers and raw material back and forth between Earth and other worlds. A critique in at Comic Book Review notes, “The reader gets to know this world primarily through the narration of Nomi, the assumed protagonist. Nomi aspires to write the great American novel, and so she spends her ample spare time typing a memoir on her tablet. There’s a convenience to this narrative device which could cheapen it, but it works because it’s many-layered. Yes, it allows Ennis to drop a lot of tell-rather-than-show world-building, but it also demonstrates the boredom and tedium that Nomi talks about.” But using narration to set the scene is a little lazy, ordinarily. It takes skill to paint the picture through the actions of the characters. In point of fact, after the initial information dump to the reader, Nomi’s narration disappears from the narrative.

In any event, the whole mission seems to be rather routine. About the only problem is that the ship’s navigator, a character named Karien, is deeply unpopular with the rest of the crew. Karien gets up from his station to take a bit of a walk, and that, by happenstance, is when the trouble starts. The Caliban hits something in warp, an action by itself thought, in the science of the story, to be impossible. Only quick thinking by the ship’s Irish engineer McCartney (it just is not an Ennis script without a character speaking in an Irish brogue hanging around) keeps the ship from flying apart at all. The miners are all ejected from the hold, dead. Roughly half of the Caliban’s crew are in not much better shape. The immediate mystery is: what happened to them? The Caliban is revealed to have hit an alien spaceship in warp. By reason of the presumed intangibility of objects when in warp, the two ships are fused into one larger one, with the unfortunate half of the crew finding themselves literally bisected by the alien vessel.

The idea of people being fused to solid objects is a fairly old sci-fi trope. We have seen it in the X-Files television series, in a Clive Barker short story, and in the Star Trek television series, plus the various motion picture versions of The Fly. We have even seen it on The Simpsons television cartoon series. As visually horrifying as it is, very little of this is a new innovation.

If objects are intangible in warp or not is not particularly made clear. The basic idea for the characters at the start of the series is that since humans are the only known space-faring race, warp is apparently an empty dimension. The Caliban should not have hit anything because there is nothing to hit. The fact the humans encountered this alien spacecraft is as much of a surprise as anything else. Before they even learn about Karien’s fate, the crew of the Caliban is working to make sure their own ship, fused with the alien vessel, can still get the survivors back to Earth.

As it is, the fusing of the two ships–a potentially crippling event–would be bad enough were it not for the fact that Karien has just been infected by a hostile alien parasite.

This parasite is the most interesting and original concept Mr Ennis plays with. While much of the look and plot of Caliban displays clear echoes of the original Alien, the actual alien itself is a rather creative concept. While what look like eggs and tentacled monstrosities litter the entire alien vessel, these creatures are all dead and decomposing. While Lovecraftian (as noted in this review), they themselves pose no threat to anyone. The real menace comes from a being that no human onboard the Caliban can perceive. The hostile alien here is not any sort of face-hugger or acid-blooded insect thing, as seen in the Alien motion pictures. Instead, the hostile alien in this case is actually a sentient idea, a being which can jump from body to body at will.

This is reminiscent of “the wind” in Brian Stableford’s excellent “Hooded Swan” novels from the early 1970s. In these books, a curmudgeon called Grainger crashes on a barren world, and his engineer is killed. He is stuck there for years listening to nothing but the whistling wind. The wind starts talking to him. When he is rescued, the wind stays with him as an inner voice. As the novels progress, it becomes clear that the wind is not a form of schizophrenia, but instead is a benign alien parasite which can do helpful things with Grainer’s autonomous body functions. The irony in those novels is that the wind ends up being more human and sympathetic than Grainger. In Caliban, the parasite may be allowing Karien, once the part of him that’s still in there wakes up, to actually go along with the creature’s plans, such as they are. While the concept of mind parasites is also not overly new, the fact that the parasite is described as a “living idea” is innovative. At one point towards the end, Mr Ennis notes that the parasite is in essence a bundle of electrical impulses, in as far as how to categorize it as a lifeform.

Karien just happened to wander into the wrong place where the being was dormant in its last, long dead host. And while Karien was initially knocked out of his own mind for a period, as time passes he comes to understand what the alien wants. Karien has very little problem using the other members of the crew as potential lab material to slaughter at will. Karien otherwise unpleasantly injects himself with various fluids, greatly increasing his strength and resistance to injury, to say nothing of grafting dead alien parts to his own body.

Stephen Hawking postulates that advanced alien life would be hostile having regard to European colonization of Africa, the Americas and Australia. While the alien ship does denote advanced technology, the idea/parasite creature did not build it. It was a stowaway that inhabited the body of a being of the alien race which did build the ship. The builder race are characterized as benign caretakers. What the parasite (for lack of a better word) seems to be interested in is mass slaughter. It had already done so on one world when an expedition by the spacefaring race found the parasite. The parasite was looking to do the same to the spacefaring race. But these aliens took extreme measures to stop the parasite, through mass suicide, before anyone who could get the parasite to somewhere more populated was possessed by the parasite. The parasite does not seem to view humans as prey or something to conquer. It seems content to hop from body to body and then kill everything else in the vicinity. It is a genocidal being that views itself as superior to other lifeforms. Mr Ennis does not elaborate enough on the parasite’s goals, but once in Karien’s body, its first act is to kill another crewmember, then capture two more to see how much pain they can take. It does not seem to care if anything aside from itself survives, including Karien (who may be dying as a result of all the fluid injections). What comes out from the plot is the spacefaring aliens had managed to trap the parasite on the ship for what amounted to centuries, so even being without a living host body for long periods of time posed little threat to the parasite. It just had to wait until something else came along.

As the ship’s human crew starts to dwindle, Mr Ennis pauses and uses dialogue between the characters to explain the title, as a way of hammering his theme home for how hopeless the situation appears to be. Why is the ship called the Caliban? One particularly literate crew member explains that “Caliban” was a character from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Much could be made of who and what Caliban is in Shakespeare’s work. Interpretations vary from the character being a slave who is unable to control his lusts to the rightful heir to the island upon which all the action takes place. But it is fitting, perhaps, that as most of the surviving crew is set to attempt to ambush Karien with whatever improvised weapons they happen to be carrying, the one thing they remember is that Caliban, in the play, attempts to kill his master.

The threat once unmasked seems too potent to overcome. The echo of The Tempest at this point in the story is that Shakespeare’s Caliban fails to even harm his master Prospero. It is perhaps not surprising how badly the ambush of Karien goes for the crew.

However, much of what happens in Caliban seems too familiar to be truly effective. Facundo Percio’s artwork does display the horrors of being splashed by dead alien squid creatures or being fused with the hull, while a one-time crew member looks less and less human with each appearance. The parasitic idea calls to mind director John Carpenter’s motion picture The Thing (1982, Universal Pictures), where the alien took the form of a host of various types before warping the flesh like mush.

The creature appears to be impossible to kill. The crew is reduced to a final three: Nomi, McCartney, and an “Ellen Ripley”-type woman named San. It becomes plain that even if the survivors are able to remove the enhanced Karien from the playing field, the alien would just jump into one of their bodies, and start over. Furthermore, it becomes evident that, somehow, they have to stop the thing from getting to Earth and using the entire human race as its personal lab rats/playthings. Kirkus Reviews notes, “[Ennis] manages to deliver a pretty powerful emotional blow” at the conclusion. San sacrifices herself to save Nomi. We do not concur with this assessment. There is a romantic subplot of sorts between Nomi and San – both are apparently lesbians – but the conversations underpinning a romance seem to come up when there are otherwise lulls in the action. This dialogue does not add to much until the last chapter when San ensures Nomi’s survival above all else.

Mr Ennis is walking too-familiar ground here. The plot lacks the sense of daring and originality which he displayed in some of his better known works like Preacher(1995-2000, Vertigo/DC Comics) or Hitman (2009-2012, DC Comics). Mr Ennis does deploy haunting phrases such as “stillborn things that go straight in the trash”, but his standard, entertaining puerile sense of humor is missing. Comic book readers generally do not associate Mr Ennis with science fiction. He seems to work better in the realm of the war story, the crime drama, or the superhero satire. Mr Ennis cut his teeth like many British/Irish/Scottish writers of his generation on work like Judge Dredd and other stories in the pages of the evergreen British publication 2000 AD, and he did a run on DC Comics’ horror title Hellblazer , but his most imaginative work may be Preacher. Mr Ennis otherwise seems to have a gift for military fiction. The only other substantive science fiction work by Mr Ennis we are aware of is a Dan Dare revival for Dynamite Entertainment. In his introduction to that title, Mr Ennis said he was writing it as something of a throwback for an idealistic character as opposed to his usual cynical style of work.

Fans of deep space horror will probably like the book, and while it is far from bad, the original Alien did much of what is on display here, only much better.



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