Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Warren Ellis' Planetary

Why it rocks: 1) Stylish exploration of the pulp-fiction and 19th Century roots of the superhero genre. This includes a loving look at early and mid-century speculative fiction and the influences of manned space flight on 20th Century culture. 2) Kick-ass cosmology.



Before the current fifteen-year obsession with the nature of human thought, what rocked my world in literary science fiction were stories with cool cosmologies. And that would be cosmologies in the sense of the branch of science that deals with the origins, large-scale structures, and relativistic speeds of our universe.

If a book put forth a remotely plausible and mind-bending explanation of universe's underlying properties and incorporated this model into the plot through fantastic technology or even unusual mental powers, chances are it kept me up all night reading to the end. Whether it was the information-based physics and the ability of the right technology to grant access to the universe's privileged bandwidth of particle communication and reprogram local reality in Greg Bears Moving Mars and Anvil of Stars, or the sweeping mulitverse-spanning confederation of Robert Heinlein's Glory Road in which the laws of physics and their impact on human culture vary with locality.

That and anything that referenced the sublime paradoxes and intuition-defying subatomic-scale models of quantum mechanics.

Uncertainty is built into the fabric of the universe at small-enough scale

Photons, electrons and other force carriers can be simultaneously fixed-point particles and distributed waves

As a wave-particle duality, a photon can take every possible route from its origin to its destination, and even cause wave-interference patterns when some of those routes would cause it to cancel out itself

The more isolated a particle is from interaction, the more uncertain its probable location

Quantum tunneling, when that uncertainty causes a particle to spontaneously disappear and reappear on the far side of a barrier

Entanglement and the instantaneous sharing of a single quantum state by two particles anywhere in the universe, in defiance of Relativity and the absence of any universal time

And so on...

In Planetary not only are there plenty of quantum mechanics refernces, but Ellis also skillfully makes use of the holographic universe model, in which our two-dimensional universe only appear to be three-dimensional to those of us within it due to the information generated by the interactions of the existing two axises. That and our 2D universe is a facet of a snowflake-like configuration of hundreds of thousands of other 2D existences. And all of this matters to the technologies and superhuman abilities and alien lifeforms that appear in the story.

Aside from Niel Gaiman's Sand Man only a handful of series or graphic novels have ever hooked my interest. Among those were the original Crow and the graphic adaptation of George R.R. Martin's Tales of Dunk and Egg. Superheros have never interested me in the least.

So color me surprised that Ellis and illustrator John Cassaday's pulp series Planetary is about one of the coolest speculative fiction pieces that I've read during the past twelve months. I'm kicking myself that I haven't picked up Planetary before now, especially after being surprised earlier by how fun Ellis' ongoing Freak Angels has been.

But that's why we have friends to give us literary recommendations and load us down with their favorite graphic novels when we're down and out in the world.

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