That Distant Fire Review

By | Wednesday, November 02, 2022 Leave a Comment
On it's surface, That Distant Fire by J.R. Hughto and Curt Merlo is about a couple, Vera and Paul, who work as an engineering team. They work within the military industrial complex during the day, and spend their spare time and money developing what turns out to be a kind of Star Trek level medical scanner that's about the size of a compact. When Paul gets fired, though, Vera resigns and the two of them go back to his family's no-longer-working farm out in the country. The "local" agricultural giant has effectively shut down all the family-run operations, and has slowly been purging actual workers in favor of labor-saving drones. Much of the town is unemployed by the time Paul and Vera show up. This leads to strikes and protests, which corporate police shut down very violently. Paul and Vera are eventually forced to return to working for the corporate military in order to protect what's left of their family. Paul's sister, though, voews to continue to the fight.

The first thing I really liked about the book was how the world-building unfolds slowly and organically. You just get hints of what's the story world is like, but it's similar enough to today that it feels very familiar and it doesn't take much to piece together what turn out to be significant differences from those subtle hints. And, with the exception of the device Paul and Vera develop, pretty much every other piece of technology shown is currently available, although not necessarily implemented in the same ways. It is clearly set in the future, but only just beyond where we are.

And that's what really hits with this story. We see all this familiar technology, we see people dress and act as we might see people today, and yet the social conditions they live in are where most of the differences are. But they're not even that large. You can easily see today's society reflected in the book; it's just amplified a bit. Not to a comical degree that you might find in, say, Robocop or Judge Dredd but just enough to make you think, "Yeah, I could see things being like that within ten years." And it's that short implicit timeframe, coupled with some excellent storytelling, that makes the book really powerful.

Hughto's story is solid to begin with, but he's got a really solid handle on how different people react under different situations. Paul doesn't make the same choices his brother does, and neither make the same choices their sister does. Every one of them -- and all the other characters -- have choices driven by their individual goals. No one feels like just a cookie cutter stereotype, or a character thrown in just because they needed someone to do some exposition. Further, this is really enhanced by Merlo's art. His illustrations drive much of the story, such that there's almost no dialogue until the end of the first chapter. Every panel seems very considered and deliberate, telling readers precisely what it needs to. Honestly, it's been a while since I've read a comic where the script and art worked so harmoniously with one another, even longer since I've read one like that where the writer and artist weren't the same person!

If I had to lodge a complaint against the book, it's that it's too uncomfortably believable. We've had several years now of absolute bullshit thrown at everyday citizens like you and me, with corporations winning against us at almost every turn. We see police brutally murder people almost daily and walk away scot-free. We get mainstream news articles telling us that "quiet quitting" -- i.e. doing what you're actually paid to do and not donating hundreds of extra hours to your employer every year -- is a crime against the company, and you should be let go because you're not a "team player." We get rich assholes spending billions of dollars to buy companies for no other reason than to satisfy their own ego. We get corporations illegally cracking down on attempts to unionize and getting away with it. We get a political party that is actively attempting to dismantle democracy with absolutely zero consequences. In light of every news item that cross your feed, there is no way you're not going to see this book as a very, very, very plausible future. And while Vera and Paul are, by some measures, better off at the end of the book than at the beginning, they very much do not win.

Because that's what happens in life. The fights you often have to fight aren't going to help you; they'll help your children or your grandchildren perhaps, but not you. And because of that, that means you have to play the long game. You sometimes have to take losses in battle to win the war. But, honestly, there are a lot of times when that is REALLY hard to remember. And even though That Distant Fire very expressly makes that point, it also shows how hard that can be too.

That Distant Fire was originally a crowd-funded project from this past summer, but it's now available from Black Eye Books and retails for $27.95 CA.
Newer Post Older Post Home