Prentis Rollins is a massively experienced illustrator, having worked on a whole slew of comics for DC over a couple of decades. However, 'The Furnace' is his debut graphic novel as both writer and artist. This is entirely his work, from conception to execution, and it's a really interesting book that may become more interesting as time goes by and technology and how we collectively choose to use it evolves.
As with all the best science fiction, the idea at the heart of this story is a very simple one, with the value being in how that idea is continually expanded by characters and events. The most important point arrives around the halfway mark as a simple question and answer. 'What would it do to your mind?' asks one character, to which another replies, 'I don't know.'
What they're talking about is a technology known as G.A.R.D., which stands for Gravitationally Autonomous Restriction Drone. Picture the security guard ball in 'Flash Gordon', but colour it a black so dark that it almost fades into the background, then add spiky protrusions all around until it feels utterly ominous. It's designed for impact and that's highly appropriate given what it does. Oh, and it floats, of course.
We're in the near future, in 2026 at this point, and the U.S. government is reevaluating the prison population in the wake of a spate of bombings of supermax prisons. Advances in physics have made it possible to change the way the whole model works by taking these impersonal prisons and making them very personal indeed. They release all prisoners into the wild but each is given a G.A.R.D. of their own which floats above and behind them, 24/7, just beyond the limits of their vision. I should add that these prisoners are also literally invisible to the public, though the G.A.R.D.s are not.
It's an intriguing idea. These prisoners are free to live out their lives in public, visiting libraries, museums and parks, within some boundaries, of course: they have to return home each evening. However, the public is safe from the bad things that they do, because the G.A.R.D.s are always on duty to stop them doing anything they shouldn't. The thinking is that, unable to digress from acceptable behaviour, these prisoners would inherently and gradually become model citizens, forgetting that they even have a G.A.R.D. enforcing their behaviour. Those spiky protrusions are a collection of 'cameras, field generators, projectors, antigrav pocket imagers and other things'. These incorruptible guards have only one purpose and they do that constantly and unceasingly. You know, it's what they do, it's all they do.
While this is very much the science fiction that it sounds like, it's extrapolated from current surveillance and encryption trends, enhanced by some advances in technology that may or may not be far beyond the current curve. What's best about it isn't that it works but that it works too well. Usually, stories like this conjure up the perfect device only to have it prove imperfect by quickly and obviously failing. Well, G.A.R.D.s here work precisely as intended; the problems that inevitably show up aren't technological but human ones, programmed into the system and deliberately rendered unchangeable.
For one, each G.A.R.D. is designed to do its job until the prisoner to which it's assigned dies, at which point it's programmed to return to base, its mission accomplished. For another, it's designed to be unhackable; clearly the government didn't want a host of dangerous men wandering around free in society because their cohorts hacked their G.A.R.D.s. Put those two admirable facets together and Rollins gives us a situation where G.A.R.D.s start to float back to New Sparta, IA, where they were assembled, leaving the natural corpses of their wards behind. In public. And the powers that be can't change the code because they're not supposed to do so and any attempts in that direction result in the death of the assigned prisoners. It's a fantastic Catch-22.
Another aspect I liked here is that the characters we follow aren't the usual ones. The lead is a young physicist by the name of Walton Honderich, who's enlisted to try to hack a G.A.R.D. by one of his professors, who had designed its security systems. The book is his attempt to explain his part in the G.A.R.D. program a couple of decades on to his daughter and, especially, to unburden some of the guilt that has been consuming him during those years. Now, the program wasn't his idea and he only played a small part in how it unfolded but it became a crucial part that resonated with him. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who helped to create the atomic bomb but later philosophised on the moral responsibilities of scientists, was clearly an influence in crafting Honderich, and a good one.
'The Furnace' will resonate mostly as a set of ideas, with the actual story playing second fiddle, but the artwork deserves praise. After all, Rollins is an illustrator by trade and we would usually expect him to draw novels like this rather than write them. That he did a great job with the writing should not detract away from what he drew, which is very much in the comic book tradition. He didn't try to reinvent any wheels here with his artwork, but the drawing is crisp and the colours neatly subdued, like a comic book worn down by the sun over decades and forgotten, but rediscovered and brought back to our eyes as a sort of prophetic warning.
I don't believe I've read a graphic novel from Tor before, but this is a good one to start that habit. I do find that Tor reflect my tastes in science fiction more than many of their competitors and it's good to see that extend into the graphic format. I look forward to reading more graphic novels from them. ~~ Hal C F Astell