Over the last couple of months I've complained about how skimpy the first two phases of the '2000 AD' strip, 'Zenith', felt in their new high quality hardbound presentation from Rebellion. I can't remotely say the same about their release of 'Brass Sun', which is just as high quality in every regard but which also feels much more substantial.
It's also a much more enjoyable read, whose biggest drawback is that it isn't finished, which means that we're not going to get the next substantial volume next year. This volume contains all three of the stories currently written, 'The Wheel of Worlds', 'The Diamond Age' and 'Floating Worlds'. There aren't any more and won't be until Ian Edginton writes them, which I hope he does and soon because his story recounts a journey and that journey has a long way to go.
'Brass Sun' is a new strip to me, originally published in '2000 AD' between 2012 and 2014, decades after I stopped reading. If I had any doubts about the quality of much newer material than any of the vintage releases I've reviewed thus far, they were quickly shattered by the deceptively simple but highly effective art of I N J Culbard to illustrate Edginton's story. While this is surely longer than both phases of 'Zenith' put together, I devoured it in a couple of sittings and would happily have kept going if I hadn't have run out of pages. It's a clockwork delight!
The story is an odd one, based on a single idea that is really going to make or break the whole thing for potential readers. It posits a solar system with all the usual elements, a sun, a set of planets and all the rest, but which is run not by the hand of God or the laws of celestial motion but by clockwork. While I got a kick out of the idea, as apparently did Edginton when an orrery got inside his brain and sparked his creativity, I was concerned as to how he could make it work in a story but he did because as much as this is about a quest to keep that clockwork system in motion, it's really about unimaginable passage of time and how that changes everything.
We're given the background quickly and cleverly in the journal of Cadwallader, a condemned man, a bishop who sacrificed his religion for scientific observation and a grandfather who will sacrifice himself for his world. He's watched the skies in self imposed exile, he's seen the lights of planets die and he knows now that his will follow. Back of Beyond and Afterthought are gone already and he knows that Hind Leg has little time left. So he gives his journal to his granddaughter, modestly called Wren, who sets out to achieve what he can't. And here springs our background.
In the almost forgotten past, the Blind Watchmaker created the Wheel of Worlds, an orrery with a scale of 1:1. He placed the lost tribes of Man on its various and varied planets. Commerce thrived between them through use of the rails, a mass transit system, but eventually jealous human nature led to conflict, manifested in the War of the Key, in which individual planets fought each other for the various parts of the key that had been entrusted to them for use in the distant future when the Brass Sun needed to be wound afresh. The rails were closed and a Dark Age fell, prompting the loss of much of the knowledge needed right now. It falls to Wren to traverse the rails, find the dispersed parts of the key, wind the Brass Sun and save Hind Leg and the rest of this solar system from devastation.
That's a heck of a concept, huh? Well, it's enough that three stories don't get too far into the bigger picture. Part one, 'The Wheel of Worlds', gives us the background and introduces the key characters, not just Wren but also Conductor Seventeen, a young Prime Number, one of those tasked with maintaining the rails. The pair set off on this most important of quests but only their initial encounters unfold in 'The Diamond Age' and 'Floating Worlds'. There's much more to come from Edginton as this isn't going to wrap itself up any time soon.
What leapt out at me was the overview of the whole thing. The foresight of the Blind Watchmaker and how the human race has a penchant for messing with it is reminiscent of the difficulties encountered by Hari Seldon in Isaac Asimov's stories of the 'Foundation'. There's always an anomaly, right? How to plan around it and ensure redundancy within the system? The IT guy in me found a lot to ponder on here, echoing in a fantastical setting very real world discussions about how knowledge can be preserved and how it can be lost over unimaginable lengths of time.
I appreciated the variety too. Hind Leg is run by a religious order of zealots who blindly adhere to their faith in the Cog, even as the Wheel of Worlds is clearly failing. Summers have shortened and winters lengthened, but rather than use science to learn how to fix the problem, the powers that be use their Inquisition, the Daywatch, to quash any such thought. Again, a lot of this feels very reminiscent of global warming arguments, especially when we apply such massive periods.
There's none of that on the Keep, the next planet Wren finds her way to through the rails. It's run by the Scarlet Duke, the 163rd in his line, who epitomises the excesses of the nobility in every mediaeval story you've ever heard. Then again, his entire planet, one vast landmass, is effectively his house. Perspective here isn't found merely in the fourth dimension, it's also in the first three.
After that, it's on to 'Hot Air', which is the precise opposite of the Keep, as people here live in the sky, sailing around in ships reminiscent of the pirate age, as our heroes soon find when they escape from the Red Wench, home of the bounty hunters called the Sweet Sisters, into the Nominal Charge, run by the pirate and gleeful tax evader Ariel O'Conner.
These worlds are fascinating places, each with their parallel in our own history, and I'd love to discover what other pasts Edginton will turn into futures in further volumes of 'Brass Sun'. They do dominate proceedings, leaving Wren and Conductor Seventeen, and the other characters they encounter or pick up along their way, to struggle to make themselves particularly noticed. Their massively important quest may well make our two leads the most massively important people in the entire Wheel of Worlds, but they haven't got there yet and for now they're still figuring things out as they go. It's those worlds they travel through that we focus on most, especially as each of them has evolved over time in a very different way.
As wild as this concept is, I had a real blast with it and I'm only sorry that we clearly have quite a wait in store before we can continue onto the next world and the next and the next... ~~ Hal C F Astell