Of what use does technology have if the end is nowhere in sight? What means will we concoct, day-to-day, to meet our end goal? Writer/artist Frederik Peeters plays with these themes and more in his AngoulÃªmeÂ Festival-winning sci-fi chronicle, “Aama.” Set in the far-far future, where there is no division of race, no religious idolatry, only the haves and have-nots. Who will keep up, and who will be left behind?
The story follows Verloc, a miserable man who rejects technological body modifications and implants, only to be swooped up into an adventure by his smooth operating brother, Conrad. Rounding out the group is Churchill, a cigar-smoking mechanical ape. They’re sent off on a mission to an off-world colony to figure out what happened to a group of scientists. “Aama: The Smell of Warm Dust” is set to hit stores this week via publisher SelfMadeHero, and on the cusp of its release, Peeters spoke with CBR about his take on the genre, his unique vision and what it means to live in the future.
CBR News: Frederik, where did the idea for “Aama” come from?
Frederik Peeters: I don’t know where I get my ideas, but I know why I wanted to do “Aama.” A few years ago, I’d done a science fiction series called “Lupus.” The books did well, won prizes. But an intense memory of the process stayed with me. I’d improvised everything as I went along, putting events from my actual life into the story — like my wife’s pregnancy, for example. The experiment worked well with science fiction, since as a genre it allows for a great range of contemplation and reverie, giving imagination and visions free rein.
After a few books, each very different from one to the next, I wanted to feel that kind of freedom again. But whereas “Lupus” was playing ironically with SF tropes and allusions, I wanted [to] infuse “Aama” with deep respect for a certain kind of classic genre SF that had always aroused strong feelings in me: Bradbury, StanisÅ‚aw Lem. And I definitely also wanted it to be a reflection on the relationship between humanity and the all-consuming technology we invent. Throw in the desire to describe a father’s love for his daughter — it’s a feeling that fascinates me — and, well, it all went from there. Then I wrote up the backstories for the main characters, a very basic story arc, and started improvising.
What is it about science fiction, specifically science fiction set in the far-future, that appeals to everyone? And with so many science fiction stories in the market, what’s your advice for making one stand out?
It’s hard to say — you’d have to define SF as a term, and everyone has a different interpretation. For me, “Star Wars” or “Dune” isn’t SF. They’re more along the lines of mythological stories transposed to a cosmic setting. Real SF comes from H.G. Wells or Jules Verne. It’s focused on science and humanity, and offers reflections on our fate, like “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
There’s also SF as critique, like Philip K. Dick, or [John] Carpenter’s “Escape from New York.” And finally, there’s a kind of SF that approaches allegorical reverie, provoking strange and exotic feelings, as in Eastern European literature, or Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles.” I wanted to work a little bit with each of these different ways of seeing things. “Aama” asks questions about the world we live in, but it’s also meant to offer up unexpected images. I like mixing influences that come from all different fields — psychoanalysis, poetry, classical painting, philosophy — to create a kind of journey into our innermost selves. I like using SF as a means of pure escape, a way of intermingling several levels of our perception of reality. I also toss in a big helping of intimacy, stories of love and family.
If you were to recommend only three science fiction comics or books to a friend, what would they be?
“Solaris,” by StanisÅ‚aw Lem. “The Martian Chronicles,” by Ray Bradbury. “The Airtight Garage,” by Moebius. (Oh, and also “Akira”!)
I find that worlds and settings that aren’t beautiful or harmonious to be attractive — whether it’s the futuristic Los Angeles in “Blade Runner,” or Arakkis in “Dune.” For me, “Aama” has that same appeal. What went into designing the different set pieces?
I’ve kept a blog detailing all the stages of creation and worldbuilding for “Aama.” Of course, there are some genre cliches: the megalopolis, as old as “Metropolis”; the primitive desert planet, present in classics of the genre. I use them as a sort of shorthand. I won’t have to describe them too much precisely because everyone knows them already, so I can linger over the decor details unique to “Aama,” in which entire environments change and evolve at accelerated rates in response to the characters’ inner turmoil. That’s why “Aama” isn’t always comfortable and seductive. Once again, the desire to work through deep and disturbing feelings. It’s a mixture of hundreds of things, really: Memories of travel in India and Egypt, contemporary art installations. Lots of biology, microscopic close-ups, photos of algae or insects. Things I see in the street, or in nature. Lots of reading.
For the urban scenes, my starting point was that everyone’s constantly connected to a vast network through brain implants. So people inhabit a concrete reality — they go out, eat, move around, do their business — but they’re also constantly somewhere else, receiving all sorts of sensory information in a steady stream. So there are far fewer ads and billboards. The apartment buildings look like giant blank cellphones. There’s no more religion, or racial or national divides, but there is a strong social hierarchy, almost a caste system.
Going hand-in-hand with the setting is the mood of “Aama.” Overpopulated, a sense of bleakness. Is this how you envision the future?
No, not necessarily. I think that’s how Verloc sees it, though (and a part of me, too). What interests me is how that character starts with a very bleak, despairing, even reactionary vision of his time, and ends up with a kind of serenity, or trust. He rejects the super-tech and science all around him and thinks they’re destroying humanity, magic, and beauty, but through a series of struggles, he winds up accepting that technology maybe our only way to save ourselves.
Personally, I figure all the powers we derive from tech are, in the end, just tools, and humans have always made tools. What worries me is that today the ends are no longer deciding the means; the means have taken over. We’re obsessed with our own inventions, and forget to question their usefulness or their consequences. At any rate, we shouldn’t even be thinking about that: all our time should be devoted to saving the earth. That seems like the main concern to me. Overpopulation is part of the problem. Despite the many reassurances of SF to the contrary, interstellar travel to other habitable worlds is completely beyond our means.
There’s Verloc, the main character; Conrad, his brother; and Churchill, the cigar-smoking robotic monkey. Do you have a favorite — was one easier to create and write than the others?
The whole story got going when, one day, I found a cheap little plastic gorilla in the bottom of a drawer in my daughter’s room. He was in a funny pose, and had a big smile on his face. I did several sketches of him in a notebook, named him Raymond, stuck a cigar in his mouth, then re-named him Churchill, and… voilÃ ! He seemed immediately alive to me on paper. All the rest took shape around him. I guess that answers your question? The two brothers are based vaguely on me and my brother — or rather, caricatures of our lives and personalities.
“Aama” won “Best Series” in 2013 at AngoulÃªme. What was that experience like?
I’d already won two prizes at AngoulÃªme, for “Lupus” and for “RG,” a French cop series. So I knew what to expect. But this time it was special because Jean-Pierre Dionnet was the host, and handed me the prize. He’s someone who, among so many others I never personally knew, had a hand in making me who I am today. He was, among other things, the founder of “Metal Hurlant” (“Heavy Metal”), which influenced all SF and pop culture from LA to Tokyo, from the ’70s to now. I remembered me as a teenager and wondered, could I ever have imagined that he’d be handing me a prize one day?!
There’s a clear difference between sci-fi comics produced in Europe versus the States, but what do you see as the most glaring differences?
I don’t know. It’s hard to say. You’d have to really do a study on it. I’m sure you could find any number of American works that could be European and vice-versa. Especially now, in the internet age, when everything blends together and flattens out all over the world. But it reminds me of this line in a book by Romain Gary, which said that Americans still had the souls of children because their country hadn’t experienced any tragedies, while Europeans had understood that existence was tragic, and heroes could lead to disaster. Americans like their heroes simple, while Europeans maybe prefer refinement and complexity.