“With the steel that’ll make you feel like chinchilla in the heat”
Prentis Rollins has been in the comics business for years, mostly as an inker but kind of a jack-of-all-trades, and now he’s done his first graphic novel, The Furnace, which is published by Tor. So let’s take a look at it!
The Furnace begins in 2052, but most of it is told in flashbacks, so we jump around a lot. Walton Honderich, a 48-year-old physicist who’s gone to seed quite a bit (I’m 47, and I know I don’t look as old as Walton does), arrives in New York with his wife and young daughter, Clara, after he’s spent some years living in London (he’s American, his wife is British). While they’re walking around on the streets, they see a bizarre globe flying through the air (well, everyone sees it – it’s not like it’s not there). This freaks Walton out, and he decides to tell Clara all about them, which story takes up most of the book.
The globe is a one-man prison, and Rollins’s story is about how they came to be and what Walton’s role in creating them is. Rollins goes back a few decades to show Walton as an undergraduate at USC, where he caught the attention of a very young professor, Marc Lepore. Lepore is a genius, so the government has hired him to write the security software for the “gard,” the floating globes. In this world, there were several attacks on supermax prisons, and the government decided that keeping so many prisoners together was dangerous, so they came up with gards – the globes are studded with cameras that – through the magic of comic-book science – rendered anyone walking in its electro-magnetic field completely invisible. Once someone was in the field, they couldn’t get out – the gard would zap them with an intense electrical shock – and the gard could only be deactivated by someone outside the field who had the access codes. The government was going to place gards above every supermax prisoner and release them into a few cities in the country, thereby allowing them to have a small measure of freedom but still be under constant surveillance. Plus, no one would be able to see or hear them (they can see and hear people outside the field, though), so they could just ignore the gard if they wanted to. It’s a clever science-fiction idea, and Rollins makes it sound at least semi-realistic. Lepore wants Walton to try to break through his security, because he knows that if Walton (and two other people he selected, whom we never meet and whom Walton never knows) can’t do it, then it’s impregnable. That attempt drives the plot, even though it’s not all that important – Rollins just uses it to get Walton involved in the project, so he can begin to question what’s going on.
The plot, as I mentioned, is almost incidental – we know that the Gard Program is approved and implemented, and while we might suspect that the climax of the book will be the program getting shut down, that’s too big and abstract an idea to fit into this story (and it does happen, but in a rather circumspect and quiet way). The story is more philosophical, as Walton learns more about the gards and what they do, and he begins to wonder if it’s an even worse prison than the physical ones the inmates were in before the gards went active. Rollins has a lot on his mind, and the book is a very good examination of several flashpoints of American culture, as well as being a scary look at what lengths the government will go to in order to “keep people safe,” but of course he also examines what that means. Walton quickly sees the terror of being invisible to the rest of the world even though you live in it, and even a genius like Lepore can’t answer the question of what happens to someone’s mind living that way. Later, inmates begin to die, and when they do that, the gards return to their home base, which is a small town in Iowa, and leave the bodies where they drop. This, of course, brings home the state of inmates far more than shipping them off to remote prisons does, and it upsets the average American, which Rollins implies is not a bad thing. Inmates die at a remarkable rate, far beyond what’s normal, and Walton wonders if they’ve somehow willed themselves to die because their circumstances are so dire. There’s also the idea of the gards being limited to the big cities, so Rollins brings in the urban/rural divide that has been part of American history since the beginning – the rural communities are much more in favor of the gards, but they don’t have to deal with the fall-out from both the floating orbs and the dead they leave behind. Without being too overt about it, Rollins does a nice job bringing up questions about the way we punish criminals, whether or not there’s any good way to do it, and how much we should hide from the public. They’re tough questions, and Rollins doesn’t really have any answers, but they’re still things to ponder.
The subtext of the book is powerful, as well. While Rollins is writing about hiding things away because in this country there’s a need to conceal unpleasantness, he’s also telling us about both Walton and Lepore. The idea of people living in a prison of their own making isn’t new, but Rollins does some interesting things with it. Of course, the prisoners aren’t in prisons of their own making, but their presence in the world and the looming gards make the metaphor work, as both men fit into this theme. At one point, Lepore tells Walton the story of a physicist whose work peaked at 26 and who decided to chuck it all later in life and disappeared until someone found him living a quiet life in Illinois. Lepore is equating himself with the physicist, as he’s a young man who has been offered tenure but doesn’t know if he wants to take it, because he believes that will lead to a life of stagnation. Lepore is a genius, but Walton is very smart, too, and Rollins shows us the difference between them – Lepore continues to push himself until he goes to some very dark places. He dies young (it’s better to burn out than fade away, according to Joe Elliott and Clancy Brown) but leaves an impact – whether it’s a good impact or not ultimately doesn’t concern him. Walton, meanwhile, chooses to not be “great,” meaning he does take tenure and settle into a quiet domestic life, and early on, Rollins implies that it’s killing him – he drinks too much (he never drank until he got involved in the gards) and he doesn’t have the best relationship with his wife and daughter. Rollins does an excellent job showing how both men construct prisons for themselves, but maybe that’s what we all do, and maybe it’s not that bad. Is Lepore right? Is Walton? Rollins seems to lean toward Walton’s side, especially at the end, where the climax is an understated epiphany that Walton has, but he doesn’t shy away from the alluring side of greatness. What is anyone willing to sacrifice for greatness? It’s another common theme in popular culture, but Rollins manages to keep it subtle, because Lepore doesn’t make any grandiose sacrifices. Finally, there’s the fact that Lepore is gay, and while the book does take place in the 21st century, there’s still a chilling scene between the young Lepore and his father, who doesn’t understand his son. It’s clear throughout the book that Lepore is repressing that side of himself as well, and it comes out at the worst time. It’s just another prison he puts himself in. There’s not a ton of action in The Furnace, but that’s okay, because Rollins is more interested in psychological tension, and the book can be very tense as Rollins asks these difficult questions for which there aren’t easy answers.
Rollins also does really excellent work with the art. The gards themselves are terrifying, menacing and black, hanging in the air unnaturally, and Rollins uses black word balloons with white letters to convey how disturbing they must sound when they make announcements (which is rare, making it even more disturbing). Unlike far too much science fiction, his future doesn’t look significantly different than the present, with just some very small, almost unnoticeable changes. He fills each page with wonderful details, too, from the mess of Lepore’s office to the toys Clara plays with to the desolation of winter in Central Park. His older Walton is terrific, too, as he shows the resignation of his fate not only on his face, but in the way he slumps and the way his body looks beaten down, in marked contrast to his younger self. The artistic centerpiece of the book is a 19-page conversation between Walton and Lepore on the beach near the Santa Monica pier. Rollins draws the sky full of menacing clouds, the waves with fierce beauty, and the two men walking along, animated by the spirit of exploration but also frightened of what they might unleash on the world. It’s a fascinating discussion, to be sure, but it’s also amazing to look at.
The Furnace is a terrific graphic novel, one that takes a real-world scenario and twists it just enough to open up a vista of storytelling possibilities, and Rollins does a very good job with both the actual plot of the gards and what happens with them as well as how making these decisions can affect those who make them. He could have easily turned it into a more action-oriented story and it probably would have been fine, but he takes his time to give us two characters who have great depth and great concern about how they’re shaping the world and what that means for the future. Rollins makes the discussions about these problems fascinating because he has built such good characters, and while both do things that we might condemn, they also struggle with what they do and try to make the world better. Perhaps the best thing Rollins does is show how messy that can get, even if your motives are pure. It’s a very good book, and if I were doing best-of lists, it would probably be quite high on it!
You can get the book at the link below, if you’re interested. Remember, we get a tiny piece of it, which helps keep the lights on around here, so if you’re going to buy something anyway, use the link below!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆