Review: Planetary

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a review of the full four-volume saga, consisting of Planetary, Volume. 1: All Over the World and Other Stories, Planetary, Volume 2: The Fourth Man, Planetary, Volume 3: Leaving the 20th Century and Planetary, Volume 4: Spacetime Archaeology. I will review the companion volume Planetary: Crossing Worlds elsewhere. I’m doing this because the four books simply don’t work independently. Most of book 2 is completely incomprehensible until you read book 3, at which point all the apparently random unconnected adventures in book 1 become part of a single enormous unfolding narrative about a great game whose stakes are no less than the survival of the universe.

So, where to start? At the outset we appear to have a simple story of a somewhat more exciting version of The X Files, where our team is taked by a mysterious ‘fourth man’ to go around and investigate anomalous events in order to discover the secret history of the twentieth century. We still have a nerd and a sexy woman, only this time the nerd is a borderline psychotic who can interface with the internet without needing boring things like computers to do it, the sexy woman is very definitely in charge, and has a taste for ultraviolence. Oh yes, and there’s a third person: a grumpy old man. In the course of the narrative we learn a fair bit about these individuals, but, rather wonderfully, it’s part of a greater narrative which assumes things that Ellis doesn’t bother to explain to us – after, all the characters know what a ‘millenium baby’ is, so why would they bother to explain it to one another? And another nice example of the subtlety of approach is that it’s only very gradually during book 1 that we discover that Jakita (the sexy woman) is superhuman in more than being, well, a very sexy woman. Just how superhuman she is only fully emerges in book 3, and likewise Drums (the nerd) only reveals his full awesome powers gradually.

Volume 1, then, it made up of a series of apparently disconnected stories in which the team go and investigate something. And we learn fun stuff, like the existence of a black Moon Programme which made its first launch in 1961. That’s right. And it’s all amusing, but seems a bit light, until near the end of volume 2 where you realise that it’s been one story all along. So I’m not going to say any more about the plot, save that multiverses are involved, and Ellis makes really neat of ideas from holographic cosmology. Let’s just say that volume 2, in isolation, would seem really incoherent, dotting around in time and space (with a wonderful rip-off of the whole Superman origin story, which comes to a premature end when a US soldier empties a rifle into the boy ‘just to be sure’) with no clear plan. Until you get the big revelation and, with that, are ready for the massive struggle that makes up books 3 and 4 (though even they play merry hell with time, place and reality).

Another nice feature is that we see at work the way that apparently nice people can be seduced into doing terrible things. And I don’t just mean the bad guys. Jakita, despite her affection for hitting things really hard, is clearly a very moral person, and is repelled when her mysterious boss reveals that he’s been torturing people. But by a gradual wearing-down, she reaches the point where she’s willing to indulge in extra-judicial killing and so on and so forth, because she’s been convinced it’s for the greater good. This aspect of human behaviour is, I think, one of the most mysterious of all: how good, decent people can become, if not monsters, then monstrous, and all from the purest of motives. Nobody really understands it, but it happens, and it’s good to see Ellis admitting to it (the sheer uprightness of Mulder & Scully was always one of the sillier aspects of The X Files).

Is there anything bad to say? Well, at first you’ll wonder what you’re getting into. But that’s meant to happen, because you’re then put on a footing with the principles, who don’t have a clue either. So plough on. On a minor point, Jakita starts out as a strong character, but by book 3 she’s faded a bit, and by book 4 she’s in danger of becoming ‘sexy woman in black neoprene who hits things’ version 94. She doesn’t, but she does feel a little underwritten in the latter stages of the narrative.

So, don’t be put off, and make sure you have all four volumes available for cross-referencing.

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