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Universal War One… Stripp’d

The Christian conception of redemption is an oddly commercial one. Grounded in Old Testament talk of ransoming the slaves, redemption is presented as a transaction through which Christians pay off their debt to God and buy back their freedom from sin. Indeed, Christ is said to have redeemed mankind by suffering on the cross, thereby wiping the slate clean for all of humanity like some vast mortgage agreement bonfire. Christians tend to think of redemption as fundamentally democratic and emancipatory because, no matter how poor one is or how horrific one’s crimes may be, redemption is never completely out of reach and God’s business hours are 9 to infinity. But of course, this assumes that God had the right to levy the debt in the first place.

Denis Bajram’s Universal War One was initially published in France by Soleil between 1998 and 2006 before being translated and released in English by Marvel Comics between 2008 and 2009. Ostensibly an epic work of Military Science Fiction featuring space battles, time travel and the destruction of a number of different planets, the series is actually an attempt to work out what happens when we try to achieve redemption without recognising God’s position as a universal moral loan shark.

Set a few hundred years into the future, Universal War One focuses on a Dirty Dozen-style group of military prisoners who have been offered the chance to redeem themselves by serving in a high-risk ‘Purgatory Squadron’ operating out of the Genghis Khan carrier group. The first mission that the unit is sent on involves sinking a probe into a vast ‘Wall’ of blackness that has suddenly appeared in the vicinity of Saturn. As the unit explores The Wall, we learn more about them as individuals.

The purgatory unit is made up of a set of paired individuals: Each crime is grounded in a personality flaw and each personality flaw has its equally problematic and equally extreme reflection in the crime of another individual:

Balti is a former football player who wants to be the hero but his desire for recognition is so narcissistic and obsessive that it manifests itself in a reckless streak that has resulted in many accidental deaths. Balti is paired with Mario whose extraordinary physical cowardice is just as toxic and just as deadly as Balti’s need to be the hero.

Amina is the daughter of a domineering father who joined the military in order to escape her hideous home life. Unfortunately, the military failed to provide her with much shelter and she quickly found herself at the mercy of an equally domineering male commanding officer and, pushed beyond tolerance, Amina responded to an attempted rape by castrating her CO with a box-cutter. Amina is twinned with Milorad, a pilot who responds to any sign of female interest in him by a sense of entitlement to that woman’s body. When a nurse flirted with him, he raped her.  When Amina walked past him in her underwear without covering herself up, he tried the same.

The CO of the Purgatory Squadron is a Captain Williamson who, though not actually a criminal, has seen her once promising military career fall apart in the wake of her refusal to shoot civilians.  Williamson is a capable officer but her skills in this area flow from a distinctly maternal sense of empathy that is radically at odds with the duties involved in being a soldier.  Williamson’s maternal empathy is matched by the cold paternal rationalism of Kalish, a brilliant scientist whose colossal ego manifests itself as the need to get other people to see things his way, by force if necessary.

What is interesting about this set-up is that, while the characters are presented as being in need of redemption and having to earn their freedom from sin, it is not clear who they owe this debt to.  The military has the legal authority to levy a debt and the power to either demand payment or exact punishment but Bajram’s depiction of the military as fundamentally corrupt and authoritarian raises the question of whether the characters are morally obligated to seek redemption through the means offered them by the military.  Indeed, when Milorad attempts to rape Amina and Kalish beats the shit out of him in response, the suggestion is that the characters do not recognise their debt to the military… and so Williamson lays everyone’s cards of the table and makes it clear that because the Purgatory Unit either succeeds or fails collectively, the debt the characters owe is not to the military or themselves but to each other. The characters in Universal War One are paired because, in order to attain redemption, each character has to embrace their antithesis: Balti must learn to be more cautious, Mario must become more of a hero, Williamson has to look beyond there merely human, Kalish has to realise the importance of individuals and Milorad and Amina have to find something worthwhile in each other.

But this assumes that personal growth is a viable means of personal redemption and it is by no means clear that the characters themselves accept this metric. Some sins (and egos) are too big for a simple happy ending.

As the series progresses and we learn that The Wall is the end of a wormhole constructed by the corporate governments that run the solar system’s outer colonies, the scope of the series begins to expand. Before long, the self-contained world of space ships and inner turmoil is replaced by the epic vistas of interplanetary war and time travel as the characters take on the responsibility for saving humanity. However, Bajram never presents his characters being either particularly heroic or particularly concerned with the fate of mankind and so there is a sense in which their motivations for saving the world are entirely selfish. Indeed, it could be argued that many of the problems the characters are trying to solve are actually the product of their own selfish needs and desires.

There is a moment, mid-way through the series, when Kalish is separated from the rest of the group so that he can have a conversation with a mysterious bearded scientist. Aside from delivering a huge chunk of exposition, the scientist also attempts to take the blame for the series of catastrophic events leading up to that point in the story. The scientist explains that he was forced to do all of these things in order to prevent the universe from being destroyed by temporal paradox. Kalish listens to all of this and calmly responds that there was no temporal paradox and, as a result, the scientist’s actions had no redeeming quality. He was not saving the world, he was saving himself and killed out of ignorance and selfishness.

Kalish’s lack of pity for the old scientist is brutal but it sets the tone for the second half of the series: Humanity has freed itself from the yoke of the divine debt-collector but the lack of any kind of authority from which to ‘purchase’ one’s redemption has in no way diminished our desire to have it and so humanity has become obsessed with depicting its own downfall in the most epic of vistas.  As Ian McEwan puts it in Solar (2010), humanity has come:

to believe that one was always living at the end of days, that one’s own demise was urgently bound up with the end of the world, and therefore made more sense, or was just a little less irrelevant. The end of the world was never pitched in the present, where it could be seen for the fantasy it was, but just around the corner, and when it did not happen, a new issue, a new date would soon emerge. The old world purified by incendiary violence, washed clean by the blood of the unsaved, that was how it had been for Christian millennial sects – death to the unbelievers! And for Soviet Communists – death to the kulaks! And for Nazis and their thousand-year fantasy – death to the Jews! And then the truly democratic contemporary equivalent, an all-out nuclear war – death to everyone!

The series’ slow inflation from being a lo-fi story of space-travelling scumbags to being an epic tale of time-travel, evil empires and galaxy-eating black holes reflects the growing hubris of Humanity.  Kalish is a genius and, as such, he represents not only Humanity’s boundless potential but also its bottomless narcissism and self-regard. Much like the scientist who invokes the destruction of the universe to justify his cowardly murders, Kalish needs the grandest of stages for the tale of his redemption. Only the largest of scopes can encompass the glorious complexity of his guilt and desire for salvation.

Humanity killed God and dismantled the state leaving us without any authority capable of granting us the redemption we sometimes crave. As the greatest and most hideous of humans, Kalish completes this circle by reshaping all of time and space, thereby making himself into a god. Universal War One ends in the far future with Kalish posing as a divine figure yet, as he lays down the holy text that will form the basis for a Universal Church, his eyes are dull and his spirits are low: Yes, he has destroyed the universe and remade the world. Yes, he has unravelled time and space in order to save Humanity… but is that all there is?

Universal War One is an exquisitely drawn comic and its plot is very much part of the same venerable space-operatic tradition that once housed the works of Robert Heinlein and Iain M. Banks. However, the tendency of the plot to move away from hard science and towards science so advanced as to be indistinguishable from bug-fuck gonzo magic points to one of the reasons why space opera is not as popular as it once was.

Traditional space operatic Hard SF operated on the assumption that humanity’s future would resemble its past and that the rules governing the world today are the rules that will continue to govern it in the future. In practice, this meant that space operas took their speculative queues from history and so our future was seen as inevitably including great empires who would war in ways that looked a lot like the Second World War or the battles of the Napoleonic era. However, as we moved out of the industrial era and into a more media-saturated postmodern age, our society lost faith in any particular vision of the nature of the world; Not only do we not know what the future will be like but we can no longer speak with any authority about either the rules that govern the world, the true nature of the world or our true nature as individuals. Indeed, one reason for Fantasy now being more popular than Science fiction is that Fantasy is a genre that casts serious doubt upon our perceptions of the world. In Fantasy, there is always a secret history of the world and it is always different to the history we have been taught, meaning that the world (and our place in it) is permanently in a state of flux. Fantasy fits with our current understanding of both ourselves and the world we live in in a way that can no longer be said of Hard SF. Universal War One’s movement away from Hard SF and towards Fantasy may well be driven by its characters’ search for redemption but it also provides a fascinating commentary upon our own relationship with science and literary genre. We are no longer the species that took itself to the Moon because it was there, we are the species that yearns for the simple commercial certainty of a debt in need of repayment and so even our dreams of spaceflight have come to be touched by the fantastic and the divine. Humanity is a species that cannot accept that its destiny and nature lie in the world as it is, we need to believe that we are more than mundane.

By Jonathan McCalmont

Jonathan McCalmont is a critic whose work has been published at Strange Horizons, The SF Site, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Vector and The Escapist. He maintains a film and literary blog entitled Ruthless Culture and he writes a monthly gaming column at Futurismic entitled Blasphemous Geometries.