There is a real art to balancing a completely bonkers premise with some pithy, salient observations about the brokenness and weirdness of humanity which somehow still manages to hang onto something approaching hope, and Undiscovered Country, now back with a second off-the-wall Alice in Wonderland-meets-Mad Max narrative instalment, manages with dizzyingly accomplished aplomb.
Set in the near-to-medium future, where the United States, beset by economic issues aplenty and enthralled by an isolationist mentality in a world which is now largely split between two empires, the Alliance Euro-Afrique and the Pan-Asian Prosperity Zone, has sealed itself off with walls, physical and electronic and ceased any and all involvement with its global neighbours, Undiscovered Country is the ultimate choose your own adventure.
In an America that is unrecognisable to the outsiders who have answered a call from Dr Sam Elgin, one of the architects of the country’s currently darkly fantastical state, the residents of the land of the free and the home of the brave are now split into 13 walled-off entities, each of them committed to their own strange path to the perfect iteration of human civilisation and at effective with each other, while the mysterious Aurora company sits at the centre of the spiral.
It is up to Dr Charlotte Graves, her brother Major Daniel Graves, Dr Ace Kenyatta, journalist Valentina Sandoval, and envoys Janet Worthington (the Alliance) and Chang Enlou (the Zone), to see if they can find in these here loopy un-United States a cure for what ails the rest of the world which is fighting annihilation at the hands of the Sky Virus which is virulent that humanity has about six months left on a fast ticking clock.
So, not much pressure then?
The thing is, the world of Undiscovered Country is so weird and so foreign, and so distorted by chronological oddities that are so extreme and so bizarre that even Ace, an renowned authority on the hermit kingdom that is now America, is thrown.
This is not your mom’s apple pie and baseball USA of old and somewhere in the midst of a Wild West gone made – the Destiny zone, which featured in volume 1 of the series – and the hermetically sterile perfection of the Unity zone and eleven more besides, our intrepid six explorers are hoping they can find a way to save the world.
It is not, of course, going to be even remotely easy.
In Unity, where Dr Naira Jain holds near god-like sway and where everything is white, shiny, gleaming futuristic flawlessness, it appears they may just have found the way to unite and heal a broken and weary world.
There is nothing in Jain’s seeming utopian paradise that seems bad or disruptively evil, unlike Destiny which is all kinds of anarchic monstrosities and libertarian freewill gone to its unsettlingly narcissistic end, and just about everyone seems happy to dispense with visiting the other eleven enclaves, sure they have found the solution to end all solutions.
But hey, you know the well-worn but oft-proved adage, “if it seems to be too good to be true, it usually is”? Yeah, the one that posits that perfection usually hides a multitude of skin crawlingly off-putting evil, none of which you want anywhere near your body, mind or soul?
Well, that is in full wackadoodle mode in Unity, and while saying anything takes us far too far into spoiler territory, rest assured that the Graves, who are facing their own freakish family reunion with parents who are, well, not quite what they once were, and everyone else, discovers that pulling back the curtain who sees the real power behind the throne may just be the scariest thing they have ever done.
The thrill of Undiscovered Country is that it takes an off-the-charts premise and injects and infuses it over and over on each vividly-realised page, rich with worldbuilding artwork that will impress at every turn, with rich, raw, troubled humanity and a cogent, thoughtful rumination on what it means to be human and whether there is anything worth saving anymore.
It’s a bleak meditation on the sorry state of the human race, and in Unity, like as in Destiny, the old United States’ grand experiment in self-will and self-determinism is proving that perhaps a collective endeavour, riven with flaws and complexity as it is, might be a whole lot better forward than going it alone.
One of the central points in a story that is not remotely polemical but which definitely has something to say, is that we go our own way at our peril, and that while there might a warm inner glow to doing our own thing and screw royally the collective good, it eventually comes unstuck on the rocky and dangerous ground of own myopic inability to see where we might be going wrong.
That’s quite a substantial slab of humanity is its own worst enemy going on there but Snyder and Soule do a breathtakingly good and imaginatively expansive job of wrapping it all up in a story so fantastically mad and out there that the raw, trashed reality of this all too close to ours world always feel very real and authentic and resolutely grounded.
It is very much like, in spirit at least, to the afore-referenced Alice in Wonderland, which is all weirdness and drug-addled wonder but in its extremist strangeness, is one of the most lucid explorations of what it means to be human and to belong and care about something that has ever entered literature.
So too is Undiscovered Country, which, against a tableau of runaway idealism, frighteningly Borg-like collectivism and richly colourful and vivaciously realised artwork that represents the ugly truth behind perfectionism to a debilitating degree, asks us to consider what it is we want for humanity and whether we are in fact capable of saving ourselves?
Clearly Soule and Snyder think we may be able to do so since the story is well into the piratical oddities of the Possibility zone but whether we can actually pull it off is something for future instalment of graphic novel series that goes big, bold and bonkers mad on an amazingly surreal scale awash in colour and spectacle, and never once loses its insightful mind or thoughtful heart, something that may yet mean we stave off the inevitable.