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Volume 28, Number 4, Summer, 2010

Escape From Terra, Volume 1

By Sandy Sandfort, Scott Bieser, and LEE OAKS!

Big Head Press, 2010, $12.95, 189 pages
Reviewed by Anders Monsen

Big Head Press is gradually amassing a resumé of quality online graphic novels collected into print editions. Their latest offering is the very libertarian collection of tales from a trio of writers and illustrators, Escape from Terra, scripted by Sandy Sandfort and Scott Bieser, with art by Lee Oaks.

Set around 100 years in the future, Escape From Terra showcases stories about anarchist colonists on the asteroid Ceres who deal with the statist Terra’s “United World Revenue Service.” This is Moon is the Harsh Mistress as if the revolution succeeded.

The slim volume densely packs in a series of five vignettes, or arcs as they are classified on the Big Head Press web site (where the stories continue beyond what appears in Volume 1, so presumably there will be a Volume 2 some day). Although the book does not list the titles, I tracked these down in an early email announcing the series a few years ago. The first one, entitled “Marching Orders” introduces us to some of the main characters. Tax collector Guy Caillard is assigned the task of collecting outstanding revenue from Ceres. Once a mining destination, Ceres has become a thriving place of commerce and wealth, and Terra declares part of that wealth as rightfully theirs. Along with his gorgeous assistant Fiorella Stellina, Guy attempts to makes sense of the Ceres structure of government, which is not quite what it seems. Perhaps the shortest of the arcs this serves mainly as an introduction to the rest of the tale. We meet the very Heinleinian teenager Babette, her comical relatives Bert and Ernie, and King Reginald the First, the supposed ruler of Ceres.

“World Ceres” concerns an episode where Guy and Fiorella are trapped along with one of their hosts in a surface corridor on a mining asteroid. Here we learn that Guy has a heroic streak, and is not just a stuffed-shirt bureaucrat incapable of surviving outside the office. We also witness our first “escape” from the Terran government, though not a surprising one, as someone decides to leave the service of the Terran government and re-locate to the less law-bound (though not without rules) Ceres.

“War of the Worlds” brings the crisis of Terra to the fore, as warships are dispatched to Ceres to subdue the populate and arrest those in charge. When Reggie King declares everything a sham the Terrans refuse to believe him. They kill a family of Cerans as a demonstration. When events go south for the Terrans, those responsible for the murders are executed in what can only be described as a disturbing scene. I am not sure if the authors thought through some of the ramifications of such a form of justice and method of execution, but it seemed very out of place. One could argue this was no different from “toss them out an airlock” statement from the Heinlein novel to which I alluded above, but no person who shoots another person can continue to exist as the same person, especially a teenager.

“The Icemen Cometh” deviates from the serious themes, and introduces some new players. Bert and Ernie are hired to transport a large chunk of ice to a remote asteroid, and learn their mysterious client has some huge ambitions. Thrown into the mix is a brutal Terran assassin who fails to plan for every eventuality. Their host turns out to be the wealthiest man in the universe, Tobikuma Kobayashi, a reclusive inventor who open sources his inventions to keep them out of reach of the Terran government. He seeks to one-up his hero, Norman Borlaug, and find a way to feed billions, while still making a buck or two, no doubt.

“Mystery of the Martian Melodies: The Trouble with Sybils” digresses from the main tale, as the primary setting takes place on Mars. Still in the very slow process of terraforming, Mars remains brutally cold and hostile to humans outside pressure suits. Reggie King is hired to debunk some strange paranormal phenomena, as grad students are hearing strange voices in a remote SETI research station. When a researcher marches naked into the Martian landscape after hearing voices telling him to come out to play, the engineers in charge look for possible reasons. We learn as much about Reggie’s psyche as the supposed ghosts of Mars, and see a possible future history of the planet through the cracks of the story.

The volume of takes from the Escape from Terra universe packs entertainment and ideas. Some of the pages almost pack in too much, and this book is probably not one to read in a single sitting. Some of the pages also are packed in a little on the small side; though the web comics are bigger and easier to read, clicking through the “pages” is not as familiar as flipping through paper, at least in my eyes.

Sandfort, Bieser, and Oaks have an interesting future history on their hands. Told in the fashion of old-time action adventure comic strips, this is definitely not a novel. Some of the arcs hint at future events in other arcs, and the growing cast of characters sometimes distracts. While Guy appears to be the main protagonist, his story is but one of many in this large ensemble cast, very reminiscent of the TV series Babylon 5. Depending on where the story leads, it should have a strong readership. There are few books which detail positive liberty rather than statist dystopia, and Escape From Terra manages to do a great deal of both.

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