I was lured into Station by its format as much as its premise: a graphic novel telling a tale of murder on the International Space Station.
More than that, in fact; see if you can spot what convinced me I had to try this:
The International Space Station-the crowning achievement of mankind’s space program, assembled and maintained by the governments of the world’s five greatest superpowers…and the site of the ultimate locked-room mystery as one of seven astronauts aboard has targeted the others for death!
I’ve had some experience with comics and graphic novels — Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan is a firm favourite, I’m a gigantic Batman nerd — and my exposure to Gosho Aoyama’s Case Closed convinced me that a detective story can be told in the written visual medium, so this seemed worth a look. Plus, Case Closed has done some superb locked room and impossible crime stories, so I was very interested to see a potentially updated take on that concept, with the added peril of, y’know, Space.
I was in for, well, some disappointments.
Firstly, yeah, no, this is not a locked room mystery of the manner that the phrase “locked room mystery” has been referring to for over a century now. This is a locked room mystery in the sense that some hip marketing idiot with an MBA decided the phrase “locked room mystery” must be repurposed to fit, namely an “everyone is locked in a room mystery”, a.k.a. a Closed Circle Mystery. But, okay, just because it’s not an impossible crime doesn’t mean there can’t be some merit in the story it tells. And it starts off brilliantly: a “space tourist” called Dyson has won a place on the International Space Station, and in his first few days there one of the astronauts is performing emergency repairs when the thrusters on their backpack fail and there is no choice but to leave them to float off into the emptiness of the void.
Fairly quickly thereafter, Dyson discovers evidence of sabotage — it is deduced with some not undecent rigour that water was injected into the fuel tank of the thrusters — and the first chapter ends on the realisation that one of the other astronauts must therefore be responsible.
The problems begin in chapter 2, starting with the fact that the colouring of Leno Carvalho’s exquisitely kinetic artwork changes hands and undergoes an unforgivable drop in quality. It reads a little like chapter 1 was a taster to drum up funding for the rest of the story, and once that funding was received it had to be stretched v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n and therefore the same high-quality colourists could not be recalled. Thus the beautifully rendered expressions of the opening section are abandoned and the reader is left with a creeping sense of having developed prosopagnosia. Thankfully, some of the character have hair, and a couple even have a beard, so you should be okay.
Problems are encountered on the page, too, as first a fire, then an oxygen leak, then an explosion, then the jettisoning of the shuttle attached to the station, and then a nitrogen leak claim a variety of lives. If you’ve seen the Bruce Willis-starring Armageddon (1998) you’ll have a good idea of how this goes down — some bullshit “Maths” is rolled out, lots of people shout at each other, several of them die while doing so, and it’s all a matter of who could possibly be responsible for this…and why. In its own way it’s very thrilling, and there’s a distinct pleasure to be drawn from this sort of disaster story, as beat by beat we encounter problem-response-problem-response, all against the background of a setting that will kill you very quickly indeed (we’re given a salutary reminder that even holding your breath in the vacuum of space isn’t a good idea).
I stand by the above statement — there is a distinct pleasure to be drawn from this sort of disaster story — but Station is not the story to provide it. Those beats are crucial, and need to be well-gauged, and Stokes’ narrative is in such a rush to hit you with excitement after excitement that none of really has time to feel very exciting. And this got me thinking. In the same way that tension is achieved by drawing out a situation whose result is inevitable — think the young boy unknowingly carrying around a literal ticking bomb in Alfred Hitchcock’s early masterpiece Sabotage (1936), and getting distracted by a parade instead of going straight to where his terrorist father has told him to leave the package — surprise is best manufactured when something unexpected has been given time to foment unanticipated. And the best surprises come when they’ve had the longest time to sit, unobserved and unsuspected and yet strangely inevitable all the same.
This is why fair play is so important to so many of us in this genre, or why I stand by my joke analogy of detective fiction: a joke is funny because it turns on something key you weren’t expecting but must acknowledge was always there in the narrative. Clewing works off the same principle: you’re told the butler squints at the date on the calendar, or the handles of the doors along a corridor reflect the candlelight, or that the church organ sends huge vibrations through the audience at the lower end of its register, and you’re invited to either take that at face value or to attribute one of a plethora of possible degrees of significance to that information. If someone tells you that all these things are clues to a solution — and they are, though not in the same book — you still need to work out how they fit into a pattern. The clue is not the answer, it’s simply one of the signs along the way.
And so I hope it’s not inaccurate to say that the joy of in-plain-sight clewing is seeing the sheer number of meaningful occasions, and if not the number than at least the magnitude of a particular event, you overlooked. As an author the skill is to push these events as far as possible and so enable an entirely wrong picture to be built up over the course of your narrative, so that even two or three things taken in consort could still give them wrong impression. And that takes a lot of planning, it takes a lot of skill, it takes a huge amount of insight into what possible interpretations can be put on an event both in-universe by the characters and out-of-universe by the reader. It takes, in short, patience to seed and to build.
Now, Station does not purport to be a detective story, but it does promise a mystery, and that first chapter is delightfully paced in its seeding suspicion and setting up a slow run into paranoia as more events claim more lives. What Johanna Stokes goes onto do is, after that wonderfully rich opening, simply rush you through four or five disasters so fast that the impact, the pattern, and the potential of what is going on behind it all is completely lost. The scope here is immense — there’s nowhere to go, everyone is trapped inside the station with everyone else — and it would take a patient approach to really screw this murder plot down, but instead we get the fire, then the oxygen leak, then the explosion, then the jettisoning of the shuttle attached to the station, and then the nitrogen leak, with some deaths thrown in, and a stray piece of dialogue along the way being used to justify the opening murder in there at some point. And how does this all tie together with the other deaths?
It doesn’t. The fire causes the oxygen leak, which causes the explosion, which necessitates the jettisoning of the shuttle, and then the nitrogen leak just sort of happens…but none of it has anything to do with the opening murder. You’re never told what causes the fire, it’s just oe of those things that happens for no reason, and so the other deaths were in no way part of the murderer’s plan. It’s disaster writ small because there’s barely any time for any of the deaths to count due to their proximity to each other, and there’s no way we the reader could have played along with this since there’s no game to play, no joke to follow, no sudden surprise to be shocked by.
The whole enterprise has been constructed with a staggering lack of patience, of not trusting the reader to want to play along, and so there’s nothing here that has any impact once poor whatshisname dies at the start. Perhaps the cleanest and easiest parallel to draw between this and a work of class GAD would be And Then There Were None (1939), since no-one can get off the island and yet someone people are being poisoned, shot, pushed off cliffs, and crushed by a polar bear statue. Following the opening murder of Anthony Marston, had a fire broken out in the kitchen and someone been overcome by the smoke, and this is turn damaged the pipes and ruined the heating in the house so someone froze to death in the night, and the house circuits were damaged so another person tripped at the top of the stair when the lights suddenly went out, we’d hope that the fire had also been part of some larger plan to lead to these deaths. If it wasn’t, as here, then, like, what are you doing? And even when the plot works as sublimely as Christie manages in that book, the impact of it all is felt purely because of the moments of calm she gives you to see the effect of these events on these people, and to get a sense of them as people. When the revelations come at the end, they are devastating because we who they affect as people who have lived and died through this experience.
Without the time taken to at least give a sense of the people involved — and, sure, I’m not expecting life histories, but this is why the GAD archetype can be deployed so devastatingly by some brilliantly talented writers — or for the author to trust the reader to bear with them through the chance remark in conversation, or the presence of a sock in the cutlery drawer, we’re simply rushing through something with no investment, and that robs events of any meaning. In the same way that the exculpation of an innocent person under suspicion only feels interesting if we care about them as a person, the revelation of someone’s homicidal tendencies is only surprising if time has been spent making it unlikely they feel that way while also putting in place with cladestine cunning events that suddenly make sense once that revelation is reached. There’s a mordant streak which is necessary in these moments, and that only comes about by taking time to make them meaningful, upsetting, or at the very least unanticipated.
Station had the chance to be great, and one chapter in I was very excited to see how this would play out. Thankfully I can cite plenty of example where such opportunities were taken, but in this case I almost wish that funding to go past the cliffhanger hadn’t been awarded. Not that there’s anything offensive or problematic in this at all, but I suppose there’s always the chance that something else with less promising a start but a far more patient and carefully-constructed endgame missed out and never got to see the light of day. Wow, that’s a massive downer to end on, hey?