Way back in 1959, JG Ballard wrote a short story called ‘The Waiting Grounds’, in which a character called Quaine takes up a job on a distant planet, his predecessor, a man called Tallis, providing a short handover in which he makes several mysterious references to what it’s like to work on the planet for an extended period of time (Tallis had worked for 15 years, uninterrupted, without taking a single break). For much of the story, events run prosaically – or as prosaically as a story set on another planet ever can – and then… Well, things go absolutely batshit crazy.
“For aeons I plunged spiralling weightlessly through a thousand whirling vortexes, swirled and buffeted down chasmic eddies, splayed out across the disintegrating matrix of the continuum, a dreamless ghost in flight from the cosmic Now. Then a million motes of light prickled the darkness above me, illuminating enormous curving causeways of time and space veering out past the stars to the rim of the galaxy.”
I mention this because the third volume of Frederik Peeter’s Aama epic, The Desert of Mirrors, appears to be the point at which things go batshit crazy here too. Saying this, though, suggests that maybe volumes 1 and 2 (The Smell of Warm Dust and The Invisible Throng, respectively) were the straight sections leading to the crazy – and that is just plain wrongo. Aama has always been something of a wild ride but… well, let’s just say, three volumes in, Peeters obviously feels like he has a captive audience (you wouldn’t start in reading at this point unless you were some kind of masochist) and can basically take them where he wants to go. There are similarities, as we’ve said before, with Charles Burns’ recently trilogy of books (X’ed Out, The Hive and Sugar Skull) in that these books are challenging and require readers to engage.
For those who have engaged up to this point: the basic framework remains the same: our narrator Verloc continues to travel with Churchill, a large ape-shaped robot with two human legs, whilst reading a diary that catches us up on everything that has led to this point (everything that Verloc has forgotten). For the majority of The Desert of Mirrors, we exist in diary-space, Verloc travelling with his brother, a simulacrum of his daughter, the aforementioned Churchill and Rajeev, an elderly Indian man. Peeters has himself quite a time (as he has previously) fashioning HRR Geiger like worlds composed of long tubes of organic matter (the travellers have to pass through a kind of sphincter at one point), vast deserts of rocky outcrops and woodland worlds that feature creatures with tiny faces (that reminded this reader of the cartoon Adventure Time, one of the best shows on TV right now, if you’re interested).
It is the middle third of the book, however, where the book becomes more outlandish than it has been to date, with Verloc’s atoms splitting and each member of the troupe having an extended fantasy sequence (although we remain with Verloc – and it isn’t necessarily a fantasy sequence, in the reality of the book, what we see ‘really happens’) during which Verloc sees his ex-wife, engaged in coitus with her new lover whilst professing love for Verloc, sharing a strange meal with his brother (a meal containing a large red eye) in which they converse at length about their father and how their father dealt with the death of their mother – and then it’s back to reality. Except for a second we see a figure – maybe the simulacrum of Verloc’s daughter, with a metal halo of some kind over her head and bright red eyes, staring down. This also presages a return to Radiant, the planet where all this started from, and a glimpse into what is really going on here.
This glimpse behind the curtain is exhilarating: we’re starting to see more and more of the picture (and getting more and more clues and seeing more and more discussion about what aama really is) and yet conversely as we see more we realise that there is still more to see – and the anticipation to see the more that Peeters has in store for us grows too. Each of these three books so far play the short and long game expertly – giving the reader enough to keep reading in terms of the long game but packing each page and panel with enough action and thrilling detail to make the short game feel like a blast. Roll on volume 4, we say. Roll on volume 4!
Any Cop?: Each Aama release serves to ramp up the expectation for the next Aama book. Peeters hasn’t dropped the ball yet – in fact he’s getting better and better. This is a highly recommended graphic series.