Valerian and Laureline: Empire of a Thousand Planets
by Pierre Christin
art by Jean-Claude Mezieres
It's 1965, Salt Lake City, Utah, United States of America. Two young men from France meet, they've met before, playing together in cellars during allied air raids in World War II but this time instead of hiding from bombs, they're building a metaphorical one. One of them teaches French literature at the university, while the other was an artist in training. One was inspired by the Mad magazine school of art and the wide open spaces of the American West, still full of natural beauty not to mention the visuals of films such as This Island Earth or Forbidden Planet (that's right, yet another staple of science fiction inspired by Forbidden Planet). The other was inspired by Asimov, Van Vogt, Vance, and Wyndham as well as by his education at the Paris Institute of Political Studies and his PhD in literature. From the minds of these two men, something new was about to be born.
The comic series Valerian and Laureline is a French science fiction series that was first published in Pilote magazine (which ran from 1959 to 1989) but outlived the magazine to have it's final story published in 2010. The series has a visual influence on a number of series including Star Wars (while some deny it, the design director of Phantom Menace at least admits to keeping albums of the series on set) and 5th Element. Mr. Mezieres was awarded the The Grand Prix de la ville d'Angoulême, a life time achievement award considered one of the greatest awards in the French comics industry. The European Science Fiction Society award was given to both men in 1987 for their work on the comic as well. The series is about the adventures of our two title characters as Space-Time agents for Galaxity, the central government of humanity and much of the galaxy. In this future, much of humanity has slipped away from reality, living in “dreams” while a small group of technocrats keep all the lights on and an even smaller group of agents keep the timeline and the galaxy safe for dreaming. It's kind of interesting to see the idea that a civilization would lose itself in simulations was being advanced in 1967 even if they don't use the same language to describe it that we would. In the volume I read, maybe it's just me but Galaxity comes across as an empire tittering on the brink, it's people live isolated from reality while a shrinking class of people are constantly working harder and harder just to keep things going. The idea of imperial collapse and changing of the guard seems to be a theme in the series as I think y'all will soon see, but let me get to the specific story.
Valerian and Laureline are sent beyond the borders of human space to Syrte the capital of the Empire of the Thousand Planets. The planet itself is a vision of extremes, within the massive imperial palace where only the elite of elites are even allowed entry while out in the swamps not even three days away people live in abject poverty, forced to hunt massive predators for their skins to survive. It's a world with a massive space port that reaches out to dozens of worlds but the majority of the inhabitants have to make do with much less advanced technology, many of them using beasts of burden and muscle powered tools with the most advanced thing they'll ever see being a solar powered paddle boat. Still if you can get to the capital and visit the market you'll see wonders beyond reckoning. The world is in decline and ruins dot the surface, infrastructure decays from neglect and poverty spreads while the ruling class distances itself more and more from the common people. The only exception to this is a group of mysterious masked beings known as the enlightened ones, healers with an understanding of mind and body beyond what anyone else in the empire has ever seen. They live in a temple fortresses, emerging in small groups to minister to the people for short periods of time before disappearing again. They are ruthless towards opposition and have systematically crushed all opposing centers of power, at the cost of much of the learning native to the empire but they are now the power behind the throne on a empire crumbling out from under them.
It's into this situation that our heroes arrive, sent to see if the Empire will be a threat to their own people or if peaceful relations can be established. When a chance meeting in the marketplace turns the enlightened ones into their enemies, they find themselves pulled into the empire's internal politics and have no choice but to intervene. If they would live they must navigate the politics of an alien empire simmering with resentment and discontent that could explode into violence at any moment. Still, they have the training, they have the talent and they have the drive to not only work for their own well being for the people of the empire... If it's even possible to anymore.
The story itself has aged more or less decently but has clearly aged. To be blunt on the matter audiences of the modern day are a bit more demanding than those of 50 years ago and plot twists that were groundbreaking back then are now normal. There's a bit of deus ex machina in the story as well, as our heroes at time seem to get what they need through sheer luck more than anything else. I'm not so sure a modern writer could get away with that. The art is also an artifact of the time, reminding me heavily of some of the comics of the period or newspaper serials where the physical characteristics of the characters are exaggerated. While I'm not very bothered by it, I can't call it great work by modern standards either. I'm a Burroughs fan though so the datedness of the story doesn't bother me overmuch. The characterization is straightforward if simple. Valerian is a man of action who focuses on the mission first and everything else second. Laureline is focused mainly on helping Valerian and in this story acts mostly as his sidekick, that said unlike a lot of female leads of the time period she isn't relegated to the damsel in distress but is able to even save Valerian at times and be of real help on the mission. Which honestly gives it some bonus points. That said we don't get a lot of deep investment into the characters. I can't tell you much more about them then what I already have. This story is a pretty fun (if dated) space opera and if you’re aware of the state of fiction in the late 1960s, you appreciate the work for what it is.
Between the inventiveness of the settings, the two fisted action, and the fact that I can see the seeds that became a lot of our modern science fiction... I did enjoy it. Going back this early isn't something I recommend for everyone but if you’ve got a taste for going back to our roots (Editors note: To the “Age of Chrome!”?), give this book a try. To be clear it wasn’t the only work doing these things back then, but at the time it was not the common trend. If I had read this in 1967, this would have gotten a B+ very easily or even an A-, as this is a series that stands out for it time. Time marches on however, Valerian and Laureline: Empire of a Thousand Planets by Pierre Christin gets a C+ from me but an enjoyable one all the same.
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.