Sunday, 2 June 2013

7 Billion Needles volumes 3 & 4 review

Volume 3:
The third volume of Nabuaki Tadano’s science fiction manga based on “Needle” by Hal Clement mixes elements Tadano previously established in the previous volume with some strange new things and dials it up to eleven. Hikaru continues to make friends and spending time with them is beginning to really affect them in special ways. The introduction of an evolutionary sub-species and a new alien contribute to keeping the chaos that erupts in this volume. If you were concerned about the lack of action in the series thus far, no worries, Tadano brings his A game.

Evolution becomes increasingly important as the series goes on. Earth is ready for a macro evolution and the arrival of Horizon and Maelstrom seems to have triggered that. There are more aliens present other than Horizon and Maelstrom. All these events are starting to converge and 7 Billion Needles volume three is an erratic and sporadic read. Tadano’s storytelling abilities ensure that it never feels chaotic. I'm frankly surprised at how much story is contained between both covers of volume three. It's not so much that the comic is dense, the pace of this volume is quicker than the first two, but so many events happen. There are a lot of storytelling beats, and Tadano pummels the reader with them with increasing speed. Volume three is a barrage of science fiction ideas, art and action. It’s a sheer delight after the relatively slow burn of the first two volumes. 

Despite the advancements and new complexities of the story, it feels quite natural. It's a progression of what came before. The biggest surprise in volume three is the shift of tone. It resembles something more akin to shonen or your adult action manga but there is an adult sensibility that adds a lot of depth. The story feels unique though. The tone is closer to shonen by the story is uniquely its own. And this new tone would not be as engaging and quite simply so good if it wasn't for the building blocks Tadano put in the first two volumes. That's also what prevents the reader from being lost in the multitude of events that transpire in this penultimate volume.

Volume 4:
I wasn’t as surprised as I was pleased that Tadano sticks the landing in this final volume. He’s clearly demonstrated that he’s an excellent storyteller. Still, it’s very nice to have that confirm with an ending that feels like it belongs with the rest of the story. There is no copout here. It’s emotionally satisfying and that’s what we really needed for this to work. It would not have been enough for Tadano to give us 150 pages of non-stop action in a battle to save the planet if there wasn’t also some emotional depth. Such a big part, and I believe the essential part, of the manga so far has been Hikaru’s personal growth and the growth of a few other characters. Even Horizon and Maelstrom mature and change throughout the story.
In short, all of 7 Billion Needles's themes crystallize in volume four. Tadano wraps everything up. There weren't a lot of questions being answered in the series so far but volume four answers most of the questions. I don't want to go into any further detail because this manga volume should be experienced firsthand. 

To Tadano’s credit, he’s made me want to go and find a copy of Hal Clement’s book Needle. I want to see how many of the themes found in 7 Billion Needles were also in Clement’s story. I have a feeling that the psyche of individuals who lived during the Cold War has been transported and redefined in modern terms. Characters in 7 Billion Needles make a big deal out of being alone or not alone. To Chika, it’s so important not to be alone that she makes an attempt of absorbing every living thing into one huge entity. In the first volume it was incredibly important for Hikaru to be alone. Her isolation was so important to her it made everything else look unimportant and unworthy of her attention. There’s a fight for individuality in opposition to a fight for a society that conforms to strict standards and practices. The last two volumes bring forward themes that weren’t present in the first two that remind me of Rick Veitch’s masterful The One comic.

I’m not sure I entirely understand this feeling of wanting to be isolated but that’s ok because a story that acts as a precursor to 7 Billion Needles is included in the final volume. “Hikikomori Headphone Girl” is a short story about an experimental treatment to Hikikomori. For those who have never heard of Hikikomori (this was my first time) it’s a phenomenon that, in short, can be described as an acute form of social withdrawal that affects a surprisingly large number of Japanese teens and young adults. It’s thought by some that this isn’t the cause of other psychological problems, but can nonetheless result from one. It’s pretty complicated and something that’s widely discussed in Japan. If anything else, the inclusion of “Hikikomori Headphone Girl” helps me to understand and sympathize with the Hikaru we encounter in volume 1. It also makes the four volumes of 7 Billion Needles a complete collection that begs, and deserves, to have a place on your shelf next to you favourite science fiction stories.

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