BOOK REVIEW: Aster of Pan by Merwan

Aster of PanAster of Pan by Merwan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: Individual issues are available now, but this edition comes out on February 16, 2021.

 

This is one of the most compelling graphic novels I’ve read in some time. It’s a bit challenging to describe in simple terms because when I say its about a game of dodgeball played in a post-apocalyptic setting for the fate of a people, “dodgeball” makes it sound more frivolous than it is, and “post-apocalyptic” makes it seem bleaker and more ominous than it is. Yet, strictly speaking, it’s a sound description. The “nation” of Pan has largely reverted to a state of tribal living, surviving on rice and goods scavenged from the abandoned urban areas. While Pan seems quite tribal with respect to religious and social beliefs and behaviors, it mixes elements of communism and a simple barter economy with those superstitions and in-group preferences.

When a militaristic nation called “Fortuna” comes to call, the people of Pan are given an ultimatum: pay a part of their crop yield to Fortuna or face the consequences. It’s essentially a protection racket – i.e. pay us and we’ll offer you protection, BTW we’ll mostly be protecting you from us. But then they are introduced to a third option: challenge Fortuna to a game of “celestial mechanics,” a game that is strikingly similar to dodgeball, but which allows for some pretty wild variations on the basic premise. While the ball game seems preferable to the other two options, there is a problem: nobody in Pan knows how to play the game, or has any experience with it — while Fortuna is passionate about the sport and has elevated the game to its national pastime. Fortunately, the Chief’s son, Juba, has been away in Fortuna playing as a second-stringer, he will become the team captain. [It also sets up tension with the Father / Chief who resents Juba’s having left.]

The setting is in the latter part of this century in what is now France. We learn that this is in the distant wake of a multi-part catastrophe that has killed off most of the population, and reshaped the map. There is a highly radioactive area that is presumably either the result of a major nuclear power plant meltdown or, possibly, a nuclear war. The fact that Pan has flooded ruins tells the reader that it is also post-climate change crisis. The fact that one can grow paddy rice near present-day Paris is also a big clue about the role of climate change. However, we don’t learn precise details of what happened, or how the events were (or were not) interrelated. There may be more tragedies that are or aren’t connected to those mentioned, but the present day seems far enough down the road that Pan doesn’t have much of a sound memory of the collapse. [It strains credulity a bit that a brand-new religion and such an intense reversion to primitive living would occur, selectively in Pan, over less than 50 years – i.e. Ceres and Fortuna both have seen technological advancement, while Pan – except for scavenged materials – has reverted to early agrarian living. But it serves to make them a greater underdog.]

The titular character, Aster, is a rambunctious young woman who is “un-Pan,” which is to say that she is not a member of the “tribe” and neither gets food rations nor is allowed to participate in Panian politics. When the dodgeball game comes up, they make an exception of their laws to allow Aster to participate because: a.) they need to maintain a balance between the sexes (no more than four of a given sex on the seven-person team,) and; b.) because she is one of the most naturally athletic people who live in Pan. Over the course of the story, we eventually learn a great deal about Aster’s backstory, but she starts as a mysterious outsider. While she has at least on close friend and is treated well by the Chief, we also see that she is subjected to repeated discrimination. The artist draws Aster in huge, over-the-top movements that create a perception of rough-and-tumble dynamism. Despite the post-apocalyptic dystopian situation, the book is drawn in a manner more like “Peter Pan” than “Mad Max.” It’s green and kind of magical — despite the detritus of a collapsed civilization (overgrown high-rise buildings and repurposed container ships.) [And, yes, I assume the reference to “Pan” is a callback to the Neverland of the Barrie books.]

The tournament is a best two-out-of-three affair that rotates locations between the three nations we know of. The first game is played in Ceres, a third-party nation that is also agrarian, but much more advanced than Pan with respect to technology and governance. [Ceres secretly becomes a Pan ally because they are already under the thumb of Fortuna’s militaristic dystopia and hope to show the cracks in that hegemonic superpower by helping the underdog win. Ceres’s court is the simplest version of a celestial mechanics court. It’s essentially just a sunken basketball court — sans the hoops and with lines drawn suitably to the futuristic sport’s rules. The other two rounds are played out on Fortuna and Pan, respectively, becoming progressively more militant affairs. [It’s not clear how Fortuna is able to set the version of rules they play by regardless of where they play – except on Ceres. But it’s clearly meant to allow them to make the game ever more challenging.]

I found this book to be immensely intriguing. The story was engaging, and presented a solid standalone story arc. Both the art and the text create an emotional richness that provides story tension that might easily be lost given the fanciful premise. The book subtly teaches the value of teamwork and the need to put one’s petty impulses and ego behind one. The book’s art creates a wonderland, as well as endearing characters. [“Wonderland” may seem a strange descriptor for a post-apocalyptic world, but it’s only demoralizing if one thinks about what must have happened in the past to cause it. Otherwise, it seems like a green and quiet – if somewhat anarchistic — place to live.]

I’d highly recommend this book for readers of graphic novels.

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