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Manga Math: Hal Clement x Olaf Stapledon x H.P. Lovecraft = 7 Billion Needles

Three preconceptions I had about manga, before I started reading the stuff, were that it had:

  1. a puzzling fascination with teenage girls, extending into their sexual objectification, and a sideline in the oddly child-like depiction of adult characters
  2. a persistent interest in organic horror – the transformation, corruption or cancerous eruption of the body
  3. wildly complicated, over-extended storylines that require obsessive inclinations and a big bank balance to follow.

My conclusion, after recent paddling about in the margins of the manga ocean, is that all of them are true. But only sometimes, no more so than any of the easy generalisations that could be made about US or European comics, and often in ways that are surprising.

The manga I want to talk about now is shortish – a mere four concise volumes – so that’s the preconception about over-extended storylines quashed. But it’s definitely preoccupied with the transformation of organic forms, and is largely about teenage girls (though thankfully restrained on the overt sexualisation front).

Buckle up. A wild ride lies ahead.

7 Billion Needles, Vol 1-4

by Nobuaki Tadano, published by Vertical

7 Billion Needles is – or at least becomes – a somewhat less accessible read than the last manga I talked about here, Pluto, so I can’t pretend I found it quite as engaging. But I do think it’s pretty interesting. By its end, there’s something so very decidedly mangaish about it that I can’t imagine anything with quite this story or sensibility appearing in US comics.

One thing 7 Billion Needles shares with Pluto is that it’s riffing off a previous tale, in this case the story Needle by Hal Clement, which Wikipedia tells me appeared in novel form in 1950.

As best I can tell, never having read that Clement story, Nobuaki Tadano takes it as a starting point and then charges off along paths unmapped in the original, to explore topics of cosmic order and organic evolution that are near-Stapledonian in conception (though not in extrapolation), and somewhat Lovecraftian (or, more cinematically, Carpenteresque) in their physical expression.

The initial premise is not exactly groundbreaking: two aliens come to Earth, one the hunter the other the hunted, and their contest is duly played out on our little backwater of a planet. But I can’t offhand think of another comic where the first volume is quite so misdirecting about what it is you’re reading. Not in a remotely unfair way; it’s just that what’s coming at you down the road is so untelegraphed by the opening instalment that subsequent developments are of a slightly eye-popping variety.

That first volume introduces us to Hikaru, a withdrawn and solitary schoolgirl. In the opening pages she gets atomised by an incoming meteorite (as you do), but is restored and inhabited by Horizon, an apparently benign incorporeal entity that has come to Earth to hunt down its apparently malign counterpart, Maelstrom.

Maelstrom has taken up residence within one of Hikaru’s fellow pupils, so what ensues is a combination of high school drama (friendships, family etc.) and body-horror action (dismemberments, reptilian transformation, superpowers etc.). So far so – by manga standards – conventional, really. Vaguely put me in mind of Buffy, seen through a manga filter, in fact.  It’s well done, with amusing banter between Hikaru and Horizon, some nice bits about childhood relationships, violence that’s kinetic and gruesome but not self-indulgently so, and some appealing dry humour. It all reaches a satisfying climax as Horizon and Maelstrom finally face off in the school gymnasium.

And that, you might reasonably think (as I did), could be the end of the story. Oh, no. Not by a long shot. Matters progress, and layers of truth regarding the ordering of the universe are peeled back. At which point it becomes difficult to get into detail without spoilerage, which I’d rather avoid since the incremental revelation of Tadano’s authorial plan is kind of the point of the book.

Suffice it to say that Maelstrom and Horizon are not the only high-level powers involved in Earth’s affairs. There are others, as far above those two visitors as they are above humanity, who take an interest once a ‘macro-evolution’ of all life on Earth takes hold. As humans and animals alike begin to undergo sudden physical transmogrifications, it becomes apparent that this is all about ideas of chaos and order, stasis and creative destruction in the evolution of life. Beings that initially seem near-omnipotent are enjoyably shown to be liable to ignorance and surprise when confronted by events that acquire an ungovernable momentum of their own.

There’s a certain kind of manga in which I imagine the creators sitting at their desks crying ‘More! Let’s push it further! Onwards!’; not so much throwing narrative caution to the wind as strapping a pair of solid fuel rockets to it and firing it into a low Earth orbit. 7 Billion Needles exemplifies a kind of unconstrained storytelling in which ideas and visuals are pushed beyond what would be the case in most mainstream US comics. I like it for that.

The story, in its latter stages, becomes frenetic and in truth somewhat chaotic. Ever greater complications and transformations (and a certain amount of the sentimentality that is not infrequent in manga) are flung at the reader as the whole thing barrels towards a conclusion that shapes the future of all terrestrial life. Everything hangs together – more or less – in large part because of the continuing central role of Hikaru, and the entertaining depiction of Horizon and Maelstrom, who become less eternal, mortal enemies and more bickering team-mates in a cosmic game that’s out of their league. Those three characters and their relationships form the central thread of the series, providing an essential familiarity and anchor for us readers as we’re led through the escalating narrative; for all the organic pyrotechnics of the plot, it’s those three who comprise the story’s real structure and enable the reader to stay engaged.

I’d say the ambition on show in 7 Billion Needles isn’t quite matched by the execution, but it’s a close run thing. The progression from focused, almost domestic, drama of alien monsters in a school to sf epic engaging with the fundamental schema of life, the universe and everything works far better than it has any right to, and Tadano keeps an admirable grip on the humour and trivia and tension of human (and inhuman) interactions even as he’s vastly expanding the conceptual canvas around his characters.

It is, as I said, a bit of a wild ride, but one that’s well worth a try.

6 Comments on Manga Math: Hal Clement x Olaf Stapledon x H.P. Lovecraft = 7 Billion Needles

  1. Nope , you didn’t made me want to read manga. I just don’t get it. And I don’t want too. 😀

  2. Well, that’s fair enough, and I can’t say I entirely blame you – I’m not always sure I entirely ‘get’ manga, either, but the bits of it I do get make me want to keep digging deeper for some reason. It’s different in terms of style, sensisbility and culture, that’s for sure, which is a part of the appeal for me.

  3. Clement’s Needle was one of my favorite adolescent reads. Give it a try.

  4. Like any other media (books, audiobooks, graphic novels, etc), manga is a *form*, not a *genre*. there are as many genres for Manga as there are regular fiction books, but it’s hard to tell, because most bookstores don’t really know what to do with the stuff, so they just stock it alphabetical by title or author. Some manga has some really weird stuff, but have you looked at the teen paranormal shelves at your local barnes & noble lately? also, weird stuff.

    my only beef with manga is that so many of the series are SO long! I just finished one that was 27 volumes! I view that as a western complaint, as the vast majority of manga series were quite literally, serialized in manga magazines (think a scifi/fantasy serialized short story magazine, but with the look of Sunday paper funnies, and 300 pages long), so the length is an institutionalized thing. But then again, there are wonderful series that are only 4 or 5 volumes long.

    ok, i’ll get off my soapbox now.

  5. While I’ve read a bunch (mostly because I “vet” the books my daughter picks out in the store), I’d rather re-read Hal Clement (a favorite author, but pretty dry) than this.

    I can see the Lovecraft (or, as you more correctly point out, the Carpenter). But I don’t see the Stapledonian grand view.

  6. You’ve got me interested. I love manga.

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