#132 The demise of Vancouver
2050: A Post-Apocalyptic Murder Mystery
by Michael Kluckner
Vancouver: Midtown Press, 2016
$19.95 / 9781988242187
Reviewed by Mark James Dunn
First published May 30, 2017
Vancouver historian, artist and illustrator Michael Kluckner has turned his eclectic talents in recent years to graphic novels, starting in 2015 with Toshiko, a remaking of Romeo and Juliet set in a Japanese internment camp in 1944, followed a year later with 2050: A Post-Apocalyptic Murder Mystery, both published by Midtown Press. Reviewer Mark Dunn takes us to Kluckner’s Vancouver after the apocalypse, a walled and fortified city with four gates, a dwindling population of 55,000, and no Internet except a heavily-censored Facebook.
Kluckner’s dystopian view of Vancouver is not entirely fanciful. Vancouver city planners talk a good game, trying to compete with Copenhagen for kilometres of bike lanes; meanwhile The Guardian newspaper has just published a story about how and why Vancouver is one of the most unfriendly cities on the planet, a place where loneliness thrives. While Kluckner’s dark vision is meant for entertainment, it also serves to puncture the city’s self-inflated sense of its own superiority– Ed.
It’s thirty years in the future and Mayor Gregor Robertson’s oppressive and authoritarian regime keeps Vancouver in a perpetual state of poverty. Sea storms ravage the walled and gated city and force its citizens into shelters. On the plus side, rent in Yaletown and Coal Harbour has never been more affordable.
On the Welcome to Vancouver sign, the population is crossed out and 55,000 is tagged underneath.
In Michael Kluckner’s 2050: A Post-Apocalyptic Murder Mystery, Vancouver is part of a world government created by Sensei — a Big Brother type character obsessed with population control who has also, however, led the people of the planet out of a devastating post-war period.
The story follows Sara, a detective investigating a murder within the walls of the city. The narrative follows the pursuit of the murder suspect at the same time as an unlikely romance develops in this dystopian world. Early on we see a woman placed in stocks for being pregnant, right alongside a polluter, and we learn about Pleasant Planet, the free and widely distributed beverage that works simultaneously as birth control and an intoxicant — as well as a clever nod to Robertson’s Happy Planet brand.
2050 is driven by the investigation of a “mort” near one of the gates to the city. Bodies are common, and the clean-up crew picking up this corpse already has two from the latest storm. The investigation soon partners Sara with John Malpais and a romantic subplot emerges.
Pursuing their only lead, Sara and Malpais, from the surveillance wing of the government, leave the confines of Vancouver for Excursion (present day Surrey), a wild and lawless place where the citizens aren’t provided with state benefits and don’t follow the teachings of Sensei. People in Excursion seem more interested in free market economics and electric guitars than co-ops and Pleasant Planet.
Excursion is accessible only by a reaction (cable) ferry, based on the existing ones that Kluckner knows well on the Skeena and Thompson rivers, and at Lytton and Big Bar Creek on the central Fraser River.
It’s the sharp contrast between Vancouver and Excursion that makes the book feel like a critique of communism, or left-wing politics more generally, in the same vein as Orwell’s best-known novels. Life is not good within the heavily controlled city. The people are subjugated and oppressed. There’s no Internet except for Facebook — a terrifying idea!
Vancouver seems really nasty compared with Excursion, which has pubs with beer, Victory Gin, and live music. Only folk music is allowed in Vancouver because the instruments don’t need power.
2050’s big villain, the Sensei, is an environmentalist, imposing energy restrictions and showing a strong disdain for fossil fuels. On the other hand, the people of Excursion consider building a refinery. Even during the apocalypse, it seems, the energy debate rages on.
Kluckner’s graphic novel exists in a fascinating world. We get to see Vancouver from the pen – and pencil – of someone with a deep knowledge of the city’s past. Indeed we’re given little history lessons throughout. And Kluckner interprets districts like Yaletown, Surrey, and a stretch of Kingsway in a whole new way.
But the book has some weaknesses. The mystery aspect feels a little forced. For a 130-page graphic novel, there’s a lot packed into its pages. Alongside the deep history of the universe Kluckner has created, the kind-of-uncomfortable love story, and the investigation, 2050 feels cluttered. Perhaps it could’ve been stretched into a few graphic novels and the ideas more fully fleshed out. And maybe the book’s size doesn’t allow enough time for the story to develop, a narrative compression that makes the characters’ motives seem strained and even, at times, a little unrealistic.
The Sensei, the symbol for the regime, feels a little derivative. He’s 1984’s Big Brother in his control and his personality; Chairman Mao in his glorification of agriculture; and Kim Il Sung and Kim John Il, as well as communist leaders like Stalin, in his cult of personality. One of 2050’s biggest flaws might be that it’s too clever. The story gets lost in the textual references and allusions.
The narrative is framed by an odd critique of communism, environmentalism, and equality. At one point a character in Excursion, referring to life in Vancouver, says, “there’s none of that ‘everybody’s equal’ shit here.”
It made me wonder if ideologies are being critiqued — or if the work is simply so inspired by science fiction staples that the criticism just slipped in with the characters and the clichés.
Despite these weaknesses, the issues of obsession and surveillance are explored in a fascinating way in the romantic plot of 2050. The entire division of the government tasked with trawling Facebook is terrifying, more so because it has grown out of today’s cultures and technologies of surveillance.
Graphic novels often have a writer and an author. Here, Kluckner is both. Compared to the ultra-polished nature of most comics, the greyscale pencil art of 2050 is refreshing both in quality and style. Kluckner’s distinctive drawing, all done with 2B pencil on Bristol paper, is quick but effective.
And because the landscapes are familiar, it’s fun for those of us who like apocalyptic fiction to visualize Vancouver in ruin. The billboards show propaganda much like those in North Korea today. The slogan, Make Love, Not Babies markets Sensei’s population-control policy and is a clear nod to some ideas in Brave New World, where people are distracted and seduced by pleasure.
In the Author’s Note, Kluckner lists the books and films that influenced his work on this novel. In the process, he provides a challenge to those who like searching for references, intellectual clues, and influences. Indeed, the intertextuality of 2050 may be its defining characteristic.
2050: A Post-Apocalyptic Murder Mystery has a lot going on. It should entertain Vancouverites interested in science fiction and amuse those curious about where we might be going.
A native Vancouverite, Mark James Dunn is studying in the School of Communication at SFU. You can follow some of his work on his website: www.markdunn.ca
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