Savor this volume because it might be a while before we see the next one. I’d like to think that Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra have invested enough into “The Manhattan Projects” to let things end here. Though it does little to advance the overall story of the many scientists wrapped up in this saga, “The Sun Beyond the Stars” still manages to entertain and provide another welcome example of its creators fearsome imaginations. Depending on how you look at it, the fittingly downbeat conclusion it brings to the stories of two of its characters is a bonus.
One of the (many) threads left hanging in the previous volume involved Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s interstellar quest to find his beloved Cosmodog Laika. What he didn’t know was that Laika had been mutated into a humanoid form and was now running around with a robot that can’t tell the truth and an alien with two faces stacked on top of each other that can only say, “Blarg!” That they eventually find each other should surprise no one. However, the circumstances of their reunion involve a mentally unbalanced night court judge from a galactic backwater and one of the oppressed second-class citizens of the Sionnu Science Union (read: Empire) with a bounty on his head and some planet-destroying spores in his possession.
It would seem that Earthers are nothing more than trouble magnets when tossed into greater galactic society. After all, their first encounter with such resulted in mass murder. Bad for the galaxy, but good for us. From the idea of an empire who thirst for knowledge above all else (and whose leader has a uniquely disgusting way of disseminating it), to the bizarro galactic night court where genocide isn’t as frowned upon as you might think, and the final battle against a group of SpecOps librarians, this volume continues the series’ trademark of entertaining weirdness in great fashion.
Hickman also drops enough worldbuilding here to make me wish he did more of it. The conversation between Yuri and Garru in jail is one example, and we get to know enough about the Sionnu to understand why the rebel our protagonists have aligned with wants to destroy them. Yet we don’t get a bigger sense of the Sionnu’s place in galactic society for their fate to be genuinely involving. The brief glimpse we get of the galactic judicial system is also enough for me to want to know how the higher courts function. Basically I’m left wanting more here, in ways both good and bad.
As I mentioned above, the story focuses on Yuri and Laika without a single mention of the other members of “The Manhattan Projects.” That gives the narrative its “side story” feel, but at least the two characters are up for the task of acting as protagonists here. Yuri’s heroic and generally optimistic nature contrasts quite well with the escalating sense of doom in the story, while Laika’s depressive can-do nature is a perfect counter to that.
Normally, an ending like the one we get here would be the kind that would ruin anyone’s day. That it doesn’t is a testament to how well Hickman sets it up throughout the story. The story starts out in a place of chaos and reaches virtually apocalyptic proportions by the end. You never get the sense that things are going to get better, so the ending doesn’t come as a complete surprise. It actually feels quite in line with what has come before. I also appreciated how Yuri and Laika’s relationship mirrors this as well. While the cosmonaut may be all happiness and smiles about what he encounters, the cosmodog knows better. These mindsets generate friction to the point where it becomes clear that their reunion was never meant to be a happy one. It makes the final words spoken in the volume quite fitting as a result.
Even though this story takes place to the side of the main plot threads in “The Manhattan Projects,” I can’t help but wonder if it foreshadows the titles ultimate end in its own way. We see how the involvement of these Earthers brings great chaos and destruction to this corner of the galaxy. This was only two of them, with Von Braun, Feynman, and the Einsteins loose elsewhere pursuing their own agendas. Though the main objective of this series is retelling and re-incorporating history by way of its warped “anything goes in the name of science” agenda, I wonder if Hickman’s goal for when the series catches up to the present day is to show how all of these unchecked agendas will bring about the collapse of the universe. In short, “The Sun Beyond the Stars” is simply the warm up for the main course.
That’ll all depend on when the writer and artist get back together for vol. 7. Before I wrap up, I also want to point out that Pitarra excels with the outer space setting and all of the alien designs he’s called upon to display here. Not only are they uniquely bizarre, but they’re incredibly emotive as well. Much as I praise Hickman here, Pitarra’s work is equally integral to the series — I can’t imagine it being drawn by anyone else. Not even if it means we’d get the next volume sooner. After “The Sun Beyond the Stars” I’m willing to give them a while to get their act together and deliver the continuation this series deserves.