Review of The Dormant Beast (1998)

Sequential art with text

Enki Bilal (writer-artist).

Read in 2020.

Read in English.

I’m eighteen days old and I remember the huge black flies and the tepid summer air which sinks in through the gaping holes in the hospital. Eighteen days old and I can already tell the difference between a blast of air and the blasting of bombs, between an exploding mortar and an exploding T34... Eighteen days old and I know that I am an orphan and that my name is Nike... To my left in the same bed, Amir, a day younger than I am, is sleeping, and to my right, Leyla, the youngest, barely ten days old, is crying... They too are orphans, but they don’t know it. I’m the oldest, and I swear by the stars that shine overrhead, high above the roof that’s been blown away, that I will protect them forever...

Softly allegorical SF. The blurb caught my attention long before I read the book. Bilal was born in Belgrade in 1951, making him 42 at the time of the fictional main character’s birth in Sarajevo in 1993, as Bilal’s native Yugoslavia was breaking up. The main level of the narrative takes place in 2026 and is a globetrotting techno-thriller. Like Blade Runner (1982), it’s got implausibly flying cars and advanced biotechnology, including replicated humans—here copies of individual humans—and a grubby detective yarn. The enemy is not rogue replicants or capitalists but a scientist supervillain and religious obscurantist terrorists. The main character is qualified for this struggle by his perfect recall. At age 33, he gradually remembers even the first days of his life, in Sarajevo.

It’s a strong concept to process the then-recent tragedy of the end of Yugoslavia by transporting a fictional direct product of it into a future where his memory is central. Bilal’s highly textured, somewhat chaotic but realistically proportioned art is very well suited to it, but the writing is ultimately weak: The future is stereotypically pulpy, a cynical imitation of Philip K. Dick where the actual relationship between the plot and the memory of Yugoslavia is too tenuous. There are several sequels, but it is my impression that they do not remedy the situation.

References here: Archangel (2016).

sequential art text fiction cyberpunk