When I got my graphic novel and my free Hellboy anniversary issue, there was a coverless comic thrown in as per usual. This was Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt #1. And boy did it just throw me off the deep end. I sincerely hope that this series ties into something else Dynamite has already published because otherwise there’s no reason for a new reader to pick it up. We open on a dead man’s face with narration about an alien invasion and then discover that it’s a superhero, one of a group of five, trying to convince a sixth to help them. The five represent the United States, China, and Russia teaming up like never before. The sixth person is Peter Cannon, a genius with access to ancient scrolls of wisdom, who is not sure the world is worth saving.
Really, he goes and looks at his scrolls and decides to help, returning in his Thunderbolt costume. Then he tells one of the others exactly where to hit and the group is able to defeat the invasion. This is all well and good, but Peter is sure there’s more going on. He theorizes that he created this external threat, except not he himself but the Peter Cannon of another dimension. The final page reveals the correctness of this assumption.
We get a very quick rundown of the five heroes, but most aren’t memorable save for the appearances of the two most distinct ones. I really don’t care about any of these people, not even the one two weeks away from retirement (of course, what a stereotype), and the fact that Peter’s right in the end just makes it another instance of “well, of course he’s right he’s a genius”. The reveal has no punch because I am quite certain there’s more to the story before this comic book but I’ve never read nor heard of any of it.
So, since I was sick the past couple days (seriously, yesterday’s post should have been Sunday’s), I opted with my return of health and attention span to reread an old favorite that just happens to kick off with…disease! Yes, it’s The Ship Who Searched by Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey, one of the Brain & Brawn books. For those unfamiliar, Brains are shellpeople – humans who are unable to live an ordinary life and so are put into shells as infants. They essentially become human computers who do still have bodies, but those bodies are lifeless and maintained through significant medical devices. Instead, the bodies they choose to think of are the ones their shells are installed into upon graduation. Some run space stations, some run hospitals, and some run ships. Brainships those are called, and the more ordinary and mobile human partners to these Brains are the Brawns.
Hypatia Cade is both like and unlike your average seven-year-old. She has two loving archeologist parents who take her along with them on all of their digs and she’s probably something of a young genius herself. Her best friend outside the family is Moira, a Courier Services brainship, and her countless brawns. Her main concerns are doing well in her lessons, not letting weird Psych people take her away from her parents and send her to boarding school, and loving all the time she spends with her parents each and every day.
Sometimes, when she finishes her lessons, she gets to go outside in the nearly-airless environment (safely inside her spacesuit) and play. She even has her own dig site where she pretends to be just like her parents. But one day Tia finds something at her dig. Two things actually, but the first is that she’s found an actual garbage heap from the ancient entities her parents are excavating. This gives them the chance of a lifetime. The other thing she finds that no one realizes until it’s far too late is a plague. One that just happens to want a developing nervous system to set up inside of…
Long and sad story short, Tia loses all control and sensation below her neck. She’s devastated, but tries to put a good face on it for her family and friends. Then someone comes up with a brilliant idea. Oh sure, seven is old for it, but wouldn’t a smart young girl like this do well in the shell program?
Fast forward and Tia is about to have some crazy adventures for the love of archeology.
I truly love this book. There’s something inspiring about this brilliant young girl who is intelligent enough to understand what’s going on all around her, adaptable enough to take such a lifechange and grow into a confident young woman who knows what she wants. There’s several obstacles to be overcome, of course, but what’s triumph without hardship? Plus I love the term “zen hugs.” They are, as Lars says, “the hugs that you would get, if we were there, if we could hug you, but we aren’t, and we can’t.” Lars himself is the shellperson that oversees the hospital where Tia stayed, so the term is particularly apt in his case. I just think it’s a great phrase, especially in the age of the internet, where we can be friends with people all over the planet and never once meet them in person.
There’s a subplot about the stock market in this book, which is only a very superficial overview about how such a thing works, but they’re not wrong and it’s a good example of how it can play an important role, though not a negative one. I happened to be reading this book for the first time while a class was discussing the stock market, so it was fortuitous.
Most of all, there’s love. The Brainship books are all about showing us that physical disability is no reason to count someone as less than human. They are every bit as human as so-called “normal” people and have the same emotions as the rest of us, including the ability to love. Tia wouldn’t be the likable protagonist she is without the love she feels for her friends and family, and the same is true of the other shellperson characters in this series. The books following McCaffrey’s original The Ship Who Sang all have a tagline on the front cover saying “The Ship Who Sang is not alone!” Which is true in a number of senses. Not just the expansion of the universe and continuation of the series, but also because Helva helped to pave the way for Hypatia and other ships to embrace their emotions and love their friends and family. After all, Helva and her brawn had a star-crossed romance that is still legendary by the time Tia was commissioned (Tia being 1033 and Helva 834 – shellperson class sizes being relatively small, usually under 20 individuals with no numbers repeated since they first started the shell program).
I read an article once about how Anne McCaffrey herself said she was proudest of the Brainship series, of all the books she’d brought to life. It may not have quite the same scale or notoriety as Dragonriders of Pern, but it certainly touches me more deeply. Although, to be fair, I’m pretty sure both of those series, along with several others, are all part of her Federated Sentient Planets universe, which also includes Dinosaur Planet, the Planet Pirates, Crystal Singer, and probably more. So you could make an argument that it’s all one big series and you wouldn’t be wrong. But I find it easiest to divide it up by subject matter. Dragons, dinosaurs, pirates, singers, brainships, etc. I’ve caught references in one series to another, such as a pair of crystal singers aboard a brainship, but those are relatively few and far between so it’s more the nature of a cameo than a crossover. I think that, given when McCaffrey was writing, it was never her intention to do more than that. The FSP base gave her a framework to build off of, but that might have been more for her convenience than for readers looking to tie everything together. She was not Brandon Sanderson and his interwoven Cosmere, to say the least, but she didn’t need to be. The shared universe phenomenon is relatively recent for pop culture and popular consciousness, although comic books in particular have been using the idea for decades. That’s not to say there aren’t other books like it, but I’m a bit hard-pressed to think of them. This isn’t the same as Alliance-Union or Valdemar where the author has created a timeline and a map and simply chooses to go through and fill in additional spaces as they see fit – both of those series can easily be written down in both timeline and map format. FSP can’t.
But that’s not really important in the end. What’s important is that The Ship Who Searched is, for some strange reason, one of my favorite books. I can’t quite tell you what the specific combination of elements it has that other books in the series lack, or if maybe it’s just the addition of Mercedes Lackey, but it captured my imagination and my heart when I first read it and I will never, ever forget it.
Even though there are still hours left in the day, I don’t see myself finishing another book. I do have a bookmark placed though in my very newest arrival, a preorder that just came today. One I only ordered because of a certain panel at a certain convention last month…let’s see if it lives up to all the hype.