The Sands of Sarasvati

I recently read my very first graphic novel from Finland after a friend pointed it out to me and put me in touch with the publishers Tammi in Helsinki. Its adapted from a prose work, a near-future work taking in geological history, ancient human history and lost civilisations and contemporary civilisation and the impact it is having on the environment and the changing environment on our civilisation; the full piece is below, it originally appeared on the Forbidden Planet Blog:

Based on the novel by Risto Isomäki,
Adapted by Petri Tolppanen, illustrated by Jussi Kaakinen,
Translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers and Owen F Witesman,
Published by Tammi

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Until recently I hadn’t exactly read an abundance of comics material from Scandinavia, apart from Jason, then I find two very different works from the northern regions of Europe arrive on my desk within a few weeks of one another. The first the Galago anthology of underground Swedish comics from Top Shelf (reviewed here), the second a very different beast, The Sands of Sarasvati. Sands, from Finnish publishers Tammi, is a graphic adaptation of an award-winning science fiction novel Sarasvatin Hiekkaa by author, science journalist and environmental activist Risto Isomäki. I’ve often found there to be a fair crossover between SF&F and the comics worlds, both in terms of readership and authors; we’ve seen SF&F writers like Harlan Ellison involved with comics for many years and recently we’ve seen more SF&F writers also becoming involved in comics, from Cory Doctorow to Richard Morgan, while I’ve found in my bookselling experience that there is a fair number of SF&F readers who also like comics and vice versa. And fantasy and science fiction elements have played a part in comics for pretty much as long as there have been comics, whether its entire SF worlds in Buck Rogers or SF elements like the clever gadgetry Batman uses.

And yet for some reason comics and serious SF (as opposed to the more fantastical elements of the genre) don’t seem to collide as often as you might expect, so it was quite refreshing to me to see this meeting of near-future ecological SF with comics. Sands begins deep within the Earth’s oceans with the Lomonosov, a Russian deep sea exploration submersible off the coast of Norway investigating geological formations when it encounters the almost perfectly intact wreck of a recently lost freighter; suddenly the submersible loses buoyancy and begins to sink deeper towards the ocean bed. The landscape along the ocean bed is littered with huge rocks caused millennia ago by methane ice melting at the end of the last ice age leading to a landslide of colossal proportions. Methane, our intrepid explorers find out, is still leaking out into the water – causing the density of the surrounding water to decrease and so causing their craft to sink (and by implication sinking the freighter they have just found). It’s but a hint of what it to come.

After managing to safely return to Norway the Lomonosov is dispatched to much warmer oceans, off the coast of India, and Sergei Savelnikov, a scientist and explorer still mourning the death of his wife, goes with the ship. The mission is an intriguing one and at first seemingly unrelated to their earlier discovery of the methane leak and landslides in the chilly northern waters – a sunken city has been found. A very large city in the Gulf of Cambay, a city which may have been home to a hundred thousand souls, thousands of years ago; a completely unknown civilisation, once flourishing then suddenly destroyed so rapidly that until now even archaeological evidence of their existence simply didn’t exist. An Indian Atlantis, perhaps…

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(a previously unknown city now submberged beneath the waves is exposed by our intrepid explorers)

I must admit I was slightly concerned at this point, as well as interested; I was interested because linking the discovery of an ancient civilisation to events in the present is fascinating and because I’ve always had more than a passing interest in archaeology and history. Concerned because I was a little worried we might vanish down the path of some of the best-selling nonsense popular in the 70s – Von Daniken or the endless books on the Bermuda Triangle by the likes of Charles Berlitz (or even some of their later pseudo-scientific successors who still sell in depressingly large numbers today). Not being familiar with Risto’s prose work I didn’t know which way this way going to go; fortunately, I am glad to say, it went to a rational route.

Sure there are a little too many handy coincidences in the flow of events – you have to accept those to allow the narrative to unfold but it can be a little niggling. I haven’t read the original prose work but I’d imagine that some of these useful coincidences and the speed of the events they connect are the result of having to compress a prose novel to a seventy-two page graphic novel rather than a lack of writing ability and to be honest it is only a niggling complaint – and as the only way round it would have been to dramatically increase the length of the book and so seriously slowing the pace (not to mention increasing the price) its something I can live with.

And I can live with it because it’s a highly enjoyable piece of science fiction; ancient human civilisations and geological phenomena intertwine into scientific investigations in the book’s present (our near future) into impending climate change and the likely effects this will have on the world. The action moves from the cold, dark depths of the northern oceans to the warm waters of India and from Finland to the Caribbean to the Greenland glaciers; this isn’t just globe-trotting for exotic effect however, its reinforcing the fact that large events in one part of the world’s ecosphere will have hugely dramatic events not just locally but globally; a lone Finnish inventor working on wind turbine pumps to combat a rise in sea levels connects to ancient landslides thousands of years ago to a lost world halfway round the globe.

The work is a lot more dialogue heavy than you’d normally expect for a graphic novel and again I think this is due largely to its roots, being adapted from a prose work, as well as the need for exposition on what our cast of characters are investigating, from the submerged city to the sudden disappearance of an ice lake in Greenland. And I’d have liked to see more of the characters – what was there was appealing (especially a touching romance blossoming between Sergei and his Indian colleague Amrita, both damaged emotionally, both finding love as the clock on ecological disaster and possible end of the world may be running out) and certainly more than sufficient to get me hooked enough to care about the characters and what happened to them, but it could have use a bit of expansion and perhaps some more character driven scenes rather than mostly being about the larger narrative events. But again that would have meant a much longer book; perhaps it might have been a bit better split into two volumes, but that would also have been pricier and more of a risk for a publisher new to the graphic novel market, so over all it was probably best to compress it into a single book.

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(Amrita’s first view of the northern icescape)

Jussi Kaakinen’s artwork is fine and clear throughout, depicting varied locations (from glaciers in Greenland to Indian cities) with equal ease and also helping to fill in some more characterisations – lovely little touches like Amrita’s delighted expression when she travels north with Sergei and sees her very first view of a large landscape of snow and ice anchor the large, global-scale and geological timescale into smaller moments of individual humans against the huge forces of the events unfolding around them.

Some scenes, such as Sergei’s colleague and friend Susan Cheng descending into a deep, icy chasm give a sense of scale, the individual human against the vastness of the world they are trying to understand (that scene reminded me very much of Luc Besson’s beautiful film The Big Blue, where a lone diver sinks from open, clear water to deeper blue to the dark depths with only a small light to illuminate the vastness of creation around him; how large the world is and how little our vaunted knowledge of it really encompasses). In other scenes it’s almost like Tintin for adults as Jussi obviously delights in revealing sunken ruins of a huge city or filling a panel with all sort of technology from airships to snowmobiles and sudden bursts of adventure. For those who try to keep up with scientific explorations there are also some nice touches – the Arctic base Susan is based at may look like it belongs to Moonbase Alpha, but actually its pretty similar to recent advanced designs being used for Antarctic scientific bases (complete with the extendable legs for the cabins); a small touch but quite satisfying. Jussi’s style would look perfectly at home in any adult graphic BD album you might find in any decent French or Belgian bookstore (which I mean as a compliment); actually I could see this doing well in those markets.

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(Susan descends into the frozen abyss where only days before an entire ice lake had covered the land)

How you react to Sands of Sarasvati will, I think depend largely on your own views on the environment. If you are part of the (increasingly small – even George Bush is slowly acknowledging the threat) group who hold it’s all a natural cycle and humanity’s creations have no measurable effect on it then you will probably dismiss it. If you are more inclined to think human activity is feeding into the natural cycle then you’re more likely to accept the events unfolding here. Risto is an environmental campaigner, but to his credit I don’t think he browbeats the reader; he’s not lecturing you on your carbon footprint and the fact that huge environmental changes are a naturally occurring part of our world’s eco-system is a major part of the narrative – he’s not saying its all down to humans burning fossil fuels.

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(the global community finally swings into action as the threat of ecological disaster looms; nations from around the world working together, ingenious technology, but will it be in time?)

But he is making clear that we’re adding a dangerous variable to an incredibly complicated and dynamic system that we frankly don’t fully understand, while also riffing on the notion of history repeating itself but on a global geological scale. And given the devastation caused by the Boxing Day tsunami a couple of years ago and the lingering threat of a similar wave hitting the eastern seaboard of the US should a large part of the volcanic rock of the Canary islands drop into the sea (as it is basically expected to at some point) you do have to wonder how dangerously close some of the science fiction here might be to becoming science fact. But despite the threat to the very existence of human civilisation there’s also hope in Sands; entire civilisations have been destroyed before (just like Amrita’s sunken Indian city) and yet knowledge has been preserved and passed down, sometimes as learning, sometimes as myth, but it and humanity continues.

It’s an unusual piece of ‘hard’ SF in the comics world and one that would, I think, appeal very much to those (myself included) who enjoy reading the books of Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s a fascinating series of events, both contemporary and historical, and utterly compelling (I found it hard to stop reading even late at night). Sadly at the moment it is only available to order from Finland (in English though) via Bookplus which could be pricey. I know Tammi, a respected Finnish publisher but one fairly new to the world of graphic novels, is looking to the US and UK for interested publishing partners to make it more widely available and I really hope they are successful as it’s a cracking book – big concept SF, real world contemporary concerns, some great adventure and some scenes which give that great sense of wonder I got as a child watching Jacques Cousteau’s voyages.(thanks to my friend Cheryl – who has been involved with the Finnish burgeoning SF scene – for bringing the book to my attention and to Terhi Isomäki-Blaxall and Tero Ykspetäjä for sending me a copy)