Nearly three years ago, I read Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen’s Descender Volume 1 Descender, starting with a reread of Tin Stars. The bad news: it’s not quite as polished as 2018-me remembers. The good news: Descender still stands out as an excellent sci-fi story. Tin Stars opens with a panoramic shot of a far-future society governed by the United Galactic Council (UGC). Nine planets comprise the Council, and they’ve achieved some semblance of peace between them. The serenity we see as readers only lasts for a short time, though. Nine gargantuan robots (later dubbed “Harvesters”) appear out of nowhere, and each one unleashes a devastating attack that razes the nine UGC planets before disappearing. Relations between the UGC planets largely dissolve, and the survivors carry on living as best they can. 10 years after the attacks, a child companion bot awakens from a long “sleep” on a mining colony. Tim-21 finds all residents of the mining colony dead and begins to explore the place he once called home. The UGC registers Tim-21 as an active bot once he awakens, discovering that elements of his codex (essentially robot DNA) match the codices of the Harvesters. The UGC sets out to recover Tim-21 alongside Dr. Quon, the purported inventor ot the Tim series, but they aren’t the only faction tracking him.
Tin Stars opens the Descender saga with a hard-hitting question: how does a far-future society deal with a mass genocide? Further, how does that society respond when the enemy is seemingly indestructible and unidentifiable? This volume asks these questions early on, but it doesn’t answer them outright. Instead, Tim-21’s story begins to shed light on the civilization that existed pre-Harvester attacks. As Tim-21 reboots his memory, we are treated to vignettes of his past interlaced with his discovery of the present. Lemire and Nguyen are a hell of a pair, leading us along this tight-rope narrative even as the scope of the story bursts open to encompass galaxy-spanning conflicts. In the graphic novel format, this approach works extraordinarily well. We need a way to unlock those worldbuilding elements without being force-fed, and Tim-21 is an excellent educational device. Learning through the eyes of a naive character is no new SFF trope, and others have done it (sometimes even better). But it works so well here because there’s only so much a creator can do with limited word count and space for art. In this way, Tim-21 is both the main character and the chief avenue for worldbuilding. He serves both roles well, guided by the deft artistic hand of Dustin Nguyen and the narrative prowess of Jeff Lemire.
Tin Stars features a diverse cast, most of whom are riveting. Lemire and Nguyen showcase a masterful grasp on what it takes to create a meaningful character. They inject juicy details into the story that essentially fast-forward the time it takes to become invested in a character’s story. Dr. Quon stands out here, as he seems reluctant to get involved in discovering the Harvesters’ history despite inventing the unit with which those Harvesters share robo-DNA (deoxy-ROBO-nucleic acid, as I’m calling it). Captain Telsa (NOT Tesla, as she’ll tell you), fills the hard-headed, all-business military role. But when we discover her father leads what’s left of the UGC, she becomes a softer, more relatable character who is bogged down by parental expectation. Then, of course, there’s Driller, a dumb robot who proclaims himself to be a killer on more than one occasion. He’s just plain fun. The characters at work here are the crowning achievement of Tin Stars, and they’re all masterfully portrayed by two clearly experienced storytellers.
I felt all of this when I read Tin Stars in 2018, and in my head, I remembered it as a near-perfect story. I didn’t feel that way this time. As I read through Descender’s first volume, I noticed a few errors that jerked me away from the story. For example, the UGC is referenced at least once as “UGC Council,” which is effectively the same as saying “ATM Machine.” Captain Telsa corrects people’s pronunciation of her name more than once, but in some segments it is misspelled without the context of another character saying it wrong. None of these gripes spell doom for Descender in my mind. It’s just that in a world so artistically vibrant and narratively polished as we have here, those little details stand out.
Tin Stars clocks in at 160 pages, and if you’re like me, you can breeze through it in an hour or two. For that reason, it’s not super worthwhile to discuss the overarching plot for fear of spoilers. I will say, though, that the end of Tin Stars left me hankering for the next installment. Luckily, it’s sitting on my shelf now awaiting me. And this time, it won’t be three years before I jump into Volume 2.
Rating: Descender Volume 1: Tin Stars – 9.0/10