In the last six months I’ve spent something like 48 hours in the air. It’s a bizarre feeling, because essentially long distance air travel is being locked into a pressurised room, thrown tens of thousands of feet above the surface of the Earth at hundreds of miles an hour and told to go to sleep or watch a movie. I call it being a citizen of Nowheristan, that strange place behind the security at a departure lounge which isn’t the country you’re leaving but isn’t quite the country you’re going to. At times, I wonder how big those departure lounges would be if you combined them all, a nation state of waiting rooms, a Luxembourg of gift shops and last minute coffee.
Flying itself is amazing, and one of the memories I treasure is, in May, waking up on the flight to the West Coast and seeing the cities laid out beneath me like elaborate, sodium lit circuit boards. A couple of weeks later we stood near Tuolomney Lake in Yosemite National Park and watched, no lights for twenty miles in every direction, as plane after plane appeared over the horizon and flew over our heads. We’d been one of them not a month previously. Flight is extraordinary, it takes you out of yourself, gives you perspective, makes you simultaneously more and less you, and I’m just a passenger. The act of piloting, the literal act of flight itself, is something which for many people sits next to godliness and for Josh Finney and Kat Rocha’s Titanium Rain, lies at the heart of the central character’s problem.
Alec Killian is a fighter pilot, something that already puts him in the rarefied upper atmosphere of human endeavour. A member of Phoenix Squadron in the near future, dispatched to China as part of a bloody civil war that has drawn the world into it, Killian is brilliant and distant. Where the other members of his squadron, a multi-national collection of pilots, patriots and adrenalin junkies love their work, Killian has the core of ice that it’s said all writers needed. He’s in the moment but never quite of the moment.
Part of the reason for this is Killian isn’t fully human. Or perhaps more accurately, is more fully human than everyone else on the planet. Phoenix Squadron’s pilots were put through the Prometheus Initiative, their frames and senses enhanced to become better weapons. Alec Killian’s edge has been honed to razor sharpness, but for all that, he’s caught between two worlds; human and transhuman, ground and air, pilot and soldier. He’s more than human but he’s still mortal and that’s starting to get in the way.
Josh Finney and Kat Rocha’s script could have been hobbled by the same problems Killian has. Instead it’s both incredibly dense and light on its feet, balancing action with character and intellectual discourse in a way that no comic with robot anti-aircraft guns on the page should be expected to. To begin with the action, the series circles the dogfight over Sichuan that lies at the centre of its plot like a predator looking for prey. The engagement is extended, and brutal, and perfectly pitched, moments of hysterical, frantic action punctuated by swathes of information and glacial calm. Killian survives as much through luck as through skill, and the script does a neat job of peeling back his intellectual distance and exploring how comfortable he is both in the air and in combat. A later scene has his squadron leader criticising him for the distance he still has, but we know what the older man doesn’t; that Alec Killian comes alive when he’s plugged into a weapon, becoming vital and real and in the moment in a way that being on the ground just can’t compete with. It’s a brave character choice, especially for such an intellectual lead and it’s neatly reflected in the different visual grammar of the aerial and ground scenes. The aerial scenes are all swooping panels, mimicking the angle of attack on the planes as they turn in on one another, combined with close ups of pilots’ faces, their eyes obscured by targeting reticles. It’s a tight, claustrophobic way of working that neatly accentuates not only the sweeping motion of the dogfight but also the loneliness of the fighter pilot. In contrast the scenes on the ground are full of overlapping panels, usually far bigger than the ones in the dogfights. There’s a real sense of human motion to them, of character and the simple, unconscious tells we all have in daily conversation. The way Happy’s body language changes subtly when she’s flirting with Killian, the deck chief’s perpetually chewed cigar, the different ways each Phoenix Squadron pilot plays cards. The air is all about the combat, the dogfight but on the ground, it’s intel all the way. Phoenix Squadron are all guarded, all cautious, but all in lockstep. It’s only Killian, with his analytical brain, who sees not just what they are but why they’re there, only Killian who finds himself wondering about the conflict outside the simple honesty of one on one combat. It’s not that he’s a reluctant soldier, far from it, he’s an aware one, a weapon who knows when his trigger is being pulled and that awareness is a dangerous thing for both himself and his enemies. This idea, of the hyper-aware warrior, is reminiscent of the excellent All You Need Is Kill, currently being filmed. In that, the main character is an infantryman caught in a time loop and gradually learning the truth about his enemies. Here, Killian is still moving forward through time but his senses, his memories, are trapped in the dogfight, the moment of engagement, the moment Piso dies, the moment Killian doesn’t. There’s a particularly telling scene, where, following the Prometheus enhancements being implanted, Piso is devastated to find out the Chaplain won’t let him into church. Killian’s response is simple; that we’ve tried to improve on the Maker’s design for centuries, and that Prometheus is just the next logical step. You can either get on board or get out of the way and the Chaplain is categorically not on board and, as far as Killian’s concerned, not needed. That level of intellectual distance and individualism is what drives him, and it’s also what simultaneously shelters him from the initial trauma of the war and gives him the distance. Killian is comfortable in his own skin, even though his own skin isn’t quite what it started out as anymore. He’s a weapon, the perfectly honed tip of the sword of evolution, and when that’s what he’s called upon to be, he has no issue with it. It’s only when he’s required to feel, that he starts to falter and second guess himself. In the air, that gets you killed. On the ground, it looks set to help Alec Killian evolve.
Titanium Rain isn’t just a book about evolution, it’s a book that’s working on evolving the form itself. The back quarter of it is incredibly detailed background material on everything from the Jade Emperor and the circumstances that led to the war to the Prometheus Initiative and embedded journalism from the front lines. It’s a ‘data shadow’ much like the one for Docktor Sleepless from Avatar and it gives you welcome context and background for the events of the story. It’s also completely voluntary and you can enjoy the story without reading any of it, a rare piece of narrative democracy that Finney and Rocha are to be applauded for. Likewise, the novel is also available as a full cast audio drama, marking another welcome inroad into a different field.
In the end though, what brings me back to Titanium Rain is something simpler. Make no mistake, this is an astonishingly beautiful book, the digital artwork filled with character, visual invention and large scale action. All of that though, is window dressing for the simple, unalloyed joy of flight. Titanium Rain doesn’t just fly, it soars.