Review: The Mice.. a post-apocalyptic tale with a sense of scale…
Weirdly enough, from the titles I was expecting something all-ages, but this is very different; something older, darker, a post-apocalyptic tale of mice and men… sort of. Independence Day meets The Borrowers.
The Mice of the title are actually small pockets of humans, driven underground and considered no more than vermin to be eradicated or ignored by the giant alien beings that invaded Earth back in the early 21st Century.
It’s now 200 years later, and the world is dominated by these huge aliens, their sheer scale necessitating a complete transformation of the Earth, an upsizing, destroying almost all existing traces of pre-alien culture in the process.
Forced to live outside the world; underground, between the floorboards, in the gaps in walls, travelling by sewerpipe and drains, continually threatened, pretty much everything in this world so damn big it can kill you. Life is dismal, miserable and deadly for these Mice.
We follow one particular group, operating out of a gigantic canning factory making something as mundane as soup and other tinned products for the aliens. The group act as saboteurs, their small acts of vandalism making relatively minor impacts on their targets, as inconsequential as mice running around nibbling at things, an annoyance, a Health & Safety menace, nothing more.
The Mice: Factory Menace sets out Roger Mason’s world, but does it without fanfare, without immediate explanation (unless you read the back cover that is). It would have been so easy for him to have dropped in a few captions to simply set the scene (indeed, in Culture Shock, we do get something early to summarise and scene-set) but not doing that at first demands concentration and attention from the reader, and as we piece together what’s being presented to us, we glean plenty from the clues and hints Mason gives us. It’s clever, clever storytelling and makes for an intriguing start.
The subtle clues are all there, the scale of things for a start really marks out the humans as minor things in someone else’s world. But the remnants of previous civilisations are all still here, just not the way we might expect; a television sits in the Mice’s simple room, still the focus, but nothing to power it, never on. Rowling uses the term “google it” to mean “saw it” despite there being no high end tech still in existence. Indeed, at one point in Culture Shock where Diana discovers an ancient typewriter she describes it as “some kind of machine for making words on paper. Looks like pretty high tech“. And the names; Diana, Rowling, Harry, Mulligatawny… three named after 20th Century icons, one named after a soup they may have seen around the factory. All really well developed. Or the mythology that’s slowly developing, one character singing a line from U2 as a hymn upon entering the cathedral. It’s evidence that Mason is building up something multi-layered and thoughtful, far more than just a simple grim apocalyptic future tale.
You see what I mean about scale as well…. these are the cans the Mice fit inside…
So across two volumes of The Mice you get a look at a new way of life; In Factory Menace Rowling, Diana and Mulligatawny head off on a mission, the end of which prompts canning factory boss Cota to get a ‘cat‘ in to deal with the pest problem.
Second volume Culture Shock takes us further into the world of both humans and aliens; there’s the mystery of what Cota is doing in his food research labs, and the discovery by the Mice of a cathedral outside the factory boundary, a human cathedral. Both the food lab discovery and the mystery of the cathedral promise to be very important to the future of the series, and it’s a future I do want to see.
And these are really well put together stories, having the overall feel of a well written, well drawn very extended future-shock. And that’s absolutely not an issue, as the big problem I have with that short form shock sci-fi stuff is that they really have no space to develop ideas, characters or storyline properly. Yes, this could have made a future shock, but it is so very much better as an much longer saga. There’s chance to get so much more detail and interest in.
Yep, all in all The Mice, across both of these volumes does an awful lot right. It’s a really fast moving thing though, I raced through both volumes, surprised when I finished them that they were actually as long as they were (80 and 98 pages respectively – and as an aside, that’s YET another distinct drawback to digital copies, the inability to feel the book and know where you are, how much is left to read).
Mason’s storytelling has a lot to do with this pacing; big pages, big open panels are the order of the day, although saying that, when he needs to he does draw us really tight in, especially effective when doing such a good job of describing the very big, and very small subjects we’re dealing with. His artwork, as you can see from the pages and panels in this review, are real high contrast things, big, bold, well defined forms and figures, some really great scenes.
But in addition to the adventures and the thrills that make this a great, albeit very fast read, there’s the really interesting stuff. Some of that I’ve mentioned already, but a big plus here has to be the decision by Mason’s to switch viewpoints and attempt to look at the problems through the eyes of the aliens as well. After all, in an industrial canning factory, it’s pretty much a given that things on the ground aren’t exactly going to be exciting…
Funny, and very real I reckon. There’s not that much chance to inject comedy in such a demoralised existence, but Mason does it every chance he can, more often than not at the expense of the aliens.
The very best line in the whole book though has to go to the letter writer whose work is uncovered in the cathedral, writing from 2017, the year the aliens first attacked, and addressing whoever finds his letter:
“You must be a modern Charlton Heston, finding Big Ben washed up on Cromer beach. Have you slept with an ape yet?”