Trees Volume 1 by Warren Ellis and Josh Howard. Image, 2015. 9781632152701.
Trees Volume 2 by Warren Ellis and Josh Howard. Image, 2016. 9781632155221.
G: So the basic pitch for the book is: 10 years ago these giant smokestacky-looking, pole-like things (trees) covered with weird, occasionally glowing glyphs that nobody understands, they descended from space, crushing whatever was beneath them in random spots, some highly populated, some empty. Since then they have done nothing.
S: The aliens are here and they do not give a shit. They haven’t communicated.
G: There’s intelligent life out there somewhere but it doesn’t seem to want to have anything to do with us. If it even notices us.
S: Nothing goes in and nothing comes out except “garbage.”
G: I was thinking the way I’d booktalk this is the people. There’s scientists in Norway at a very remote tree, and one guy in particular who doesn’t want to leave (though he’s about to be replaced). He thinks something is going to happen.
S: And he wants to be there when it does. He wants there to be a reason the trees are here, and a reason he’s stuck in the middle of nowhere.
G: But he really wants to stay. So he maybe finds that reason, these little black flowers at the base of the tree that seem to have wires growing in them.
S: (I need to remember that the reader can’t hear me nodding.)
G: When he does find that, everybody thinks he’s making it up because he’s looking for an excuse to stay.
S: But he’s not.
G: And then shit happens.
S: Yes. When I saw the weird glyphs on the flowers I shivered. It was spooky.
G: If flowers looked like that, I would grow flowers.
S: I was thinking it would be a nice little promo item for the book. Buy one of the horrible black little flowers. They could make them out of metal…
G: Time to get on etsy… And there’s a farm boy from rural China who wants to be an artist. And in China there’s a city around the tree that the authorities have walled off. It’s a social experiment.
S: The government is like we don’t want to deal with it, we don’t want to take care of it, do whatever you want there. We’ll keep an eye on you but we won’t interfere.
G: So he’s drawing the tree and the people and…it becomes the most beautiful love story, and the woman he falls for is trans.
S: Yes! It’s this great free artist colony that makes you think…What did they call that period of time in Germany where things were just going great before the Nazis came? There’s a name for it and I’ll come up with it in an hour. [S, days later: Weimar Republic]
G: There’s a looming sense that something’s going to go down.
S: It’s ominous. There’s a warning from one of the guards that lets him into the city. And there’s such a cultural shock from where he came from that the landlord tells him he’s from Pigshit Village in Incest Province, and you’ve never seen anything like this before. And then the artist falls in love in a way that’s so outside of his experience that he can’t get his head around it.
G: And for the most beautiful reason.
S: Right. I actually marked the page. They introduce her as trans, then acknowledge that she’s trans, acknowledge that someone else is, acknowledge the existence of asexuals and bisexuals — all in two pages. This will never happen in another format. This is the format where they can do this.
G: Let’s call it the “Ban Me” page.
S: But also that started the countdown in my head — How long until they murder all of them? Because when you introduce someone on television who is bisexual, lesbian, gay, trans, or whatever, there is a countdown until they die. Then everyone avenges their death because they’re good.
G: You have a very bleak view of humanity. This is not TV, though this is being developed for TV.
S: I would watch that show. There’s a whole thread on Tumblr called Bury Your Gays. It’s a countdown to when GLBT people are eliminated from TV shows.
G: I realize that is entirely too true… And then there’s the guy running for Mayor of New York who, when the tree landed on Manhattan, bad things happened.
S: The city flooded, and people trying to escape the water were shot by police which was an actual thing that happened in New Orleans, so… And he’s got a grudge.
G: No one is clear about what he’s going to do. He has a grudge against everybody. And then there’s a woman in Italy, on the island of Cefu…
S: And she is the girlfriend of some low level hoodlum and is much much smarter than him and realizes she may be able to do something about it when she meets a guy who can make himself vanish, maybe.
G: It’s unclear if he’s magic or if he’s a spy. He seems deadly in an interesting way, and she becomes his pupil.
S: He says do you know why people my age are interested in young women? And she’s like yeah I know. And he’s like not that. But he says it’s guilt and existential horror at having crushed out female intelligence for men’s own amusement. I like that in the story, but this is a sexist old bastard in it for his own reasons. I like the idea of a character who would say that but I wouldn’t in a million years believe it.
G: He’s some kind of professor, some kind of literate, learned man who also has these weird skills.
S: Who can use a knife.
G: A lot of what he teaches her is how to fight with knives. What’s weird is under the tree on this island the mafia, the gangs, nobody is there except for these low level people because no one wants to be under a tree. Everything under the trees has changed.
S: And at some point somebody else says yeah but under the tree nobody can surveil you, nobody can watch you. No one who is able to leave stays. And among the people who stay there’s a weird sense of what can they get away with.
G: And then there’s the African leader/economist/warlord.
S: Yeah, so this super smart economist guy in Somalia says We have the shortest tree and you know why that’s important? Because we can put weapons on top of it and eff up our neighbors.
G: When the tree landed it shifted the rivers and more in favor of his country’s neighbors. It’s a geographic feature. So he makes a move.
And what I like is that there’s also something happening with the trees. All you know at the beginning is that they occasionally dump waste and destroy the communities around them.
S: It happens in Rio.
G: So you know it’s dangerous to be near them, but you don’t realize how dangerous. It’s not your typical alien invasion story — it’s something much stranger. And later on you find out it may be tied into ancient civilizations, though that may be a red herring Ellis is placing. It’s so typical of Ellis stories that I wasn’t sure if it’s going to be true for this story in later volumes or if it’s misdirection. We’ll see. Even by the end of Volume 2 it feels like he’s still creating the structure for what’s going to happen later. But what I love is that he’s telling the story of what it’s like to be around these things, to live around them, in very indirect ways.
S: It’s my favorite kind of science fiction. How do humans change when something changes in their environment? And having a tree come down in lower Manhattan was the reverse of 9-11. A building comes down from the sky and now everything is screwed.