‘The City of Shifting Waters’ is where Valerian et Laureline, shifts, surprisingly quickly, into its natural gear. The story may be, technically, the first of a more comprehensive two-parter, but Christin and Mezieres find a quite natural break point that not only separates two phases of the conflict but which, in itself, is a quite atmospheric resting place, with the sense of a natural ending.
The second story does begin with a stunningly flat notion. Our intrepid pair have settled into a spatiotemporal agent’s routine and are found relaxing in an idyllic country scene after a particularly tricky job that they have resolved skillfully. In short, they’re picnicking by a stream fed by a low but graceful waterfall, with wine and a 3D chess machine that all turns out to be a holographic image on the back of Valerian’s space flyer when they’re summoned back to Galaxity. What’s happened? Xombul has happened.
We’re only on the second story and already we’re repeating the same set-up. Xombul has escaped. He’s stolen a spatiotemporal ship. He’s gone off to tinker with history so that he can become master of Galaxity. Again, already?
Nevertheless, it’s not unknown, when a creator’s first story has been undercooked (as I think it fair to say ‘Bad Dreams’ was) for them to re-tackle the same thing to demonstrate that they know better now. It was like that with Terry Pratchett’s first two Discworld books: though the two stories weren’t quite as close as that, The Light Fantastic was very much a case of a writer having thoroughly absorbed what had not worked out before and showing they could ‘get it right’.
Which is pretty much the case with Christin and Mezieres here.
The story quickly gets essential exposition delivered upfront. The agents are to split up, Valerian to track Xombul, Laureline to wait behind as back-up, a role she accepts with more passivity than we’ll come to see. The big thing is that Xombul has been traced to New York in 1986 (the story was started in 1968), the beginning of a massive hole in History, a blank, a modern Dark Age of which nothing is known until space flight was invented in 2314. Access to this time is strictly forbidden, because nothing is known, there is no safety, and the risk of overturning history is far too great to risk.
You can see why Xombul’s hitched up his skirts and headed there, can’t you?
So Valerian heads off, his ship disappearing in a white silhouette on black letratone image that will be a shorthand throughout the entire series. And we emerge in a New York under water, newly-abandoned, dead, already decaying. An accidental H-bomb explosion at the North Pole has melted the icecaps, flooded the world. Rot and decay, exotic plants, creepers, vines and the miasma of the swamp has come to the concrete jungle. It’s a horrifying sight, even now when it has been replicated so much. It’s like a jungle out there, sometime, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under.
The story makes good use of that atmosphere in the serio-comic manner established in ‘Bad Dreams’. The relay station turns out to be in the Statue of Liberty’s torch. Getting down from there isn’t going to be easy until the Statue’s weakening arm falls off, just ahead of another tidal wave that destroys the Statue (a less than unconsciously unflattering riposte to Tricky Dicky’s America). Protected by his spacesuit, Valerian survives the fall, though not in a conscious state, and is saved by a boatload of what turn out to be hijackers, part of a gang engaged in the biggest, but ultimately most-short-sighted looting operation ever.
Valerian wakes up to find himself bound, cuts his ropes, gets away under gunfire. Seeing a light at the United Nations building, the only light in New York, he finds robots stealing scientific records. His enforced departure from the building sees him emerge underwater, from which it’s a short step to his being captured again and being made slave labour.
The looting gang is under the control of Sun Rae, a cool jazz-type of goatee-d black guy and a passionate flautist. Sun Rae is planning the biggest heist of all time, everything is being looted. Well, not everything: cash, jewellery, gold, silver, easily transportable stuff: priceless and beautiful statues from the abandoned museums get dumped in the river. So easily and irreversibly is the irreplaceable past dumped by the short-sighted present.
As soon as he gets a chance, Valerian has it away on his toes again, only to run into an opponent, smaller, slighter, very familiar-looking silhouette, who’s simply a better combatant than him: we are relieved to see the belated arrival of Laureline, Miss Back-up (when Valerian failed to report after four days, she was sent in to rescue him, taking a roundabout route through Brasilia, whose President lends the dear red-head his Presidential plane: not willingly, of course).
Now the two are together, the plot can really take-off, but first there’s a slightly dodgy little scene. Laureline has snagged herself a tasteful and well-appointed apartment as her base of operations, where she prepares a meal. As she brings him up to date on how she’s approached her mission far more intelligently and professionally than he’s done so far, Valerian expounds on ‘the cheek of these Spatiotemporal Chicks!’ and how he always thought the organisation should be exclusively for men. That ought to be cause for flaming daggers not flaming candles, but he undercuts his case with the cheerfully rueful ‘you’re all too smart for us…’ Even so, Laureline seems to accept even the joke too easily, pointing to her success at… cooking.
Valerian has a theory. In the world that’s obviously coming into being, neither money nor power will be of any use, but knowledge will be. People who can think. Laureline confirms that there were scientists aplenty in Brasilia, attending an International Symposium and staying there, whilst Valerian goes back to the robots in the UN. It may not be Xombul, but it could be.
So, adopting local colouring – Laureline in poncho, mini-skirt and knee-length boots, a wonderful fantasy – they get in to see Sun Rae, who demonstrates that he is genuinely smart by understanding instantly how genuinely worthless his looted horde is, and joining with them to enter the UN building and seek further. Sun Rae has an eye for leadership, and God knows Earth is going to need it.
But yes indeed, the robots are Xombul’s and he, though not present by anything but a viewscreen, spots the intruders and directs his invincible robots to capture all three. Xombul is the only one to know what’s coming in the detail that’s essentially. A final tidal wave is due, the one that will destroy New York completely. They will be given a motorboat on which to escape, but they will head west, west only, not one degree of deviation, or they will be destroyed utterly
With Sun Rae as an expert pilot, the trio fight their way out, racing the wave, the one whose curl no surfer will ever wish to ride, as the City of Perpetual Motion falls silent and still behind them, destroyed down to its every stone. Only Valerian and Laureline, looking at what lies behind, seeing what is no longer there, know that there is still a future, that there will again be something instead of the nothing that is all that they observe.
It’s a moment that brings this story to an end, a glimpse into the vastness of time, the essence of infinity, the faintest kernel of What will Be, promised far beyond the end of As and When.
There is more, there is a response, an outcome, but for that we will need to read ‘Earth in Flames’. Which will be next.