Valerian et Laureline: 3 – Earth in Flames


‘Earth in Flames’ picks up where ‘The City of Shifting Waters’ ended, with the arrival of Valerian, Laureline and Sun Rae at Xombul’s base in and under Yellowstone Park, Americana at its finest. There we are quickly introduced to Schroder, a brilliant scientist and the only one on Earth of our era associated with Xombul, grateful for the opportunity to run wild on his inventing whilst never mistaking his situation as anything other than that of prisoner. Schroder, incidentally, does not have a mop of blond hair and a tendency to sit at toy pianos but instead looks like Jerry Lewis at his goofiest.
We’re still in the series’ early days yet, so it’s no surprise, however disappointing, to see it take a chauvinist turn. Valerian’s the hero, he’s brave and resourceful, and Laureline is the spunky girl sidekick, so when Xombul wants to enforce Valerian being his right hand man, he does so by submitting our favourite redhead to a shrinking ray, intent keeping her in his pocket, literally, whilst Val follows orders.
But Schroder wants out and, as soon as he disables the robots, big brave Val breaks loose, tackles and captures Xombul, only too late to keep a furious Laureline from being shrunk to about six inches tall. Laureline is angry at her treatment, putting the blame where it truly lies, on her creators – this always happens to the girls! – as a metafictional warning that if they don’t sharpen up pretty quickly, she’s going to take action about it.
However, for now it’s everyone back to the spatiotemporal craft to return the renegade Dictator to Galaxity, whilst Val does his best not to cause his colleague to fall off his shoulder. Sun Rae’s going to stay behind and take over the base, and Schroder’s going to stay behind because he belongs to Sun Rae now, until he breaks out himself. Unfortunately, not all the robots have been disabled and, in the shooting, Val drops Xombul, but not Laureline, who starts growing of her own accord as if Christin and Mezieres have worked out they’ve done a dumb thing.
Naturally, she grows faster than her clothes, though the proprieties are decently observed.
The story opens out in its middle section, as the runaways decide to put distance between themselves and Xombul. This takes us out into America the Big Country, the wild open, a favourite real-life setting for Mezieres, and the ever-increasing effects of the series of disasters that will, so soon, shut Earth down in its Modern Dark Age. Heat and flames, fleeing and despair. Civilisation has already broken down, and only the old-timer, the phlegmatic westerner, the self-reliant self-image of America’s psyche, knows how to live in these times. He provides Laureline with clothes that suit their environment (and which cover more than about 30% of her) and kits out Val likewise. They ride off to look for America.
What they find is the land breaking down as fast as the country. The old-timer stays, in his element, the Old West rising to help the people, like the troubleshooter of old, only not with guns but skills, skills to gather and hold tight a herd that will feed people for at least a time. It’s an apocalyptic time treated in a determinedly non-apocalyptian manner for which Christin and Mezieres are to be praised.
We return to the plot with a deft jab at America and its exceptionalism in a more contemporary context as the agents find a military base, abandoned by all but its Commander, and he’s abandoned it too metaphorically, choosing drinks, smokes and burgers over his duty, and easy prey for a practical Laureline to slap around. Once loaded up with weaponry, it’s back to Yellowstone, and Xombul to be dealt with finally.
Once they arrive, Xombul’s defences are raised to greet them, It’s a two-point attack, Laureline laying down covering fire to distract from Val’s heavy-artillery attack with a bazooka – when a grand moose can be got from immediately in front of the sights. These are the touches I love, the moment of comedy slipped in in a quasi-bathetic manner which reflects the non-fictional natural obstructiveness of the Universe (like Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder Gang as opposed to his Parker hard-boiled crime stories).
But then the creators let things slip back a little as Val goes in alone after Xombul, leaving Laureline behind. However, the Dictator has fled, using the President’s personal rocket ship to relocate to a secret satellite in Earth orbit, from where he plans to rebuild. How can Val and Laureline follow him now? By Schroder’s space/time ship of course, if it worked, that is.
Which is where future and past turn in upon themselves and meet. Val’s knowledge of spatiotemporal principles and mechanics, with Laureline’s assistance, enables him to bypass Schroder’s lack of comprehension, his misguidances and lack of material to produce Earth’s first, ramshackle, unsleek, held-together-by-spit-and-baling-wire Spatiotemporal machine, and undertake that first ever flight.
To the space station, and to Valerian’s final confrontation with Xombul. Who’s built himself a space/time machine from twentieth century plans that he doesn’t understand will not work, because it cannot work. And instead of jumping into time, Xombul is destroyed, his component atoms spread far beyond recovery.
Killing Xombul off this soon was a very sensible idea: the series is still a little rough and ready, and relies too much on foursquare Hard SF, for all that there are moments when the picture painted hangs at an angle. The last thing it needed was a perpetual enemy. Without Xombul, the series had time to grow, to cultivate a sense of the alien, the infinite possibilities of the Universe. Without a recurring foe, it could stop and look around, and it would.
Cannily, our principal pair knock out Schroder and Sun Rae whilst assisting them to escape from the destruction of the Yellowstone base. And they dismantle the space/time ship and retrofit Schroder’s inaccurate workings so he can’t retro-engineer such a ship prematurely. And then it really is back home, but with a side-trip first. After all, no matter when they get back, Valerian and Laureline will be sent on a new mission inside an hour…

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