Aama: the Invisible Throng is a mindfuck. It’s a journey both literally and metaphorically. It’s astonishing science fiction that takes readers to a world that’s unimaginable and it’s an expedition into the depths of a human soul. It’s an extraordinarily bizarre, completely astonishing graphic novel that continually goes into its own direction and forces the empathetic consumer to come along.
In Aama, Frederik Peeters walks a tightrope. This astonishing graphic novel takes place on an alien planet named Ona(ji) that is mutating out of control and chronicles the very human responses of the people who are on Ona(ji). It’s an extremely dangerous place due to the mutating creatures; the seas are full of sulfuric acid; and events are transforming so quickly that our human scale for recognizing change is completely confused
At the same time that Peeters tells the story of life and change on Ona(ji), he also tells a very human story. Verloc Nim is one of the men on an expedition there; The Invisible Throng tells Nim’s tragic backstory of romance, from the sweet way he meets a beautiful and slightly socially inept girl named Silika when she is washing her hands in a men’s room, to the way that the couple choose to have their child in unconventional ways, to the inevitable breakup that shatters our protagonist’s ego.
The tale of Verlok and Silika is tragic but it’s also illuminating in several ways. Peeters shows this couple as two pretty ordinary people so we get a ground-eye view of a future Earth (at least I think it’s Earth – it could well be a completely different place). Through their relationship, we get a sense of their world in a very practical way – small side comments about “feeling the earth through my feet” speaks volumes about how hard it is for them to get away from civilization, and comments about artificial births and implants imply a lot about how ubiquitous technology is in this world.
When Verloc and Silika have a child, she’s weird. She’s strange. We might call the syndrome that she displays autism but in this world her problems are more complex and weird, frightening and bizarre and exactly the sort of thing that would drive a couple apart and send the man millions of miles away.
In the Earth sequences as in the scenes on Ona(ji), Peeters is thoughtful about the details he presents. His world-building is very strong but so is his character-building, particularly his portrayal of haunted eyes. On page 20 when Verloc goes out of his way to be romantic with Silika, the look in her eyes is shock and happiness; four pages later, when she’s mentally removed herself from the relationship and is full of emotional pain, Peeters repeats the same angle as we look at Silika but her eyes are vacant. She’s removed herself from the conversation. We readers know that the couple are going to break apart. Reality has collided with daydreams and in that cold light, everything leads to the broken Verloc having indiscriminate sex on an alien planet and struggling just to have a tiny bit of self-esteem.
These cold scenes between husband and wife take place on a closed, almost claustrophobic planet in which every detail shows a world that’s built up. That’s juxtaposed against the odd alien planet in which things start out wide open but which quickly fill with a landscape that’s so suffused with unknown – and unknowable – creatures that it’s impossible for both the readers and the explorers to really find our way through this world.
It’s profoundly upsetting to have literally no grounding as events unfold on Ona(ji). It’s also profoundly thrilling and the sign of a visionary creator who is at the top of his game. This is science fiction that’s deep, rich and complex, a true journey to a future Earth that’s extrapolated from current day and a world that’s unimaginable by anyone other than Frederik Peeters. I haven’t read volume one of this series, and maybe if I had, Aama: the Invisible Throng would have made more sense to me. But it’s thrilling to feel this profound sense of confusion and discovery, to have events not be explained to me and to force me to go back through the book to find more details.
This is visionary storytelling.