The Furnace, the new graphic novel by Prentis Rollins from TOR Books, is a fascinating science fiction novel of ideas and of relationships. It’s about the human cost of technology and the ways in which new inventions continually invade our sense of mental well-being. It’s about the way we treat prisoners as invisible, as nonhuman actors barely worth a flicker of attention.
But most of all, The Furnace is about the toll scientific invention takes on human lives.
The center of this book is a brilliant physicist named Walton Handerich. Handerich befriends Marc LePore, an even more brilliant scientist who has invented a device that has the potential to transform society. LePore’s GARD allows prisoners to live and work from inside society while at the same time being separated from everyday life. When the device hovers over the prisoners’ heads, the GARD makes the criminals unseen, unheard, thoroughly invisible aside from its Clockwork Orange style design hovering like a dark shadow over their existence.
Early on, Rollins shows Handerich stepping inside the device. When he leaves it, after just a few minutes, Handerich is physically and emotionally wrecked: scared, exhausted, nauseous. The GARD is soon to go into production, but its true costs haven’t truly been considered. The government and manufacturer are ready to go forward with its sale, but nobody thought to consider its impact or the ways it would demean or change the larger society.
Rollins delivers a smart story that echoes our world today. It’s hard not to see parallel between the GARD prisoners and the roundups of immigrants by ICE and their separation of families at the border. This unexpected resonance provides an intriguing echo, especially since Rollins depicts protests and fear of the GARD devices.
Also resonant are the human elements of the story. Events like these have a personal cost. Handerich and LePore feel that cost every day of their lives. Rollins makes an interesting creative choice in this book to begin its events 26 years after the invention of GARD. Handerich is white-haired, married with a young daughter. He should be happy in content middle-age, but instead he’s, on the edge, angry all the time. Even a quarter century after his relationship with LePore and the popularization of GARD devices, Handerich lives in the shadow of his own past and feels the pain of his own weakness.
LePore is also a conflicted character: he’s brilliant and arrogant but also deeply frustrated by the world he helped usher in. His emotional and sexual lives are wrecked, and we watch his tragic fall in a series of well-crafted scenes.
Drawn in Rollins’s typically meticulous linework (see more samples of this book below), The Furnace is ultimately as much about the toll that seemingly correct decisions take on our lives as they play out. GARD is a terrible device that causes pain and fear. But just as destructive is the ways it destroys the lives of our protagonists and ultimately the society in which they live.
Like a good episode of Black Mirror, this new graphic novel uses science fiction to illuminate our world in strange and frightening ways.