Naoki Urasawa, now an established author of pot-boiling epic thrillers such as Monster and 20th Century Boys, delivers again with Pluto, a sci-fi mash-up of Osamu Tezuka's Tetsuwan Atom.
This excellent sci-fi revolves around AI robots and dispenses with the explanation of Asimov's Law of Robotics for Dummies and just gets right on with entertaining your brain with explorations of the theme of sentient life born from humanity's hands. You're either a sci-fi reader and will immediately swim in the narrative, or new to all this and thrash around unknown waters because Urasawa is not interested in holding your hand, he just wants to tell the bold story using the 'World's Strongest Robot' story arc of Tetsuwan Atom as a jumping point.
Urasawa even takes a supporting character of the original manga and turns them into the main protagonist, rendering Astro Boy himself into a supporting high profile cameo, and a great one at that. This entire concept of one artist dipping into another's world is fascinating and full of wild possibilities. Tezuka's imaginative universe coupled with Urasawa's tension-filled narrative is a joy to read, especially after a few volumes when crisis after crisis befalls characters pushing them to the limit.
Blade Runner, I, Robot, Ghost in the Shell, The Animatrix, to name a paltry few, the list is long and varied. All of sci-fi's greatest literature and movies play with these ideas of the relationship between AI/robots and humans, as did Tezuka and as does Urasawa. But with Pluto there is no vague posturing of whether they can fit into human society, these ideas are already established by the time the story starts.
A brilliant decision as there are already many stories about the border between acceptance and antagonism of robots, the threat of their uprising against humanity culminating in apocalyptic war, but not as many stories about robots being treated as valid citizens of countries, with jobs and families of their own, some of them even revered and idolised by the masses while others are disliked for their metallic bodies. Yes it’s an allegory for race relations, but so is all sci-fi an allegory for something, at least it’s not hackneyed in the hands of a seasoned writer like Urasawa. (uh, except for a robot-hating character called Adolf, but anyway...)
The backdrop to Pluto is great future-retro design. Skyscrapers with inexplicable tubes for commuters flowing around and between them, sleek efficient cars wrapped in glass, long roads swirling around cities. It’s a heightened fantastical futurescape full of idealism. Urasawa's characters are distinguished by their noses as usual, with different races differentiated easily, you dont ususally ever get confused with who is who in his tales.
What kick-starts this story is when a major robotic figure, loved by all, is murdered brutally. Fans of Urasawa rejoice, we have yet another exciting mystery with procedural investigation, a cast of many witnesses, suspects, criminals and cameos. This manga began publication the same year a certain country was attacked and occupied by another, and that event permeates this story, for better or worse is up to you, but its integrated well by tying many threads together into the whole mystery. The first robot victim that opens the story was one of 7 of the most powerful robots in the world. Someone is going round bumping them off. Europol detective Gesicht is on the case.
A methodical man troubled by nightmares, he is as brooding as Urasawa's previous protagonists yet having the added depth of being a robot himself. This main character is so great because there is that classic dichotomy and juxtaposition of man and robot, the constant questioning of motive and intent, the internal conflict of the character and the external conflict of his work life and private life. By robot law instilled into every AI, robots aren’t allowed to take human life, yet all surface evidence of the crimes in the story point that they could not have been perpetrated by a human, so our detective has his work cut out for him to solve the mystery while resolving the issues in his mind.
At heart Pluto is a mystery/crime thriller, and there are great intriguing cliffhangers to each chapter. We follow Gesicht as he investigates crime scenes, questions people and we also get the occasional and obligatory “regret to inform you” scene which is turned on its head. You don’t know if you're meant to laugh at the blocky metal robot in a kitchen apron being told her husband's been killed, but the pathos through dialogue and composition ends up with gravitas.
You shouldn’t be laughing at our metallic friends; they've got intelligence and emotion as much as their creators. As is amply demonstrated through many chapters with robots attempting to attain the higher level of consciousness lived by their creators. When some of them die, in their last moments they're perplexed by how much humanity they show in death and it’s poignant.
So when Gesicht gives his chapter-one ending statement with steely determination, we're firmly in the passenger seat, riding shotgun for some great sci-fi thrills.
"I will search for the killer. Whether he is robot or human, he is possessed by a demon."