Blame! is a magna series written and illustrated by Tsutomu Nihei, created between 1997-2003. I first heard about it in 2016, when a student taking my Western Utopias seminar wrote about it for a final paper. However, the student’s vague description of a dystopian, post-singularity world was well-shy of the deeper themes and undertones of the work. Blame! pushes the edge of the dystopian and apocalyptic genres by depicting a world where few humans survive, and those who do have no true understanding of their past, and so almost no hope of building a better future. In this way, it emulates classic dystopias (such as We, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Brave New World) in which the past is hidden to control the masses. However, what makes Blame! bleaker, is that the very infrastructure of its world prevents true knowledge or civilization building, not just the political or social organization as in classic dystopias.

            The basic plot follows what AI theorist Nick Bostrom calls the “Paperclip AI” scenario: “An AI, designed to manage production in a factory, is given the final goal of maximizing the manufacture of paperclips, and proceeds by converting first the Earth, and then increasingly large chucks of the observable universe, into paperclips” destroying all of humanity in the process (150). Blame!’s story line is more nuanced: Humans create a general AI to construct new worlds and a type of internet to connect them after Earth is polluted and ravaged by war. They implement a hierarchy of users by only allowing those with specific genetically modified genes (“Net Terminal Genes”) to access this network (Nihei 78). Eventually, rebels create a virus that destroys these genes, and the AI wipes out most of humanity, assuming they are hackers trying to use the net without authorization (Nihei 11). Without specific guidance, the AI builds a massive superstructure of nested Dyson spheres 5.3 AU in diameter. The story comes well after this is completed, and follows Kyrii, a cyborg created by one of the head AIs, to try and find anyone with remaining Net Terminal Genes, so as to preserve humanity and (one would assume) connect this head AI in some way to its original programming  

            The graphic novel follows Kyrii as he travels through the massive derelict spaces inside this superstructure. The size, state of abandon, and rarity of humans gives it a haunting quality. What adds to this is the lack of history and of memory: the vast majority of humans have no idea how the structure was built, what Earth was, or anything except their day-to-day attempt to find enough food and resources while not being killed by “administration” robots (Nihei 59, 172). Kyrii, we assume, is lab-grown and his mind altered so this lack of past knowledge doesn’t bother him, and he is compulsed to climb endlessly upwards towards the outermost sphere (Nihei 146). All the deaths and battles are disturbing because they happen in a kind of no-time, or no-history, where there is not even the constructs of culture or past events to create a simulacrum of meaning.

            These endless battles that Kyrii fights, using his special weapon, a “graviton beam emitter” are of course necessary to the genre, but do become tedious and a tad juvenile in their bravado, grimacing, chortling, and repetition (Nihei 311). They also open up the mystery of how any of humanity is still alive: every person but Cibo—his eventually partner—ends up being killed by him or arriving “administration” enforcers. There is something odd about how little we see signs of families, culture, or art, all of which would have to come in some form for humanity to perpetuate. Though they do appear later in the series, in the first book, they are almost completely absent.

Nehei, 2016

            The most dystopian element of the story is that everyone but Kyrii is an anti-hero, and totally trapped in this artificial space. In the end of the first book, he reaches a civilization of “Bio-Engineers” who operate on a strict technological hierarchy: those with knowledge of bioengineering at the top can force the workers to do whatever they like: if they resist, they are killed, and more are grown to replace them (330). The gap between the weapons of the bio-engineer leadership and its slaves is so great that no successful rebellion or resistance is possible. Even Kyrii is unable to harm them with his gun that can shoot through any (apparently) material, and only defeats them with Cibo’s insider hacking (Nihei 378). Worse, there isn’t even a conception of how this unequal society mirrors those from the past, or how to learn from them. Both the oppression and the resistance are bootless because neither side will ever escape the level they are trapped in, or access the highest AI to get humanity started again.

            Both what is compelling and limiting about the series is its possibility and unlikelihood. Many AI scientists and sci-fi writers have warned of this potentiality, which is why we have a “Paperclip AI” scenario in the first place. However, in that original scenario, humanity is all destroyed. This is the limitation: why does this megastructure have an atmosphere? Why does it have light, heat, or any way to grow food? At first this seems nonsensical, but it could also be that these are remnants of the original programming: build and build, but keep the environment acceptable to humans. And this is where it is almost not dark enough: there doesn’t seem to be many humans aware of how great the folly was that got them to this place. The title of the series may hint at this deeper theme: overcoming this folly is the whole point of the adventure. But there is almost no longing for the past by any characters. Maybe this is a deeper cynicism; they have all become so trapped and forgotten that any longing has long since died out, as has any memory, even in misunderstood myth or ritual, of this great mistake. In this way, it pushes beyond other post-apocalyptic works, such as Riddley Walker. And it is this level of forgetting, this tragedy of loss of history, which really appeals to me, and is part of the draw of the apocalyptic and dystopian genre for so many people. We cannot help but imagine a worse place, the ultimate bad place, and we’re drawn to taking it as close to apocalypse as possible, while keeping some of humanity alive so as to have any narrative at all. In this way we illuminate what hope we still have for a better future, and engender appreciation for the lives we have, however imperfect.

Nihei, 2016

Work Cited

Bostrom, Nick. Superintelligence. Oxford, 2014.

Nihei, Tsutomu. Blame! No. 1, Master Edition. Vertical Comics. Trans: Melissa Tanaka, 2016.

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