Written by Steve Horton
Art by Stephen Thompson
Colors by Lisa Jackson
Letters by Neil Uyetake
Edits by Sarah Gaydos
Published by IDW
Whenever I see the argument to “keep politics out of sci-fi” come up, I have an urge to point out the genre has always been on the forefront of political writing. Many of the seminal works by the genre’s greatest authors have been about real world issues ranging from race (Octavia Butler’s Kindred) to dictatorships (George Orwell’s1984). Comics are no different. One of the biggest titles, Saga, is a commentary on war….and weird alien sex scenes. In these desperate times, more sci-fi and fiction in general needs to be political. That doesn’t mean it should lack escapism. There is still room for laser battles. Satellite Falling from IDW proves this point as an adventurous series about taking the fight to racism and xenophobia.
Satellite Falling depicts an Earth that has become a xenophobic planet, aggressively hostile toward foreign species, even going so far as to murder those that enter along with any humans that attempt to leave. With no other choice, immigrants have built their own colony, a thriving space station metropolis called Satellite. Lilly, a lesbian ex-police officer, is one of the few, if not only, Earth escapees living on Satellite. Driven by guilt for her past, she now defends Satellite as a bounty hunter, taking down criminals that threaten the station’s relative peace. Recently, non-binary Satellite police chief Zaim has asked Lilly to help them capture a new crime ring spreading crime and corruption. At first, Lilly refuses, but changes her mind when she learns a figure of the past is posing as the ringleader of the syndicate. Now, she’s out to uncover their plans.
The debut issue opens on a large panel of Satellite. Its design is that of a metal star with an extended lower tail as a series of domes, presumably different sections of the living quarters. The panels after that are interior shots with Lilly driving in her taxi cab. Her narration is via “thought-recording,” audio diary entries that she confesses her feelings in. These recordings also contain exposition, such as the exact population of Satellite and how Lilly uses the cab as a way to keep track of the residents. Interestingly, her dialogue is natural, talking like a person that already knows herself and the setting. Exposition only appears when she is elaborating a point. From the start, the world-building is limited, forcing the reader to piece together the narrative and cutting out information that doesn’t move the plot. I can see both the strength and weakness of this approach: It makes for a smoother read not hampered by exposition, but also leaves some plot holes. It’s a risky approach, but Steve Horton’s writing is strong enough to overshadow the flaws.
It helps that Satellite is an impressively diverse setting. You first see this through the geography, ranging from a forest to an inner city. Lisa Jackson rotates the coloring for each scene to give it a specific mood. The inner city in particular is a series of blue, both cool and neon, for a noir aesthetic. Even more impressive is the diversity of the characters. There are no white men in the first two issues of Satellite Falling, and they don’t have significant roles. Lilly is the only prominent human character, the rest are multiple species of unique aliens. Thompson bases their anatomy on non-human animals including insects, sea mammals, mollusks, fish, and even designs completely made up. The design of Chief Zaim in particular appeals to me, with his yellow skin, forehead nostrils, and head appendage similar to the hood of jellyfish.
Satellite Falling’s strong sense of racial diversity is accompanied by that of gender and sexuality. Much like how there is an absence of white men, cishet normativity is pushed to the sidelines. Lilly is a lesbian and freely expresses her sexuality with three significant love interests. Zaim is demonstrably non-binary, naturally switching between male and female because of the species’ innate ability to change gender. During a sex scene between the two, at no point is it male gazing. It is erotic and titillating, but Zaim and Lilly are positioned in natural poses like the reader has stumbled on an intimate moment between lovers, not a peep show for outsiders. With so many creators and publishers claiming to be diverse without strong representations, Satellite Falling puts words into action.
Diversity isn’t just there for flavor, though, it becomes the battleground in the series’ greatest antagonist: xenophobia. Counteracting the scenes of Lilly on Satellite are a flashback in issue #3 of her on Earth. It takes place in a Central Park-esque area as radical xenophobes lynch an illegal alien. He pleads with them, claiming that he is not an invader but a refugee of war. The crowd has made up their mind though as indicated by the “keep Earth pure” rhetoric spouted by their leader. Lilly is there as a police officer, yet she and the other officers do nothing. Apparently, this lynching is not criminal but encouraged by Earth’s globalist government. Lilly doesn’t approve and can’t stop crying as the crime takes place.
This does not absolve Lilly from being complicit in the lynching. By not stopping it, working for the government that allowed it to happen, she is also guilty. This guilt disillusions Lilly’s view of Earth, leading to her own illegal immigration. Unfortunately, this same xenophobia now fuels the crime syndicate hellbent on destroying Satellite.
I found the lynching scene terrifyingly relevant. Racism and xenophobia are on the rise. It’s obvious here in America, with President Trump enacting a travel ban that, despite what he may claim otherwise, targets Muslims. One of the first statements out of his mouth while campaigning was that illegal Mexican immigrants bring crime and rape. White supremacists nationwide feel emboldened to be public, leading to a rise in threats against disenfranchised communities. ICE agents recently arrested a Utah mother of three despite having a work visa (she has recently been released). Beyond our borders, there is Brexit in Great Britain and the rise of fascist Marine Le Pen in France. All are driven by racism, particularly xenophobia towards dark/brown-skinned foreigners. While fictional and dramatized, Satellite Falling is a cautionary tale about how bad xenophobia can get, and real life seems to be reflecting it.
Satellite Falling is not pessimistic. Lilly fights Xenophobia. She is a flawed person hampered by memories of a lost love and often motivated by selfishness, but she finds the strength to overcome. She gathers a group of Satellite citizens, diverse aliens with unique personalities and abilities, to help her. The actions they take are an invigorating message to take a stand against injustice and defend the marginalized from abusers no matter their statues. It is this uncompromising, altruistic morality that has me gripped to the series and sure to do the same for readers looking for hope in what seems an increasingly hopeless scenario. Best of all, the series doesn’t lose any flair. Xenophobia is fought in this comic with laser guns, explosives, martial arts, and flying cars. The politicking comes with a healthy dose of some of the most fluent action scenes in a mass market comic. By far the best example is issue #2 and its prolonged sequence of Lilly fleeing from enslavers working for the crime syndicate. Thompson breaks it down in real time with flawless pacing leading to an epic conclusion.
Satellite Falling feels like more than just another sci-fi comic. It’s small scale yet has a powerful relevancy to current events. Delivered with colorful, unique art, diverse characters, and impressive action sequences, this is a strong example of using genre fiction for political activism.
Satellite Falling is currently available from IDW, its fifth issue is out today.
Ben Howard is a writer and critic of comics. He also contributes to The Outhousers and Graphic Policy. Follow him on Twitter @scarycleve.