Somewhere in the bowels of the earth the remnants of human society eke out a tenuous existence in the gloom of a post-post-apocalyptic world. Ages ago, humanity reached such heights of technical and industrial skill that their buildings and cities rose thousands of stories towards the sky. In this twilight of mechanical decay the ancient buildings remain as a massive, crumbling labyrinth thousands of feet deep and inconceivably vast. Vast enough to house many outposts of humans, clinging to life and tradition while unable to communicate and unaware of their brethren near or far. Even more frightening than the lonely spaces of ancient structures are the plastic and steel cyborgs who stalk among falling bridges and rusty girders. Part human, part insect, part android, these fighting machines share each other’s thoughts and assume the forms of human travelers at will. They are remorseless in their destruction of all human life, and in the hunt for the mysterious “Net Terminal Genes.” No one seems to know what these genes signify (the author gives us not a clue – maybe she’s waiting to figure out the secret too) except that they may be humanity’s last, best hope for recreating a viable civilization away from the mutation and cellular contamination brought on by life in the labyrinth. Skirting human habitation. avoiding the cyborgs when he can and killing them with ease and skill when he can’t, Killy’s sole purpose is the search for Net Terminal Genes among the survivors of the latest apocalyptic events. This lonely, nearly silent life suits taciturn Killy well enough – he’s good at what he does and knows the labyrinth’s hidden passageways and treacherous corridors as if he carries an internal map. What he is not prepared for is to discover the end of the labyrinth, 3,000 levels above ground and ruled by an entirely new life form feared by humans and cyborgs alike – the silicate soldiers of the Authority.
BLAME is drawn with mesmerizing precision. Tsutomu Nihei has captured the fearful beauty of industrial spaces with swathes of shadow and lines that seem to be always in motion. The story is told almost entirely through gestures and violent, gory action sequences – dialogue is sporadic and often cryptic, raising questions without ever answering them. The story is a challenge for readers (I’m on my third time through), disclosing the bare minimum of information through each of Killy’s encounters in the labyrinth. Whether or not you have the patience to stick with this story as it unfolds is very much a matter of personal taste. At worst, BLAME can be seen as a novelized video game session complete with shoot-em-ups and awesome graphics. At best (and I’m willing to give Nihei the benefit of the doubt), this is an eerie portrait of a society in which human contact is so rare that speech has become almost unnecessary.