Jeff Lemire, Gabriel Walta, and co.’s Sentient feels like a gripping, one-off sci-fi movie in all the best ways.
The high concept is this: After surviving a separatist attack on their colony ship, a group of children must navigate through space with only the help of the ship’s A.I., Valerie. Valerie does her best to care for, teach, and protect the children. But space, it turns out, is a dangerous place – and there are others who think Valerie is not acting in the children’s best interest.
However, while Sentient‘s story is clever, compelling, and well-executed, it’s not the main reason I’d recommend it. Jeff Lemire’s writing is superb as always, but Gabriel Walta’s textured, watercolored art is Sentient‘s real star. Particularly, Walta’s liberal use of dramatic shadows, and his refusal to draw a ship-set scene without a well-rendered background, make Sentient feel tense, claustrophobic, and real. Lemire and Walta both understand their young leads are drifting through the void of space in a small, relatively-fragile metal box. And they want readers to feel that darkness and fragility as they read Sentient.
Another plus for Walta: he draws children who look like children, which is a surprisingly rare skill for a comic artist. There are no oddly-proportioned heads or panels in which the children look like mini-adults here. Instead, the children always look and behave like children, which helps readers connect with them more thoroughly.
Which brings us around to discussing the book’s main characters, Lil, Isaac, and Valerie. Lil and Isaac are the oldest children in the group. Quickly, the other children turn to Lil as their leader, a role to which she is not entirely suited. Meanwhile, for spoiler-y reasons, the children shun Isaac, until he is finally able to prove himself to them.
Valerie, meanwhile, tries to shepherd both children toward working together to complete their journey to the Earth colony. But while Valerie is able to extend the limits of her programming somewhat, to take on a more parental role toward the children, she is not a parent. She is still a program that has built-in rules and logic that guide its actions. Those rules and logic can be (and of course are) exploited, leading to the book’s finale.
In stories about children, it can be hard to make the children feel both competent and like real children. Lean toward uber-competence, and the story can feel unrealistic. Lean toward emotionality and illogic, and the story breaks down because the characters aren’t compelling. Lemire does a good job threading this needle, presenting children who are able to adapt and work together to survive, but still find themselves overcome by outbursts of grief, anger, irrationality, and fear in the way real children (and let’s be real, adults) do. In the same way, Lemire makes Valerie feel like a real A.I. She is almost human, but not quite. She can bend her programming, but she has limits (just as, let’s be real, people do).
One last thing worth noting: letterer Steve Wands does a wonderful job facilitating and adding atmosphere to Lemire and Walta’s story. The thin, slightly-shaky font he uses for the book’s human characters adds to the book’s tenseness. The font and balloon style he uses for Valerie makes her dialogue read like it’s spoken by a slightly-futuristic Siri. And his balloon placement is A+, working seamlessly with Walta’s art to guide readers through each page and on to the next.
If you’re a lover of old school sci-fi thrillers, the kinds with real sets and practical effects, you should definitely check out Sentient. You’ll feel for the book’s young leads. You’ll feel for Valerie. But most importantly, you’ll feel like you’re also trapped on the U.S.S. Montgomery, right alongside them.