Review by Frank Plowright
Cixin Liu is a Chinese science fiction author, writer of several novels and of several short story collections. He’s imaginative and prolific, a back cover quote from the New Yorker likening him to Arthur C. Clarke. For the Benefit of Mankind is part of an ambitious project in which comic creators of various nationalities are brought together to adapt Liu’s stories, here French writer Sylvain Runberg and Spanish artist Miki Montlló.
Liu’s work is often rooted in a recognisable world, and For the Benefit of Mankind reflects this, being as much a contemporary crime story via lead character, feared assassin Mr. Smoothbore. His brutal past is revealed in flashbacks as he accepts a commission to kill three people, against a background of the world, or at least the elite, being informed by aliens that theirs is just one of four identical worlds the aliens created, and theirs is now to be colonised by the inhabitants of another. While on the first Earth life resembles ours, the second is a capitalist society run rampant where even the air is monetised.
Montlló differentiates the words via placing his panels on black pages for the ruined planet, but his neon bright modern city over the opening pages is spectacularly conceived. Distinguishing one person in a suit from another isn’t a strongpoint, so there may be confusion during the scene where Smoothbore is hired, but otherwise this is 121 pages of solid storytelling. It’s action packed with the layouts maximising tension.
Runberg’s task is far simpler as Liu has already plotted the story, but perhaps the best compliment he can be given is that without knowing this was an adaptation, and possibly a little contracted, you’d not suspect it. Everything rolls out really smoothly, the revelations drop at the right places and the surprises are there. Not in every respect, mind. The general procession of Smoothbore’s past can be predicted, but it’s what he does in the present that’s unknowable.
By the time that occurs the history of the colonising Earth has been shown, in short superior technology, but with an abject failure of Capitalism as all wealth and power is gathered by fewer and fewer people, and eventually just one controls everyone and everything. Of course, there is comment to be made about a Chinese author’s view of Capitalism, but comics have certainly hosted considerable amounts of anti-Communist rhetoric over the years. Liu has clever ideas about wealth redistribution and how it can be rapidly arranged, although for the sake of the plot assumes a very low view of mankind in general when it comes to how many accept free money. Or perhaps they’re just a representative microcosm.
Those inclined to pick at logic may wonder why there are four Earths mentioned when only two are required for the plot. Perhaps it’s something Liu addressed cut for the adaptation.
However, that’s a minor quibble. In the end For the Benefit of Mankind provides a fast-paced action thriller with the science fiction only really providing the spur into action. The best science fiction illuminates the present, but Liu achieves that with only the slightest infusion, as explaining the bigger picture would have no purpose. It’s very readable.