If you like gorgeous art, François Schuiten is your man. His soft colors and skillful rendering, especially of architecture and interiors, make Cities of the Fantastic: The Invisible Frontier (original title: Les Cités obscures: La Frontière invisible)very pleasing to the eye. I'm less impressed with the story, however... but we'll get to that momentarily.
Schuiten and script collaborator Benoît Peeters have published eleven albums in the Obscure Cities series, and these are albums 8 and 9. They tell the story of the young, freshly-minted cartographer Roland de Cremer arriving at the great cartography center of Sodrovno-Voldachie. At first, he's somewhat lost, not just having difficulties finding and entering the center, but also in finding his place there. He does learn the ropes of his job pretty soon, though, but exactly what that job is remains somewhat unclear to the reader. The end product of the center's work, however, seems to be to produce a pretty large-scale model of the country.
… But at the same time, new technology is making its entrance into the world of cartography. Another new arrival, Ismail Djunov, works with computers, the future of cartography, to hear him tell it. Roland's boss, "Mister Paul", is suspicious of the new technology and prefers the old, more craft-like, ways – and reminisces about the days when the cartography center was bustling with people and activity.
Ismail takes Roland to "the club", a place where cartographers can relax after a hard day's work, being waited upon by semi-clad young women who apparently also are supposed to have sex with any cartographer who so desires. Roland is smitten by one of the girls, Shkodra, and starts a relationship of sorts with her. It turns out that Shkodra has some sort of map-like markings on her lower back and buttocks, but they can't be clearly made out… Yet.
Then comes a visit from the leader of the country, Marshal Radisic, where he takes an interest in the cartography institute's work – because he needs the map to show that he is entitled to do what he's planning to do, attack and assimilate a neighboring country. Turns out the map that disproves his claims is exactly like the markings on Shkodra's bottom; and Roland realizes he has to do something to protect her...
I won't reveal more about the plot; it seems inspired by the tragedy of former Yugoslavia, and the story's clear distaste for expansionism and ruthless disregard for history and people in order to further one's political ambitions is something I think is shared by all decent people. I have a few problems with the story that prevents me from recommending the albums, though.
First of all, for me to enjoy science fiction, it generally needs to get the credibility right. The cartography center seems to be set right out in the desert, with no apparent means of getting food and other necessities to its occupants. Now, the setting is probably intended to reinforce the reader's experience of Roland's feelings of isolation and abandonment, but it detracts from the credibility of the story for me, undermining instead of enhancing it.
Second, I get somewhat annoyed with having those women like Shkodra put there to service the researchers sexually – it can be a valid part of the plot, intended to anger the reader at such exploitation, but that point is weakened by the way the women are depicted, beautiful and frequently in various stages of undress/nudity. IMO, Schuiten and Peeters are exploiting those women's bodies no less than their fictional characters do. (And notably, the beautiful Shkoda doesn't seem to have very much say in her own destiny no matter what; it's not like Roland, when he decides something needs to be done to protect her, doesn't pretty much decide what she should do for her.)
I also find the albums' depicted conflict between modern methods and Mister Paul's more craftmanship-oriented approach to be a false dichotomy. Of course really old maps are cool, but there's no need to romanticize them – modern maps, done digitally, are far more accurate and informative. This goes beyond cartography, of course – which in this case is to a large extent a metaphor, anyway, if I understand the albums correctly.
Finally, while Schuiten is a great artist for depicting environments and the human body (both dressed and undressed, his faces are usually not very expressive – though as it adds to the perceived slowness of the storytelling, perhaps it is intentional.
So, a couple of beautiful books, but in the end not for me. I'll probably read the rest of the albums in the series when I get across them, but I won't be actively seeking them out.