When we left Valerian and Laureline at the end of Wrath of Hypsis, Earth, Galaxity, and most of the human race vanished in a space-time paradox. Valerian and Laureline still wander the galaxy, thanks to a favor called in to the Hypsis “gods”, but they no longer have the backing or the money of humanity’s superpower behind them. Since then, their adventures have focused on providing for themselves as smugglers with an aging spaceship. But at the planet of Rubanis (last seen in Ghosts of Inverloch), the couple’s luck has finally run down alongside their spaceship. Repairing a spaceship from a model line that no longer exists and no longer has spare parts is prohibitively expensive, and Valerian and Laureline do not have the money required.
Salvation shuffles in on the clawed feet of the stool pigeon shingouz, alien spies who have a job for their good friends. For a 10% cut of the profits, of course. Colonel T’Loc of Rubanis needs a pair of spies to sneak into a region of the planet known as the Circle of Power, once the seat of power giving orders to the government, now nothing but a font of gibberish. Valerian and Laureline accept, as the deal will cover their repairs twice over, and are reunited with Laureline’s favorite pet–a Grumpy Transmuter of Bluxte able to copy any jewel he eats. With the help of an amorous and reckless cab driver named S’Traks, Valerian and Laureline must navigate the undergrounds and factions inhabiting Rubanis to find a way into the Circle of Power.
The Circles of Power is an apt title for the strife on Rubanis. At first glance, it describes the five districts of the planet, known as Circles, devoted to industry, commerce, entertainment, religion, and government. However, the title also addresses other social circles of power through faction. Colonel T’Loc heads the military as it tries to make the trains run on time in a chaotic mess of bombs, economic disasters, and incoherent governance, while lining his own pockets. The underworld also attempts to secure the most advantage possible from the disorder caused by the absent guiding hand of the Circle of Power. Finally, there’s the working class who has to live in the chaos, keeping their heads low as they navigate the pitfalls of the society crashing down around them. In many ways, this is a tale of impending revolution in the wake of the failures of a weak government, a common occurrence in the 20th Century Third World. As Valerian and Laureline seek a way to the true Circle of Power, they must navigate the shifting relationships between these eight circles that surround it.
Strangely, in Rubanis, the circle with the least power is the commercial class, who suffers the violence and the consequences of the other circles’ fights. While the other classes are able to influence their futures, all the merchants and financial folks can do in the face of adversity is accept it–or hurl themselves out a window. The transnational mega-corporation dystopias favored by cyberpunk and 1990s American science fiction contemporary to The Circles of Power is not evident here.
The characters continue to develop from their Ghosts of Inverloch reboot. Valerian now has a rival for his Laureline in S’Traks, although Laureline isn’t swayed by the cabbie’s advances–or the kiss the cabbie forces on her. His hyperfocus on the mission and the need to work with S’Traks means that Valerian remains rather passive in driving away his rival. He remains tactically adept but socially inept, an annoyance to be sure, but still light years away from his pre-Ghosts of Inverloch Flanderizing into idiocy. Laureline has taken a page from her Valerian and is not above the occasional burst of violence when needed. However, she still uses her charm first to maneuver into the best position possible before striking. Instead of the movie’s portrayal of her as a sullen Action Girl, Laureline in the comics is an opportunist that uses her quick wit, charm, and a smile to create plenty of opportunities for a sucker punch. And she’ll get plenty of opportunities for such when she falls into the clutches of the underworld faction. Fortunately for Valerian, her attraction to him never wavers. The shingouz even show a bit of character development, as their previously vaunted negotiation skills are now only useful for dickering an ever declining share of Valerian and Laureline’s transactions. (“1% and that’s our final offer.”)
Like Ambassador of the Shadows before it, The Circles of Power inspired the Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets movie. The outlines of the quarantine zone shrouded in mystery at the center of a burgeoning alien metropolis resonates with the Circles of Power, and Valerian’s flight into the zone shares much of the recklessness of the flights with S’Traks through a congested urban district. Likewise, the center of the quarantine zone contains a secret that upends the precarious balance of power, a Grumpy Converter, and a rare gem that is key to solving the plot. Valerian’s trip into the center also follows a similar journey through sectors that line up in order with Rubanis’s circles. But this is not the only direct cinematic influence the book holds. S’Traks, his cab, and his reckless flying also inspired The Fifth Element, including much of the character, occupation, tolls, and toils of Corbin Dallas. Or, more precisely, the two influenced each other. Artist Jean-Claude Mézières began conceptual work on The Fifth Element in 1991, which influenced the look and feel of The Circles of Power. Then Luc Besson rewrote the script of The Fifth Element so that Corbin Dallas followed in the footsteps of S’Traks.
The art remains consistent with recent volumes, relying on the contrast between palettes of reds and blue instead of a more natural coloration. Valerian remains a heroic image, although the crags and shadows deepening on his face indicate he’s approaching middle age. Laureline has grown completely out of her teenage years, and her poses in many panels turns into preening. The effect can be jarring as Laureline’s poses are for the reader and not a harmonious composition with the other elements of the panels. In other words, Laureline has become a fanservice character–as a quick flip through the more blatant Hostages of Ultralum can attest. Also as jarring, the new characters’ designs are more cartoonish than in previous volumes. This comparison is not helped by S’Traks’ uncanny resemblance to the aviator Dinky Little of the 1980s’ cartoon The Littles, nor by crime boss Na’Zultra’s KISS groupie makeup.
The Circles of Power marks a return to levity from the dour consequences of Wrath of Hypsis. It still deals with complex issues, such as the interplay of faction and impeding resolution, with a finger firmly tilting the scales in favor of the proletariat. Despite the mechanism of a failing-state that propels its plot, the book still remains an engaging exploration of the unknown and an alien treasure hunt by a charming yet competent leading lady and her partner. The sermonizing is left to the background for those who have eyes to see. On its own merits, The Circles of Power is a worthy read, even as it influenced the visual language of science fiction and cinema.
November 2017 marks the 50th year of Valerian and Laureline, a year that will finally see the translation of last volumes of the long-running series printed into English. And perhaps we will also see confirmation of the sequel to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets that filmmaker Luc Beeson has been teasing.