Scott Westerfeld’s newest story, Spill Zone, is a graphic novel illustrated by Alex Puvilland that takes place several years after Poughkeepsie suffered a major “spill,” and while nobody knows exactly what that entailed, nanotechnology and a nuclear power plant are mentioned as being involved. Whatever it was changed things inside the city, leaving behind fantastical creatures, changed animals, and “meat puppets” (think zombies). Addison’s twelve-year-old sister Lexa escaped that night, driven out on a bus with some other school children by a mysterious driver. Her parents, working at the hospital that night, did not. Addison herself was out of the city that night partying. Now she takes care of her sister (who hasn’t spoken since the incident), making money by illegally sneaking into the “spill zone” to take pictures which she secretly sells to collectors. When one of those collectors breaks her cover, she offers to pay Addison to go back in to the zone (worse, into the hospital her parents might still inhabit) and collect something at the behest of the North Koreans, who covered up their own smaller spill a few years ago.
Spill Zone is a fast moving story. Westerfeld doesn’t spend a lot, or really any, time on backstory or detailed explanation. What was the spill? Who knows? How did it change living creatures or create new ones? No idea. Might we get answers to those questions and others in later installments? Maybe, maybe not. Instead, the book throws you right into the zone’s existence, first building up some tension via several methods, both textual and visual: first person narration by Addison that references the strange creatures and dangers, creepy horror-type images (canted old house in the dark, a forest), a frog snagging a fly to get us in predator-prey mindset, a pair of nervous soldiers guarding a checkpoint meant to keep people out, and an unsettling rag doll. By the time we reach the zone itself, we’re primed for something dangerous and indeed, things go less smoothly than usual on this trip in.
All that said, really the focus is more on the characters and their relations to one another than on the creatures and zombies—though they do of course play a role. Addison is sharp, tough, determined, proactive, and fiercely protective of her sister. Her sister meanwhile is tough in her own way and just as protective of her older sister and Addison is of her, though Addison is unaware of this or of how she protects her. Which brings us to the third, and most surprising main character—that aforementioned rag doll, who is not only conscious and able to speak to Lexa, but has the sharpest, driest voice in the whole story. Two other characters have minor roles but are clearly set up to become a bigger piece of the story: one is a young soldier who clearly cares for Addison and the other is a young North Korean who was in their spill zone and has emerged somehow different, the knowledge of which prepares us for another event which I won’t detail.
The visuals were a somewhat mixed bag for me. Ironically, I cared least for the images of the zone itself, which were too abstract and muddy for me in terms of the more odd aspects of it, which I thought robbed that strangeness of its full impact, though I’ll grant that abstraction very well may be intended to heighten the intellectual distance, make them less familiar. It just didn’t have that effect for me; others may respond differently. On the other hand, the real world images, particularly the domestic ones were wonderfully done — evocative, atmospheric, and vivid. And though I didn’t personally care for the zone imagery, there’s no doubt Puvilland employs a nice range of colors and style and moves deftly between them.
Spill Zone ends unresolved, with a pretty big (and great) cliffhanger, and it’s easy to see lots of people waiting impatiently for the next installment. I know I will be.