Have you ever picked up a random read and simply clicked with it. Like, it’s not only a great book, but it’s also the exact thing you needed to read at this exact time? Recently I’ve been reading a lot of books that I’ve liked, but as soon as I finished On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden I knew I was in love. It’s one of those rare reading experiences where every single part of the book comes together to create something so much deeper than I expected.
The narrative follows Mia through two eras in her life. The first is her present, working on a Restoration Crew spaceship. Their job is to fly to different locations in various stages of ruin, and repair them. Sometimes these places are planet-side, and sometimes they are simply buildings or campuses floating in space. The other era is 5 years prior to that, when Mia is a student at a boarding school. She and another student, Grace, begin to fall for each other and their story moves forward from there.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what makes this book so extraordinary. There are the obvious things, like the art. Color is used sparingly, and black is used in abundance. This could lead to drab or indistinct artwork, but Walden does this amazing thing where the darkness of shadows and space constantly bleed into each other. This creates an engagement with the settings, a sensation of openness and the unknown swirling about. Insecurity and freedom bleed around each panel. Which fits perfectly into the rest of the style. The setting is a sort of magical realism science fiction. Spaceships look like beta fish and settings sit like cathedrals hanging in space. But other areas are so mundane and plucked from our time that it’s just enough to let everything exist without demanding explanation. Things are fantastic enough to be wondrous, but familiar enough to feel grounded.
But then there are the things that aren’t evident at first look. It took me until my second reading to realize that the entire cast of the book is either female or non-binary. The reason this slipped past me when it’s so evident in other books, like Women World for example, is that it goes completely unremarked upon here. That’s not to say there’s no sexism; Elliot, on of Mia’s shipmates, is misgendered at one point, so it’s not a female utopia. That near-uniformity of gender also means that the queerness of couples is similarly unremarkable. Though, again, this doesn’t mean that the society is all-welcoming. There’s still discrimination, though it seems to fit more along class and cultural lines, though generally not racial. It’s these kinds of issues, quietly tackled from different angles than we’re used to, that create a radical para-utopia that can be missed at first sight.
I’d read Walden’s earlier book, Spinning, a memoir of her teen years. Shockingly, this science fiction story feels just as grounded. There’s a fair amount of world-building, but every piece of this novel is steeped in the characters that populate the future. Every person in the crew has an emotional core that can be identified and empathized with. Even in the parts that take place back at the school, the other students, bullies included, all feel realistic. I’d say that if you like the camaraderie and fullness of the crews in Firefly or A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, this will appeal to you.
There split narrative may put some people of fin the description, but I implore you to give it a go. There’s a gimmick that’s popular on TV, where an episode starts with a cold-open and something shocking happens, then the text “3 days earlier” pops up and the show jumps back. This is not that gimmick. In those cases the time jump rarely makes any difference in the storytelling, and is done just to have a shocking start, followed by waiting for the show to catch up to where you know it will be. This comic uses the parallel stories set 5 years apart to grow the plot in tandem with the emotional backstory. We see what Mia is doing in her present, but slowly see why she’s doing it, and whether certain actions are self destructive, self improvement, or simply self preservation. There’s no part that ever doesn’t make sense until something else is revealed, but when those reveals come those actions seem so much more important.
If you’re still not convinced about reading On a Sunbeam, let me offer this one final selling point. This graphic novel first started as a web comic, and it still lives online to this day. That means you can seek out the printed edition, or read the entire thing for free online at http://www.onasunbeam.com.