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Someone is killing robots. Not just any robots either; apparently someone is hunting down and killing the world’s most powerful and famous robots. And this is a problem for Inspector Gesicht of Europol, not just because he’s been put in charge of tracking down the killer, but because the list of victims so far suggests he might be a target himself.

At first glance this mystery is the heart of Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto – a modern retelling of a popular story arc from manga god Osamu Tezuka’s most famous creation Astro Boy – but in many ways the detective story is just a framework for the author to explore a multitude of themes. Just as Tezuka used Astro Boy to present ideas of difference, prejudice and social exclusion to a young audience, here Urasawa (assisted by Takashi Nagasaki and supervised by Tezuka’s son Macoto) does the same – but with the knowledge that he is talking to an older, more mature audience. The result is something not only a little darker but perhaps subtler – the world Gesicht and his other characters inhabit is less black and white, the lines between robot and human more blurred. At some point in the past robots have attained sentience, and subsequently equality with their human creators, but this is still no utopia – prejudice and discrimination lurk below the surface. Anti robot sentiments are confused further by the fact that many of these sentient machines – including Gesicht himself – are near indistinguishable from humans, while others such as the beloved celebrity Mont Blanc – the killer’s first victim – are almost stereotypically robotic in their appearance. It’s an interesting take on a science fiction meme that has been made commonplace from Blade Runner, A.I. and a hundred novels; that while we see the human-like Gesicht treated with some suspicion, there is a very public, widespread outpouring of grief for the loss of the mechanical looking Mont Blanc. It is almost as though Urasawa is commenting on racial stereotypes and the media, and how often we are more open to accept public figures that fit with our preconceived ideas.

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But it’s not just the human’s that are finding this new co-existence difficult, the robots themselves at times seem to be struggling with how they fit into this brave new world. We see Gesicht having to deal with not only the pressures of his own marriage, but also the effects the murders are having on the robot families of the victims. When he goes to have dinner with the gladiatorial celebrity robot Brando and his huge family of children he appears bowled over by their charm and warmth, but his reaction also seems tinged with something that could either be regret or alienation. Similarly, when he meets Atom – the Japanese child-robot that is based upon Astro Boy himself – he seems confused and slightly shocked that that the machine is exhibiting such wide-eyed innocence and childlike fascination for the world around him, especially when Atom himself seems incapable of explaining where these emotions came from. “Well, after pretending all the time,” the boy robot says, “I eventually really got it.” And in many ways this seems to be the core theme of Pluto – that why should robots, created by man to be superior to him in many aspects of form and function, with heightened strength and senses and the ability to edit and share their memories – experience reality on the same level as us? Why should they have to conform to our cultural and societal ideals and practices? With these questions asked Urasawa gives them an even deeper significance, with Gesicht, Atom and the other characters coming to represent our own, very human, everyday concerns about conformity and our roles in society. It’s done with an elegance and subtle sophistication in just these first two volumes that it leaves other works – perhaps most notably Neon Genesis Evangelion – stumbling around in their own philosophical mess, and marks Urasawa as a true master of science fiction writing.

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Not that he stops there. The story is told in the shadow of the recently ended 39th Middle East War – a thinly veiled satire on real world conflicts (Urasawa substitutes ‘Robots of Mass Destruction’ for ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ as a reason for invasion), that has left those robots that fought in it even more confused about their role and purpose. While their Asimov-like programming is meant to stop them from harming humans, there’s no restrictions on killing other robots, a contradiction that has left the machine veterans even more confused as to whether they are really excepted into human society, and whether to imitate or reject the lifestyles and hypocritical values of their creators. This is highlighted best in the story of North#2, a powerful war-robot that attempts to put his past behind him by becoming a butler for a famous composer whose work he admires – going as far as to always wear a cloak to cover his terrifying, weapon-encrusted form. He yearns to learn from his new master, who at first refuses to accept a killing machine can truly comprehend music, and it’s a story of acceptance, guilt and self-loathing that Urasawa delivers with devastating emotional effect that makes the book essential reading almost on it’s own.

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I realise that I’ve not talked much about the art in this review – as fascinated as I have become by the thematic ideas the story flaunts so effortlessly – and this is a little unfair. The books are gorgeous throughout, with Urasawa creating a unique and brave style that combines the realistic with the stylised, 1950s Tezuka view of the future. This is Astro Boy post Bladerunner; never quite dark enough to be cyberpunk or shiny enough to be The Jetsons, but somewhere solid and believable in the middle. Even at times when the classical, toy-like robot designs seem at first to jar against the deeper subject matter you later realise this is all part of Urasawa’s plan to make you confront his philosophical themes head on, and you can’t help but feel that no other artists could have done the narrative justice.

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Just recently I gushed enthusiasm over Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys, and I’m conscious that I have just done the same over Pluto. Both, based on these first volumes, are masterpieces – the former for it’s accessibility and effortless, enticing story telling and the later for it’s mature, refreshingly unique philosophical take on a classic science fiction idea. Again I can’t recommend enough reading either, just as I can’t wait to get my hands on the further installments of both. An unmissable experience.

Review copies supplied by Viz Media.