This week’s unexpected discovery is Ha Il-Kwon’s webtoon Duty After School, recommended in one of the many, many, very long comment threads over File770, in the context of “works worthy of a Hugo.” I had planned to limit myself to a quick glance, which is how my archive binges always begin….
Being a high school student is stressful enough; if you’re not swotting to pass university entrance exams, you’re probably trying to figure out what real world job to try for after graduation. And you have to deal with crushes, friendships, and the adolescent pecking order. Happily for Chi Kim and his fellow students of Sungdong high school, life hands them an effective distraction.
Less happily, it’s in the form of an alien invasion.
All across the world, mysterious purple spheres—cells—appear without warning. They come in three varieties:
1) large cells, which seem to be more or less indestructible but appear to be happy to float high in the sky, occasionally shedding smaller buds;
2) medium cells, which descend to the ground but are only dangerous to people who wander within a couple of meters (or as happens to one unlucky student, anyone who stumbles against one during a teenage shoving match);
3) small cells, which bud off the mediums and are very mobile, very aggressive and extremely dangerous.
The two smaller cell forms are hard to kill but not indestructible. Medium cells that are sufficiently disrupted divide into their smaller, mobile kin and those will explode when hit with a well-aimed bullet.
Once the scale of the problem becomes obvious, the government acts. Civilians are herded to (presumably secure) relocation camps. Students like Chi Kim aren’t so lucky. South Korea has mandatory universal military service for men between eighteen and thirty-five; the current crisis is serious enough both age and gender restrictions must be waived. Across South Korea, boys and girls discover that their nation expects them to set aside their books and laptops in favour of rifles and military uniforms.
At first, life as a conscript soldier is weird and inconvenient, but tolerable enough. Even the medium cell embedded in the school grounds seems harmless enough behind its cordon of police caution tape. The first death is an accident: a student falls against the school’s new tenant. However, once the small cells begin migrating into the city it doesn’t take long for the body count to start climbing.
And then the city falls….
Given that the cells are limited to hand-to-tentacle combat, you’d think that armed humans would have the advantage. Not so. The cells compensate for their lack of distance weapons with overwhelming numbers. The small cells in particular exhibit the speed and viciousness of an amphetamine-crazed wolverine. To simply see a small cell is to face the prospect of almost instant decapitation.
It’s not clear if the cells think—this could be the interstellar version of a kudzu infestation—but they seem to understand how to kill humans. Either they are able to adapt to human tactics, or they have a wider range of innate behaviours than humans at first suspected.
It takes a while for the kids to understand just how dire things are. Some classes don’t survive the first lesson. Some survivors don’t deal with the trauma of battle all that well; a few of the early deaths are suicides….
It does not help that the training the students get seems half-assed at best. I understand the whole effort has been thrown together in a panicked hurry, but … South Korea has long had universal conscription for men. You’d think that a place that eats up two or three years of every man’s life would be better at turning civilians into soldiers.
Although I found the art a bit sketchy, the drawing manages to convey (most of the time) the inner lives of the characters; Honors, the character I guarantee you will learn to loath, becomes more monstrous in appearance the more his character deteriorates. As well, the style is very effective at conveying the fog of war.
The author’s pacing, however, is top-notch. It takes a while for people to understand that life has changed, but that’s just humans being human, not the story being slow. Once the heads start rolling, the tension escalates very nicely.
I had intended to limit myself to one chapter; I ended up reading all forty of the online chapters in one go. Currently the comic is available via Webtoon, but I believe an American publisher plans a more official edition.