Monday, January 06, 2014

Comics: "Alex + Ada", issues 1 and 2

This is a new comic from Image, created by Jonathan Luna (story, script, art, lettering, design etc.) and Sarah Vaughn (story and script). It is set in the near future and is about information technology and its effect on humans and human society. It has themes of loneliness and alienation, though these are not presented as straightforwardly a product of the onward march of progress. The title also looks at consciousness, self-awareness and what it means to be human. It is a bold and ambitious work and on the basis of the first two issues it might just be the best thing currently being published monthly (which admittedly would not be that hard as there is currently something of a comics drought).

The first issue follows Alex, the protagonist, as he gets up in the morning and flicks through the morning news (a handy way of filling in some background). He has little drones to bring him his cup of coffee and an implant that allows him to think instructions to appliances in his house. TV news projects on holograms, and we learn that in the recent past some AI became self-aware and went on a homicidal rampage before being shut down; fears remain that something similar could happen again but Alex does not seem too worried. In fact Alex seems emotionally flat, not because he has been dehumanised by all pervasive technology but by something more timeless, a bad breakup. The clean lines of the art and the bleached out colours accentuate the sense of emotional flatness that surrounds Alex.

A friend invites him over for a quiet celebration of his birthday. His rich grandmother rings and talks about the expensive robot she has bought herself— basically a robot gigolo that can also perform domestic chores, something that looks human and mimics being conscious without actually having self-awareness. Alex is aghast at her suggestion that he get a female one for himself. He goes to the friend's house for the quiet celebration, but it turns out to be a much larger surprise party organised for his benefit. They have invited along a woman who is clearly enamoured of Alex, but he is too self-absorbed to notice. In a great wordless sequence, we see him looking round the party at a succession of happy couples, people enjoying an intimacy that he is cut off from.

Then he goes home and finds that his grandmother has actually had one of the androids delivered to him. She/it says "Hello" and that ends the episode.

The second episode follows Alex as he deals with having this unwanted android dumped on him. In some ways it is like having a puppy gifted on you against your will, but this puppy can talk to him in an ostensibly cheery manner and is designed to be sexually attractive. The faux consciousness of Ada, as Alex calls her/it, is fascinating here and I think something that we may soon find ourselves interacting with in real life. She acts in a manner designed to mimic human self awareness but is still not quite there, for all her obvious computational power and ability to interact with humans in an almost natural way.

Where the story is going I do not know. Maybe we will follow Ada on the path to actual self-awareness, maybe we will start to wonder if such a thing is illusory, or maybe the focus will remain on Alex, with Ada either bringing him out of his alienated state or perhaps ultimately increasing it. Either way I am hooked and will be with this till the end.

Image sources:

Issue one cover (Jonathan Luna's website)

illustration (another review of issue one)

An inuit panda production

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