Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Alex + Ada Volume 1 Review (Jonathan Luna, Sarah Vaughn)

Sentient robot stories have been done to death at this point - Blade Runner, I, Robot, Her, AI, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, even Pinocchio, to name just a few examples – but, as I’ve mentioned in other reviews, it’s not so much the freshness of the concept as it is the execution that’s important in storytelling. And in Alex + Ada, writer Jonathan Luna doesn’t do anything particularly new or original but he does create an enthralling story that masterfully draws you in and holds your attention.

Set in the near future where keys are obsolete as door locks are unlocked by cerebral commands from chips implanted in our heads, and little flying robots make our morning coffee – Androids are real. And I don’t just mean they exist, they are REALLY realistic – the only way to tell them apart from humans is the logo on their right wrist.

Alex has been moping about his breakup for a while and his grandmother’s had enough. She’s been enjoying the pleasures of having a youthful android companion and wants her grandson to be happy too – so she buys him an android of his own (a female one though – the opposite wouldn’t help!). Her name is Ada. But Alex doesn’t want a robot lover without a personality, he wants someone he can have a real conversation with – and so begins the journey to “awaken” Ada to her sentience and bring her into the real world.

Alex + Ada isn’t the fastest moving story but Luna does such a marvellous job of character development and world-building that there’s always something happening on the page to keep the reader engaged. Primarily the book explores the idea of sentience and questions how important a quality it is. The way the first issue lays out Alex’s routine – from waking, to breakfast, to work, to having dinner, watching TV, then going to bed, repeat – is like Luna asking: THIS is sentience? How overrated! Sarah Vaughn’s artwork underlines that idea with incredibly spare panels – the space in them shows little room decoration with everything clean and feng shui-ed to hell, as if to say future existence looks sophisticated but is also very empty. Is reality so great when it’s like this?

The world-building is done with a very light touch – details come up naturally as part of Alex’s story rather than getting shoe-horned in abruptly. We learn about sentient androids killing their owners, the strict controls over androids and the societal stigma attached to their owners. And though there are robots doing everyday things and people walking around with implants in their heads making them semi-psychokinetic, the future’s not hugely different from our own.

Vaughn’s designs for when Ada first arrives were very convincing – Apple-like even! Very stylish packaging, easy-to-operate, er, machine (“touch behind ear to turn on”) and the whole process of Alex getting an android seemed scarily real. Also, the lexicon used when discussing giving sentience to Ada is similar to how we talk about our technology – “unlocking” Ada, like unlocking a mobile from its pre-programmed network.

The aspect that threw me was that Ada needed food to keep up her energy levels – I get that the idea is to make people more comfortable around androids by making them simulate eating, but really, food? How would ordinary food generate energy for a robot? It seemed like a detail too far. I did appreciate that Luna didn’t make Alex some pervy guy who would’ve spent the whole book feeling up Ada, who of course would’ve done nothing to stop him – but then there’d be no story if he did that, just some cheap porno! 

It’s also refreshing to read a futuristic android story that isn’t all about doom and despair – the story celebrates technology and progress rather than damns it with some cautionary tale, moving past its setup to become a compelling blend of philosophy and romance. By the end of this first volume, you’re no longer thinking of it as a love story between a man and an android but a man and a woman.

Alex + Ada Volume 1 has an excellent science fiction story that’s got layers of thoughtfulness and ideas as well as a great narrative and characters. It’s the kind of book that appeals to readers who enjoy comics for the surface texture as well as those readers who appreciate the artfulness behind it too. A great start to this intriguing and charming series – check it out!

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