If you had the resources, would you buy companionship? Not the temporary human kind but something programmed to serve and please you? And what if that companion were so lifelike that, at first glance, you wouldn’t know he or she wasn’t sentient?
It’s possible in Alex + Ada (Image), and the answers aren’t as simple as you’d think. The subject of people interacting with human-like beings has been explored before, but Alex + Ada goes beyond the obvious pros and cons to unfold in ways that are surprising, frequently suspenseful and emotionally resonant. After totally sleeping on this comic by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn for the past year, I’ve gone into full binge-reading mode.
Alex, a twenty-something still hurting from a major breakup, receives a female android as a gift from his grandmother, who believes he needs the company. Though he’s convinced it’s a terrible idea and is embarrassed to possess an android, Alex takes the first step toward attachment by giving her a name: Ada.
Though Ada is programmed to be a submissive blank slate, Luna and Vaughn find a way to develop her relationship with Alex while exploring his complicated feelings about this initially unwelcome guest. Ada is an immediately intriguing presence and her inherent vulnerability deepens the story. There’s also a strong supporting cast in the form of Alex’s friends and his saucy grandmother. To Alex’s chagrin, she tends to overshare about the, um, care-taking abilities of her own studly android, Daniel.
At first, Alex’s attempts to engage Ada are exercises in futility. She laughs when he laughs, doesn’t have a favorite color (“That would be having an opinion.”) and tells Alex his happiness is the only thing that matters. The one-sided terms of the relationship eat at him, and that’s where things become even more interesting.
The larger picture further complicates the situation: Androids aren’t fully trusted in human society and their programming isn’t tinker-proof. Alex + Ada raises questions about what it means to be authentically human and delves into the ethics of creating and owning beings that have no free will or, in some cases, only appear not to. Those questions become bigger as the series progresses and Ada’s character evolves. When Alex asks one fully conscious android how “robots are able to act so … real,” he replies, “I am real.”
Alex + Ada isn’t without moments of humor, such as a cringe-worthy but priceless exchange Alex has with a neighbor whose questions about Ada are the epitome of wrong. Ada’s first meeting with Alex’s friends is so awkward you can almost hear the crickets chirping.
Luna’s clean, polished art brings this futuristic but still recognizable world to life beautifully and believably. The characters dress and speak the same way we do now, but the technology is far more intuitive and, if possible, more omnipresent than it is today. (It isn’t that difficult to imagine voicemail messages delivered directly to your consciousness.) Luna conveys plenty of information with a single facial expression.
Alex + Ada #11 drops Dec. 17, so block out an evening for the inevitable devouring of issues 1-10 to prepare. You’ll be glad you did.