Desert Isle Keeper
Alex + Ada
This is a review of the complete series of the graphic novel ALEX + ADA, a sci-fi/drama set in the near future.
In a first for meddling old biddies, Alex’s grandmother ships him a state-of-the-art android to take his mind off a recent breakup. Alex is uncomfortable with this un-sentient being, whom he names Ada, and almost returns her before changing his mind. Alex learns that androids like Ada are capable of sentience, but that feature has been deactivated and locked. When Alex has Ada unlocked – breaking federal law in the process – it opens a new world of questions for both of them. Issues of technology, consent, and humanity are threaded through this well-written and interesting story, and it does have an HEA (although an unconventional one.)
Alex is handed what can be, essentially, both a slave and an extremely expensive sex toy. That he chooses instead to help Ada become herself speaks well of him – and proves crucial when it turns out that Ada remembers everything from before she was sentient. The change is traumatic for her, despite Alex’s kind support; for instance, after she’s capable of “liking,” he helps her try every kind of breakfast food he can think of so she can discover her preferences. But danger is closing in, as the government, spooked by a killer AI some years back, goes looking for thinking robots. The consequences of the wrong person discovering the secret would be more than discomfort or ostracism – Alex would be sentenced to life in prison, and Ada would be destroyed. Can Ada find a life at all – and if so, should it be with Alex?
The choices made by Alex and Ada are thrown into interesting relief by supporting foils. A friend of Alex’s with a cybernetic limb has interesting thoughts about technology based on his own body and a robot from his military days. Another friend has a prurient, and later problematic, interest in AI sex. Alex’s grandmother effectively represents the middle ground of people who accept rights violations because it’s just too comfortable for them not to, keeping her handsome young robot un-sentient and enjoying their sex life. She finally has the robot unlocked in a scene very reminiscent of the way that many historical slaves were freed by masters.
The volumes are in color. Jonathan Luna’s art is spare, with Alex’s beige house in particular barren of personal touches or clutter of any kind. It’s an effective visual representation of the monotonous and sterile nature of Alex’s life. The pacing is also strong, with Luna spending, at one point, a full page on Alex slowly waking up. It made me feel the heavy, bored sameness of Alex’s days before Ada in a way that explicit conversation or commentary would not have done. Luna effectively depicts Alex’s use of Prime technology, a glowing blue implant at his temple which functions like a smart device. It is easy to understand that Alex is talking on the phone, visiting a chat room, checking the news, etc.
Ada’s physical appearance was designed by Alex’s grandmother with the idea that Alex would use her for sex, but God bless that woman and Luna the artist, because Ada is no fantasy sexbot. Her body is more plausible than that of many graphic novel characters who are supposed to be actual humans. Ada has straight black hair and, if not for the fact that her almond-shaped eyes are blue, would probably read as East Asian. Her poses throughout the novel are character-driven, not sexualized in the “breasts thrusting up towards the camera” style of superheroines. Even during sex, Ada is drawn as a normal human woman (the sex has nudity but no genitals, but still may not be appropriate for younger readers). Not only is this human depiction essential for a story focused on making us see Ada as a thinking and equal being, but as a female reader I felt comfortable looking at her. I wonder what role female co-author Sarah Vaughn played in this design.
I also liked that background and supporting characters are diverse. In addition to – gasp – an elderly woman, we see black, Hispanic, and Asian characters as friends – human and android – background pedestrians, or government employees popping up on TV broadcasts. It’s a nice change from some comics I’ve read where nearly all the men are white, and any woman who’s not a crone villain is a hottie (preferably white) between the ages of sixteen and thirty.
Alex + Ada has been around for a few years, but this new omnibus is the first to put the entire story in one volume. You can also buy it in three separate, smaller paperback versions if you prefer. If you’re looking for a gift for a sci-fi/comics nerd, male or female, and romance fan or not, I highly recommend this book.