Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Review: Alex + Ada Volume 3 by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn

Cover of Alex + Ada Volume Three, featuring two pale-skinned, dark-haired people in dark clothing running directly towards the viewer. They hold hands. The background is brilliant orange bordered in white.
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Friends, I fear the rumours are true. ALEX + ADA is a limited series. Fifteen issues; three tight volumes; one hell of a resolution.

Since this is the series’ third and final instalment, we shall forgo any attempt at a volume-specific plot summary. If you’re new to ALEX + ADA, I’ll refer you to my review of Volume One; or, if you’d rather not wade through all that, what you need to know is this: the comic is set in a nearish future where ubiquitous androids have their sentience suppressed due to public outcry and fearmongering. Alex, a young office worker, receives Ada, an android, for his birthday and sets out to unlock her sentience, with consequences both uplifting and dire.

I revisited the first two volumes directly before I read this one, and I’m beyond impressed with how the series gets deeper and meatier and better every time I reread it. Vaughn and Luna pack so much into each page. Luna’s deceptively simple layouts take us through each emotion in a subtle, truthful fashion that also invites us into the frame as a direct participant. The clean lines and muted colours effectively render the comic a canvas into which we can paint ourselves, even as we experience the characters’ every jolt.

Vaughn’s scripts mesh beautifully with the art, forever pushing the boundaries of what these people think and feel. What’s more, they do so with a keen eye for the interstices between different varieties of personhood. Vaughn remains aware that there’s not just one way to be, whether you’re human or android, and the script reflects this at every turn.

If you’ll allow me to backtrack a bit, one of my favourite exchanges comes between Alex and Ada in Volume Two (which I never reviewed), very near the series' midpoint. Alex questions whether he and Ada should start a romantic relationship, like they both want to; Ada protests that he has to let her make her own choices. From Alex’s perspective, Ada doesn’t have much practical life experience and needs to have someplace safe she can always come home to, no matter what happens, and that’s gonna be difficult if their romance doesn’t work out. He’s being thoughtful.

But from Ada’s perspective, Alex has ignored her stated desires and treated her as Other because she’s an android. He’s infantalized her. When she makes her case, Alex comes to realize that yes, his protestations also owe a fair bit to his preconceived notions of what Ada is capable of as a non-human person. He recognizes his “thoughtfulness” isn’t necessarily respectful of Ada’s own emotional truth. It’s a great scene, and one that pushes both characters to reexamine their idea of themselves and of each other.

That sort of thing that happens over and over again throughout the series, especially in this final volume as things crystallize for both characters. So much occurs from panel to panel, or even from speech bubble to speech bubble. Alex and Ada care deeply for one another, but their love doesn’t eliminate their need to continually renegotiate their sense of each other as people. The same is true of every other character, and the process is difficult for humans and androids alike since there’s no one true answer to the personhood question. Everyone has to do a ton of shut-up-and-listen along the way.

At the heart of it all is each person’s right to define their personhood as they see fit. Android manufacturers steal this right from every person they send off the line, and each “owner” who declines to unlock an android’s sentience perpetuates this cycle.

Vaughn and Luna examine the issue from multiple angles. We have Ada’s quest to learn how to be. We hear the experiences of the androids she meets as she figures it all out. We have Daniel, Alex’s grandma’s android, whose potential sentience is deliberately ignored via a few “oh, it’s better for him this way” justifications. And we have the wider political culture, which punishes anyone's attempt to unlock an android's sentience with lifetime imprisonment for humans and death for androids. This is enough of a deterrent for many, perhaps even most, humans who are wealthy enough to bring androids into their homes.

The text takes a firm stand: android liberation is the only possible answer. Anything else is slavery. At the same time, though, it acknowledges that the road from sentience-blocked androids to true android freedom is bound to be a long one because it’s so very, very difficult to get people to stop doing what’s easy and start doing what’s right. Everyone outside the movement has a million reasons why they can’t let androids access their sentience, they just can’t. And it could take decades, maybe centuries, to destroy these barriers of prejudice and fear.

I don’t want to say too much about the resolution, save that it took me places I never expected to go. It’s powerful stuff, equally painful and hopeful, with firm ties both to the world Vaughn and Luna established in the previous volume and the one the reader hopes it can become.

You want to read this entire series. Then you want to go back and reread it at least once, maybe twice or thrice, in search of all the little nuances that pop out once you know exactly where it’s headed.


  1. Oh GREAT. I mean, I guess I am sad that this excellent series won't go on forever and ever, but mainly I am pleased to learn that I can now acquire and read the whole run of it and feel satisfied at the end. I have probably told you in the past that discussions of comparative privilege are one of my favorite things in literature, and this has been sounding right up my alley for ages and ages now.

    1. Yes, finished series are so satisfying to gulp down in one go! And I think this one is indeed right up your alley.