A comic by Kristina Stipetic

I have a confession: I haven’t actually read a lot of classic science fiction, and most of what I have read, I hated. Clarke’s too horny, Bradbury’s too racist, Dick’s too pessimistic, Orwell’s too reactionary. But one book in the “canon” actually stuck with me to this day because of its exploration of non-human intelligence: Asimov’s I, Robot. Through a series of short vignettes, Asimov extrapolates how an artificial brain might behave under the strictures of three simple rules: Protect, Obey, and Survive.

But however interesting this conjecture might be, it’s difficult to apply its lessons to the real world, where Asimov’s “laws of robotics” don’t exist. It’s more an elaborate piece of worldbuilding than a philosophical or political work.

In that regard, Kristina Stipetic’s Alethia feels like a spiritual successor to I, Robot. It too investigates the minds and motivations of very different robots in very different circumstances, but unlike Asimov’s work, it is impossible to not see parallels between Stipetic’s surreal world and our own.

So did it hurt when you- oh it did, huh. Oh.

Alethia’s story follows an amnesiac robot who, without explanation, falls from the sky into a city of other, different robots. At first, she is not the protagonist at all, just a malfunctioning pile of scrap that her hosts attempt to repair. The first main character is the queen of these robots, who, antlike, lays eggs every day that will techno-pupate into worker bots. One day she will lay the new queen, who will take over her painful duties for her.

Quietly disruptive.

It’s difficult to talk about what makes Alethia so interesting without spoiling it, as each chapter is a self-contained story with its own thematic and often jarring ending. For that reason, I’ll say only that the themes of the first chapter are reproductive rights and bodily autonomy, and that it climaxes with a scene that struck me deeply.

Camphor’s wanderlust gives us a brief window into the world the Creators left behind.

In the second chapter, the nameless robot, now repaired but lacking memory, home, or purpose, journeys across an alien landscape to a small village of new robots. There she meets a friendly robot named Camphor, whose wanderlust is stifled by her model’s short battery life – she and the other robots can’t go more than 400 steps away from the charging trees that they live in before returning to recharge. When our hero, whose battery life is vastly greater, offers to carry Camphor away from the village so she can achieve her dreams of travel and exploration, a problem arises: there are exactly 122 robots here, and the trees of the village are made from the union of two robots, which then bears two fruits that grow into new robots. Camphor’s departure threatens to upset this perfect symmetry, and when the rest of the community tries to stop her from leaving, I felt a particular nameless emotion that anyone who’s ever tried to leave the small town where they were born surely knows.

She’s better at decyphering irrational behavior than I am tbh.

Each chapter features a new robot city founded on a different principle, which sets the focus and theme for that arc. But at the same time, Alethia’s amnesiac protagonist is also growing and changing. While in the first chapter she merely observes and questions, in the second she displays something akin to altruism, offering to help another robot achieve her goals without any direct benefit to herself. Perhaps she is motivated by the thought of any goal at all, as she seems to have none herself besides wandering and observing.

A question and an answer.

But in the third chapter that changes. In the third city, an apparent homage to Al Feldstein and Joe Orlando’s classic “Judgement Day” comic, the robots are divided into two roles: those whose bodies excrete crystalline silicon, and those who harvest it, painfully, from the former. Upon her arrival, a harvester bot asks her if she has come to evaluate their city for efficiency, which she immediately agrees to; suddenly she has a goal, a purpose. As you might guess if you’re familiar with “Judgement Day”, the city does not pass her inspection. It’s an interesting contrast, however. While the inspector in “Judgement Day” rejects that robot society on moral grounds, Alethia’s protagonist condemns this city’s caste system on criteria of efficiency – though it seems like an ethical analysis may also be forming in the back of her mind.

An odd couple.

In this way, she is at odds with every other robot she meets. The ant robots, the tree robots, and the two-caste robots all exhibit strong emotions, romantic attachments, and irrational behavior. One city she visits is actually powered by its inhabitants’ anger. Another, through a testing system that reinforces faulty logic, seems to be designed to make its inhabitants act irrationally! But our hero’s expression rarely changes and most of her speech is, well, kind of robotic. Is she a less advanced model than the others she encounters? A more advanced one? Is it a symptom of her amnesia, or an incomplete repair job? These questions have yet to be answered, but the contrast between her pure logic and the frequent illogic of those she meets creates a perfect lens to examine the strange and imaginative scenarios Stipetic has wrought.

This moment is still a bit of a head-scratcher for me.

I’m still not sure if the longer arc of this story is about the development of its unnamed protagonist or if it’s building to a greater revelation about the world itself. But each stop along that journey so far has used its otherworldly robots to address issues of bodily autonomy, small-town angst, institutional racism(?), mutual support in queer communities, and failing educational systems, which means no matter how odd its setting is, it’s ultimately a deeply relatable and relevant work.

5 comments on “Alethia

  1. This comic is good! Thanks for turning me onto it.

    I actually read Chapter 3 as a misogyny metaphor as opposed to a racism metaphor. While the centerpiece of division of labor inclines one more towards racism (e.g. slavery propping up a society) and all of the robots are seemingly coded as women, it felt purposeful to me that she mentioned it is *half the population*, a piece of wording that’s often used in reference to patriarchal oppression.

    The same dehumanization that lends to a racism reading is ambiguous enough to point towards a misogyny reading. The scoffing and refusal to believe that the harvestees are equal, much like how men see women as subhuman, almost another species. Women often perform the heavy emotional lifting and housework (cooking/cleaning/child rearing) that greases the wheels for society, and men harvest their resources without reciprocation.

    It also specifically says “The outer casing is used to distinguish the two classes of robot”. That reads to me as a criticism on gendered society and the artificial separation of “women’s clothes” and “men’s clothes”.

    Which means that the ending, while still kind of confusing, then becomes her symbolically forcing the men (in this analogy) to pick up the work that women normally do, the unappealing housework and painful emotional work, if they want to continue the efficiency with which their society has been running so far. They can’t just delegate it onto more women because the manpower simply doesn’t exist. Kinda makes me think of those women’s protests where dudes were left going “oh god, how do I fry an egg now that my wife’s not here”.

    I think it still suffers from offering an overly simple solution to a complex problem, a solution that doesn’t have a real-world equivalent. We can’t just stop making women and force men to acclimate, nor would it be a practical solution even if we could. But I think beyond that, the commentary is on the arbitrary separation of gender. I think a more effective solution, instead of beating up the conveyor belt, would’ve been to symbolically destroy the outside carapaces that separated the two castes.

    It’s still kind of incoherent, but it made it a little better for me.

  2. i loved this comic! first one in awhile that I read all in one go. it kept me interested, it’s different from a lot of stuff I’ve read, i love the tone and mood of it, i love how focused it is. i like your question about whether she’s more or less advanced than the other robots she meets. i guess it depends on where she came from? or maybe it’s both. i like that this comic gives you some good stuff to think about without getting … idk preachy or too intense about it? even though some of the themes are obvious, they don’t feel tired – like the anger fueled town. and all the characters! are great! good shit

  3. also, i forgot and need to mention that the weirdness is a big plus, very important draw for me. maybe i dont read enough weird shit, but for me this comic had a “weird” tone and feel in a very good way. fresh and weird and doesn’t feel the need to explain why it’s like that.

  4. Philip K Dick’s books and the degree of optimism in them usually correspond to when in his life they were written. Despite the bleak subject matter and seeming futility of “The World Jones Made”, the ending is on quite an optimistic note.

    Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and even Ubik which both came later still had some scope for hope going forward at their ends but by the time of A Maze of Death, it really was as bleak an ending as you could see in a book once the implications registered.

    Glad to see your new review and keep up the good work!

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