When we think about “science fiction”, we typically think of two things: cerebral scifi, like the Twilight Zone, which uses speculative settings and concepts to delve deeper into the human condition; and pulp scifi, like Star Trek, which uses speculative settings and concepts as an excuse to blow things up. Sometimes a writer will try to achieve both, occasionally one thinks it’s the other, and rarely a work will effectively unite the two aspects of the genre, but overall, this dichotomy of “thinky” scifi and “explodey” scifi tends to remain unquestioned. What would – what could – science fiction that didn’t fit into either category even look like?
Exhibit A: Ivy Jane’s Computer Love. Set in a future where genetically-engineered monsters called rats have overrun much of the Earth, the heroes of the story are… a plucky farmboy who finds himself on the front lines of the battle for humanity? A grizzled veteran with one last shot to defeat the rats once and for all? A nuclear family fighting to survive when their home is destroyed? A maverick scientist who has the answer if only someone would listen? Nope, nope, nope. CL is about a bunch of gay queers living in Antarctica and being homosexual with each other.
That’s right: the epic struggle for Earth is, for the most part, just the backdrop for a character drama of surprising depth and scope. While the war has changed the world in dramatic ways – not least of which is the creation of the climate-controlled Antarctic city of Arx Nova where the characters live – Computer Love is not an explodey work.
But neither does it fall into the thinky scifi trap of cold analysis or cynical moralism, using its events as parables for the reader. There’s no lesson, no grand “what if?” in CL’s premise (thank fucking god, tbh). Instead, it’s completely character-driven and grounded in the pathos of its cast.
Why write a story like this? Ask yourself that. How many times have you looked up coffee shop AUs on AO3? How excited are you for the new Dragonball Z that’s all about the characters living normal lives? For many of us, the trappings of genre fiction are little more than window dressing for a cast of characters that we love dearly – especially given the tendency for the stories themselves to be formulaic and repetitive. Computer Love’s choice to leave the setting as just that – window dressing – and give the bulk of the screentime to dialogue, character development, and romance is therefore a wise one.
Of course that’s a bit flippant: the setting isn’t merely window dressing! It informs the characters on a fundamental level, and it would be impossible to remove them from that setting without changing them drastically. Computer Love follows the lives of a fairly large cast of homos in Arx Nova, doing pretty normal homo things: dealing with being undocumented, having body dysphoria, going to bathhouses, licking each other while wearing fursuits – you get the idea. But that a character served in her town’s militia fighting rats, or that another has a wifi adapter installed in her head, doesn’t merely serve to remind us that it’s, like, the future – it helps us to gain a better understanding of the characters themselves.
If you asked me to name the protagonist of Computer Love, I would be hard pressed, but I would probably pick Fenette, the strange girl from a rich and famous family whose body is more machine than flesh after an accident years ago. Isolated, used, and controlled by her family, Fen has little understanding of the futuristic world or the culture of Antarctica, but she finds support and agency in the connections she begins to make with characters, like the broke and depressed Lucy or the gregarious and polyamorous Fi.
These connections aren’t without their complications, of course, and much of Fen’s personal arc revolves around her learning how to have relationships, dealing with confusion and self-doubt, and coming to an understanding of her own identity. Spoilers: she’s probably not as straight as she thought.
Ask a CL fan what they like about this comic, and a common answer you’ll get is “girls being gay together”. Hell yeah, am I right? But what I like best about CL is how much it loves its trans characters. Ivy uses the speculative nature of the comic to create things we wish we had: artificial genitalia, faster hormone therapy, hair lengthening, etc. Even cultural reactions to trans people are different: adorable Hazel was able to transition as a young child, and was supported by her moms. These are nice things to think about; if it’s a power fantasy, so be it. Trans people need more power fantasies anyway.
The beginning is a bit rough as the story finds its footing, like many webcomics. Unlike many webcomics, it does so quickly, and by only page 30 or so it’s clear that the author has gotten a strong hold on the story she wants to tell and how to tell it. Before that, the tone, pacing, and panel layouts are a bit hit-or-miss, but its hard to penalize a comic too much for what some other comics never outgrow.
And I do find Fi’s trans reveal to be a bit cumbersome. Fi clearly struggles with dysphoria in a major way, and when she comes out to her new roommate, John, this seems to be at the forefront of how she sees herself: talking about how her parents wouldn’t approve of how she dresses, and coming out by way of offering John her birth name instead of just saying “I’m trans” – it’s the kind of scene you’d expect to see in, like, Transamerica. It’s incongruous with the way transness is upheld in the rest of the story, and in a later chapter Fi even speaks of her parents fondly (which could be her lying, of course. Who wants to bring up heavy stuff at a party?). But then, this coming out scene also takes place during Computer Love’s early rough patch, so perhaps it shouldn’t be taken as representative of the comic as a whole.
Ivy Jane has created a work of science fiction utterly unlike anything I’ve read before – a scifi slice-of-life story, regular people living in a future Earth. If there is a grand question in Computer Love’s speculation, it’s a trans person asking “What if the world were just, like, a little less hostile to me and my friends?” And frankly, that’s a question that genre fiction needs to ask more.
Final verdict: This comic is a favorite among trans communist furries. That should probably tell you enough to decide whether or not it’s for you.