Queer Comic Review: O Human Star

February 12, 2014 in inQueery

OHS-CH1-coverAs a genre, science fiction is essentially defined by its ability to explore the unknown. It’s a chance to give an answer to the “what-ifs” that inevitably accompany every kind of progress, and to imagine societies and technologies that lay beyond even our furthest advances. With all this potential, one of the most interesting settings to explore through this future is actually our present. The potential advances of the future can easily throw current injustices into stark relief, and countless authors use veiled references to contemporary issues to add color to their imagined societies.

These stories are well-intentioned, to be sure. Different contexts often make it easier for readers to better understand that if it’s wrong to discriminate against blue people, it follows that it’s just as wrong to persecute against the more mundane skin colors of our present. But these metaphorical prejudices often come with an unintentional cost. When you write a grand space epic about the advances of robot rights as an allegory for queerness, you’re still effectively erasing the queer experience. It doesn’t matter how progressive your future society may be towards robots if you don’t leave room for currently disenfranchised readers a chance to see themselves reflected.

Which is why stories like O Human Star are so important.

O Human Star is a webcomic by Blue Delliquanti that is, at its core, about robots and relationships. We follow Alistar Sterling from the exact moment of his death to his sudden and unexpected rebirth as an AI housed in an advanced robotic shell. Thrown into a world that has become completely alien to him in the decades since his passing, Sterling must reconnect with his partner Brendan Pinsky in order to understand what has happened both to the world and what has happened to him specifically. Further complicating matters is Sulla, the teenage girl originally programmed to resemble Sterling who has since developed her own distinct personality, not to mention her own gender identity.

Through these characters’ interactions, we’re able to glance into the brave new world of synthetics that has so thoroughly changed the world Sterling once knew. The comic explores the possibilities and social implications of artificial intelligence with the same exploratory glee that characterizes much of the great speculative fiction of the past. But as Delliquanti probes into the social stigmas of robotics, she simultaneously illustrates how the realities of queer existence permeate the characters’ past and present. In the midst of a reverse murder mystery set in an unfamiliar future, the characters still have to grapple with internalized homophobia, the politics of “passing,” and the terrifying and universal experience of trying to impress a cute stranger.

The sci-fi elements of identity are interwoven with the relatable constants that come with being non-conforming in an often unforgiving society. You can’t separate Sterling’s fear of being outed from his reassurance that Sulla looks like a “normal” human, and you can’t separate her being trans from the fact that she’s disappointed that he meant in terms of robotics instead of her gender. Instead of replacing the contemporary queer anxieties with the more fantastical synthetic ones, Delliquanti compounds them upon each other. This simple inclusion is enough to change the implications of the entire setting, and addresses one of the biggest problems with the more allegorical stories: the complexity of human identity is rarely neatly simplified by the advance of technology, but rather made even more complicated.

Of course, while the story excels in its human (and nonhuman) interaction, its actual futuristic setting deserves an equally glowing mention. The future Delliquanti paints is incredible. The questions raised by the advances in AI are fascinating and the small changes in lifestyle brought on by new technology are well thought out and subtle. In exploring how the world might change with the introduction of cybernetics, Delliquanti manages to capture the mundane awe of a future completely accustomed to incredible advances. Synthetic characters consume fructose wafers perfectly formulated for waste-free energy with all the significance of a pop-tart. Characters have long conversations about the mundanities of everyday life while traveling in cars guided by rails on the sprawling city highways. There are monumental advances in the background of most panels, but realistically, most of the characters remain focused on the immediate details of their personal lives.

The comic is still ongoing, with the actual story just beginning to take off (one of the biggest questions of the early updates has been answered just a few pages ago). If you’re worried about getting attached to an ongoing comic, rest assured that a consistent update schedule and clever pacing help keep even the more subdued updates engaging. And although the promise of more mysteries solved on the horizon are tempting, the hope that the characters will be able to work through their own relationship and identity issues is almost more of an incentive to keep reading. It’s a little hard not to hope this unlikely family sorts everything out.

O Human Star usually updates Mondays and Thursdays on its website, with individual chapters available for purchase at Delliquanti’s store. Due to some adult themes and explicit content, it has an intended audience of 16+.

Ellen Perry is a Guest contributor at InQueery and a volunteer at the Pacific Center.