Alex Woolfson’s Artifice

woolfson-artificeI’m not sure how I ran across mention of Alex Woolfson’s Artifice, but I did. It originated as a Web comic, and what I saw of it interested me enough that I bought the hard copy.

Deacon is a prototype android soldier — D3763. He’s so advanced that he’s referred to as an “artificial person.” He was developed by a corporation that uses him and his fellows for enforcement — whatever the powers that be consider necessary. In this case, the enforcement involved eliminating a team of scientists in a newly established colony. Somehow, they’ve figured out some corporate secrets that they aren’t supposed to know. The mission is a success, up to a certain point — just as the team is about to leave after killing the colonists, Deacon’s sensors discover another person in the vicinity — and it seems the colonists had booby-trapped the landing field. Deacon is the only survivor of his team, and he discovers the surviving colonist — Jeff Linnell, nineteen years old, and an outcast. Jeff, it seems, is gay, which isn’t — or wasn’t — something his fellows approved of.

The story is related in a series of flashbacks, as Deacon is being debriefed by robopsychologist Clarice Maven: the corporation wants answers.

The basic premise here is a science-fiction trope that goes all the way back to Isaac Asimov’s Robot stories — how smart does an artificial intelligence have to be to be considered human? Woolfson’s script is, on its face, fairly straightforward: the story is related matter-of-factly, which perfectly fits Deacon’s personality (or what we know of it), but one becomes aware that not only is Deacon very smart, he’s dodging Dr. Maven’s questions. She becomes aware of it, too, and as the questions become more pointed, she starts to lose her detachment. It’s a thoroughly absorbing game of cat and mouse surrounding the “real” story.

Inside this duel of wits is a charming love story between two outsiders, both considered by their societies as “less than.” There’s a lot of innocence and vulnerability on both sides here, and the whole thing works. The question, of course, is “Can an artificial person actually love someone?” Woolfson provides the answer in a plot twist which I’m not going to tell you — that would be a major spoiler — but I’ll give you a hint: it’s about trust.

Winona Nelson’s art suits the story perfectly. Her style is a fairly abstract comic realism, clean and open, and she’s built a lot of expressiveness into the characters, sometimes very subtly. She’s done a little bit with layouts to save us from the repetition of frame-follows-frame, and the whole visual narrative is smooth and supports the dialogue.

There is, of course, a political element to this story, not only in the relationship between Deacon and Jeff, but in the whole idea of the predominance of corporations and their essential “law unto themselves” world view, but Woolfson doesn’t hit us over the head with it. It’s there. You just have to pay attention.

I’m really trying to find some cons on this one, but I can’t. It’s still available online, and Woolfson has started another Web comic, Young Protectors, that looks to be worth checking out.

(AMW Comics, 2013)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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