Which way leads home?

Alastair Sterling wakes up in an artificial body 16 years after his death. Brendan Pinsky, his former partner, copes with feeling for him. World-curious Sulla has to watch her every step. Main characters in Blue Delliquanti’s O Human Star ask themselves the question appearing in the title of this text while trying to figure out their place in the world.

The world didn’t develop the way Alastair and Brendan predicted. Sure, their main goal was accomplished – the machines finally acquired their own independent identities and intelligence – but they were not welcomed as warlmy as the inventors suspected. Sixteen years after Sterling’s death it appears that robots may be a part of human society as long as they don’t show their „roboticness” and resemble humans. They can be truly themselves only among other robots, in places where no one expects them to imitate anyone. At least that’s how Sulla – the first robot to look almost fully human, which identity was based on dying Alastair’s memories copied by Brendan – describes Alastair the situation.

It’s hard to tell if sixteen years is a long time or not – on the one hand in technology world it may feel like centuries, which is why machine’s presence in humans’ lives in the presented future isn’t surprising. On the other hand, from human perspective it may seem to be not enough time to accept quickly occuring changes. In O Human Star we can see a vision of future still being shaped – a collision of a passing away world with the new one, which functions still by the old rules that seem to be more and more inadequate to describe and understand it.

Alastair’s character shows well how hard it is to catch up with the changes when one can still feel the weight of their past; the confrontation of these two orders causes more and more severe inner conflicts. Since he met Brendan and their strictly professional relationship became something more Alistair’s life sped up and started to change so fast that he was forced to do something he tried to avoid – to make binding decisions. Not only concerning his work, but also his relationship with Brendan. All the expectations and roles he was supposed to live up to (to become inventor-celebrity, their relationship to become public, to become well-organised entrepreneur) which he never wanted to meet started to cause extreme fear.

Sulla has to face very similar problems, which appear outside of her home, where the teenager faces a society demanding clear declarations in many life aspects she only starts discovering her attitude to. Each one of us passed (or passes, or is still to pass) this period of life, when everything is of great significance and the world is felt so strongly that it overwhelms, but she has so many questions and she can only ask Alastair who is in similar situation. As the first machine looking like human she doesn’t fit any of those categories fully; she was designed, but tries to find her own way, regain subjectivity which was taken away from her by the sole fact of being created; she tries to escape Alastair’s identity to create her own, but he is the only one who can understand her, even in the matter of her emotions and need of acceptance.

It seems to me that this is the main advantage of O Human Star – the fact that the world which may seem unfamiliar is in fact a continuation of the one we can see in the retrospective part of the comic. It’s the Sterlings enterprise inventions that shaped the future, even if it may seem completely strange to their original creator. People however stayed the same, that’s why the city area where robots can freely meet is ignored by people and becomes something like a ‘bad neighbourhood’.

The necessity to fit maintream canon shapes the reality so strongly that it becomes internalized by the robots themselves and becomes something, in their opinion, worth aspiring to, but still contradictory to their nature. The fact that only the richest may afford human resemblance creates social hierarchy where the appearance defines status and marks the borders of freedom. Sulla looks almost human-like, so she can move around the city without any problem, but other robots, who cannot afford it, become excluded. For human teenagers looking like a machine is a part of rebellion. What they do rebel against adults shows very well how their reality is organized – in this case the challenging element is human appearance, which is perceived as a norm.

Delliquanti’s comic maintains the element of trangressing common ways of thinking, which science fiction often misses. Blade Runner’s replicants who question the sense of marking what exactly means ‘humanity’ or gender-shifting inhabitants of planet Gethen from Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness – these are the examples of the world created from roots, not necesarily having anything in common with ours. Of course, we can speak of science fiction in terms of metaphor – it’s basically funded on metaphores – but it’s hard to keep the element of queerness and struggle to create one’s own space where they don’t have to replace their own beliefs with some dictated ones.

That’s why in Delliquanti’s future it’s harder to be an individual than it was before. Two narrative levels, connected by Alastair, become a picture of how hard it is to face memories, experiences and obstacles in life – and how it affects other people. Fear of being judged – in terms of accomplishements, identity and sexuality – becomes even stronger for him in the future where he no longer has any safe space where he could be himself. In this strange reality he seems to feel endangered all the time. The past shapes his days and becomes a reason why he has to face them. Anonymous in the past, now he is a legend, especially among robots; his relationship with Brendan is still a fresh memory, but for Brendan himself it is something that emerges from the past he thought he worked out; Sulla’s presence makes Alastair wonder who he really is and who he wants to be.

Seemingly obvious truth that home is where are people accepting each other no matter who they are, in O Human Star regains its dynamic. Each of the main characters realises that home is not something given, but it needs to be acquired, created and is always changeable, . Alastair, reborn in the unfamiliar world, realises that home is not a place to escape, but to come back to; Brendan – that not everything can always be under control; Sulla comes to think acceptance doesn’t originate in fitting to others’ expectations. For all of them the moment when Alastair appears at the Brendan’s house door becomes a rememberance that the world doesn’t need to look like it looks, and crossing common conventions and ways of thinking gives hope for something better, not exclusive, but inclusive.

Illustrations source: B. Delliquanti, O Human Star, https://ohumanstar.com/ [access: 19.06.2019].
When writing this text, Ellen Perry’s review was extremely helpful: http://pacificcenter.org/queer-comic-review-o-human-star.