Synthetics (#1) – Julian Darius

3 out of 5

An interestingly tonally muted anthology that takes place in the I’m-just-discovering-it Martian Lit universe – a digital comics / book world in which Martians exist “cloaked” from us, occasionally drifting down to Earth to check our shit out.

But back on Mars land, technology has evolved to produce tons and tons of “synthetics” – robots designed for particular purposes, with AI evolved, depending on the model, to ‘feel’ – and this initial issue breaks down three different viewpoints of a momentary revolution of robot kind.

The art (Steven Legge, Andre Siregar) is incredibly solid, going for a somewhat generic Martian design (multi-limbed, conehead brain-pans) but giving the race a sense of life; the robot looks, meanwhile, are excitingly varied and functional seeming, with more flourish for the ‘bots depending on their purpose.

The first story, for example, watches the revolution from the perspective of two opposed ‘gladiator bots,’ who are designed – as could be supposed – for arena battles.  While the whole wanton destruction angle (i.e. humans / Martians love watching other people fight; let’s give the robots pain receptors so it’s more exciting) isn’t new commentary, writer Julian Darius shifts the story into an interesting grey area during the revolt, not so much pondering manifest destiny vs. destiny by design – another normal AI trope – but studying the progression of a mindset grappling with tunnel vision that is aware of life outside of the tunnel.  It was hard to tell how darkly humored the story was meant to be – something that carries over to each tale – but the oddly straight-faced ending makes it seem like this is meant to be more intelligentsia than acerbic.  I’m not sure if the ending resonates, exactly, but I liked that it was unexpected.

The second story flips, somewhat, to a Martian perspective during the same time period.  While we’re still studying inter-robot dynamics – appliances revolting; robots who side with the humans – the story delves more into the odd trust that we form with those around us, and the attachments / assumptions we make as a result.  This extends beyond human / robot… and so while this was, in a way, the ‘simplest’ story in terms of focus (it’s not splitting time informing us of the revolution itself or the after-effects, rather zeroing in on character and contemplation), it felt the most fully realized, without the blank tone unseating my immersion.

Finally, we hear “Builder-1” recite his progress from construction bot through shedding his “slave name” post the event and becoming sort of a cultural scientist.  Tinged with the cold logic of robot-kind, Builder walks us through a brief history of the robot settlement for the revels that turns into a fully-fleshed society with castes and religion and etcetera.  Once more, it’s unclear how much of this is satire and / or speculative or both, but it’s fascinatingly thoughtful nonetheless, and, in a way, the lack of direction with the vibe that I keep citing gives the series an openness that allows you to make your own judgments.

While there might not’ve been anything in Synthetics #1 that exactly floored me, it absolutely has me buying into the Martian Lit universe.  This is a world that’s worth exploring, and I’m happy that it seems like there are talented creatives wanting to take me on that journey.