An Android Awakes is a beast of a thing and I use that word deliberately. Thing. I’m not sure what it is trying to be, and I’m not 100% convinced the authors know either. I do admire its ambiguity of format however. It is definitely not a graphic novel, although some of the story-telling is achieved visually. It is not a collection of short stories. It is not an illustrated novel. It is all of these and yet none. What it is, most definitely, is a clever and satirical comment on writing, and how computers, algorithms and creativity are becoming increasingly inter-linked.
Android Writer PD121928 is part of the Android Publishing Program. To replicate a writer’s life, his wife has been forcibly removed and he lives in solitude with an allowance for drugs and state prostitutes. Having just had his novel The Eating of Citizen Kane rejected, he now has 14 more attempts to get a story accepted for the program or he will be deactivated.
Can one of his characters and their story save him?
The creators of this world are writer Mike French and artist Karl Brown. French is a novelist (the award nominated The Ascent of Isaac Steward) while Brown is a comic artist and illustrator with a penchant for heavy metal. And it shows. What they have produced is a prose story of the aforementioned creative android, who must have a story published or face deactivation – death! The submissions our protagonist writes are presented as a series of inter-connected short stories, some with comment from their creator, some without. The first third, roughly, of the book has a page of prose accompanied by a page of line drawing. The style is very busy and complex; black and white, mostly line drawing, often with overlapping elements. Bulky and pneumatic characters. A style reminiscent of 2000AD and Heavy Metal magazine. Sometimes the visuals add to the scene described – especially the more surreal imagery, but often it is a representation of the scene. As the book progresses, the art to prose ratio becomes less and less. But occasionally, there are pages of art with no prose, no text. Which for me confused matters. While it was a one-to-one pattern in the early stages it was clear what this book was. As the pattern falls away, you become less sure about the intent. Is it deliberate omission of art to focus on the prose? Not sure.
The stories within An Android Awakes themselves are all inter-connected. Mostly futuristic science fiction, with plenty of (odd) contemporary references – Spandau Ballet! There are running motifs and ideas, such as the mockingbird, certain characters (The Great Explorer Umberto Amunsden), running gags (The Amazing Arctic Sinking Man), locusts, Hawking Particles and more. There are subtle and clear nods to influences too: the reverse Voight-Kampff test for example. Each story is extraordinary in its own way. The characters in these stories seem to have an effect on the author and how he (it?) perceives existence. Is he exploring his own mortality through his fiction? Is he simply doing what all writers do?
I liked some of the stories for what they were; some of them had cool ideas such as the ocean in the sky. The writing is fine and very readable. There’s a certain noir-ish feel to the style. The surrealism sat well with me too. However, I’m not sure about the framing device. The whole android writer idea is a good one, and fiction writers probably relate to it. The art isn’t for me, but others will love it I’m sure. Technically very good, but very busy looking. I wonder if French had presented me with a collection of short stories with no art and no framing device, whether or not I would have enjoyed it more. I wonder if I missed the connections. Maybe it’s too clever for its own good? The format (had it remained consistent) was original, refreshing and different enough to keep my interest. But these thoughts are the biggest problem. If I’d enjoyed the story and the short stories for what they are, my mind wouldn’t have wandered to these issues.
As with all good science fiction, the underlying message of An Android Awakes is sound: what happens when creativity is taken away from humanity. Throw in a liberal dose of time travel, religion, sex, angels and death too. So, there’s a lot to enjoy within the brave pages of An Android Awakes and I highly commend French and Brown and their creativity. There is plenty of imagination and wit to revel in. Generally quite cool and fresh. Others might take more from it than I did. But I’m delighted that it exists.
Title: An Android Awakes
Publisher: Elsewhen Press
Reviewer: Ian J Simpson