“Upgrade Soul” by Ezra Claytan Daniels

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There have been countless in science fiction using advances in cloning technology to ask questions about human identity. Science fiction has also used different forms of humanoids or aliens to explore race and racial identity. Upgrade Soul merges these two with a unique take on this subgenere of science fiction. The author, Ezra Claytan Daniels, won the Dwayne McDuffie Award for diverse representation in the comics medium.

The book starts with Hank and Molly Nonnar, an elderly couple, deciding to undergo a radical genetic procedure designed to “upgrade” their bodies by removing the effects of aging, stress, and trauma from their cells. The procedure is only partially successful. The Via lab used clones to create the new bodies, but the clones only developed to the physical stage of a fetus. The new bodies – known as Manuela and Henry – possess all of Molly and Hank’s memories, as well as heightened mental and physical abilities, but look like overgrown potatoes. Meanwhile, the original Molly and Hank look like their original selves, but are physically and mentally weakened.

As is often the case in these stories, there is a link between the two such that the “copy” cannot survive without the “original.” This forces the characters to ask which one “deserves” to survive. The “original” has the body, but the “copy” has the mind. This is a classic mind-body problem (see my essay in After the Avengers). Where does the human soul truly reside? In the corporal brain or in the accumulated memories?

For Hank, the dilemma has a racial dimension because so much of his identity is tied to his African-American heritage, yet his “copy” Henry lacks a race. There’s a particularly compelling conversation in which Henry scolds Hank for limiting his identity to a “label.” Yet, we as the readers get to see Henry’s past as someone who strove for African-American representation in pop culture and know that race is more than a label to him. There’s even a debate about representation in pop culture within the comic (I especially appreciate the jab at Kurtzman and Orci, the team behind the Star Trek reboots).

Admittedly, the story does require a bit of suspension of disbelief, particularly when it comes to the extremes the Via company goes to mislead Hank and Molly. It’s hard to believe that a company could actually expect a nondisclosure agreement to cover the types of abuse that occurred in the lab. Then again, the rogue science corporation is pretty much a necessary conceit for this type of story. Scientists held to peer review wouldn’t get away with any of this.

Packaging Upgrade Soul as a graphic novel seems like a particularly appropriate choice given the emphasis on physicality and appearance. I doubt the story would have had nearly the impact as a novella without the images of Molly and Hank’s new bodies. Seeing their misshapen forms underscores the physical deformity and makes it more challenging for readers to passively accept them as “human.” Instead, Upgrade Soul requires viewers to consciously choose to accept the new beings as human.

That said, I’d recommend whoever does the penciling on this comic to increase the spacing between words. In a few places, the spaces seemed almost nonexistent, causing me to puzzle over the presence of a hitherto never before mentioned “tome” (“to me”).

Overall, this is one of those comics that I feel comfortable recommending to fans of science fiction who aren’t necessarily fans of graphic novels. Upgrade Soul feels like a short story that might appear in Locus, but works better because of the artwork.

The collected edition of Upgrade Soul comes out on September 18, 2018.

[Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.]

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