Robots, rights & moral panics: Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn’s graphic novel Alex + Ada, the 2016 Special Prometheus Award winner

The Libertarian Futurist Society’s Appreciation series continues with review-essays about  fiction that has won Special Prometheus Awards. Here’s an appreciation of the graphic novel Alex + Ada, the 2016 Special Prometheus Award winner.

By William H. Stoddard

Libertarians describing their legal and political goals often use the original wording of the Declaration of Independence, referring to rights to life, liberty, and property. The order is important: on one hand, property rights grow out of the liberty to use and appropriate material objects without interference from others; on the other, liberty rights implement the right to life, seen not as a passive state of endurance but as an active process of self-creation and self-sustenance.

A central question for libertarian thought is which beings have rights to life and liberty? Libertarians influenced by Ayn Rand’s idea that freedom is a requirement for rational beings tend to think that every rational being has rights: rather than applying only to human beings, they would extend to such science fictional entities as aliens, enhanced animals —and robots.

In Alex + Ada, a graphic novel in three volumes (published in 2013-2015 by Image Comics), artist Jonathan Luna and writer Sarah Vaughn explore the question of robot rights, not through abstract philosophical analysis, or through a story of political conflict, but in an intensely personal narrative.

Alex, one of their title characters, is a young man with a respectable job and a circle of friends, whose recent romantic breakup has left him discontented, but without the initiative to change things.

On his birthday, he gets a call from his wealthy grandmother, who has acquired an android companion and is very happy with him, finding him a devoted servant. On a whim, she buys an android for Alex, one that’s in female form, which he names Ada (likely a reference to Ada Lovelace’s pioneering ideas about computer programming). After some struggle with himself, he decides to keep her — and that’s where the conflict begins.

Aristotle wrote, in defense of slavery, that some human beings are “slaves by nature.” In fact, it takes harsh punishments and indoctrination to get human beings to tolerate slavery; an ancient Roman saying was that a man who wanted to find his enemies need only look at his slaves. But the androids in Luna and Vaughn’s world do appear to be slaves by nature. Ada expresses no preferences to Alex, and isn’t meant to; she says she’s happy to do whatever he enjoys. When Alex laughs, she laughs with him. She thanks him for simply ordering her to feed herself (these “androids” appear to have a biological metabolism). She’s passively alive — one news sequence shows that androids can be killed — but she lacks any inner capacity for liberty, even at the basic level of doing what she needs to do to survive.

And Alex, unlike his grandmother, is deeply dissatisfied with this. Having a slave isn’t what he wants. His dissatisfaction actually motivates him to take initiative: He guesses that the android in the news sequence had the inner liberty that he misses in Ada, makes contact with a community of humans and volitional androids that know how to grant that liberty, and arranges it for Ada.

At this point, Luna and Vaughn bring up a striking idea. Philosophers talk about the concept of “qualia” or “raw feels”: the redness of red, the bitterness of coffee, the hurtfulness of bodily injury. After awakening, Ada goes about exposing herself to physical sensations — even to the smell of a pair of Alex’s dirty socks! She tells Alex that she has encountered those things before, but she has never seen or smelled or felt them. In Alex + Ada, freedom is tied to sensation, apparently because both are forms of subjectivity: ways of having a point of view.

But this change in Ada’s nature entangles both characters in larger conflicts, because the story’s future setting is one where political conflict surrounds free-willed androids. On one hand, androids are property, and valuable property. On the other, free willed androids are the object of human fears, growing partly out of an incident where an experimental artificial intelligence killed several people; the android in the news sequence was physically torn apart when it was discovered to be acting autonomously. Luna and Vaughn show their characters being caught up in a moral panic about androids, in which their courage and loyalty is tested.

Alex + Ada has obvious applicability to real world issues, from slavery to irrational fears and mob violence. But it also uses a science-fictional counterfactual assumption to explore a question that doesn’t arise in the real world: If there were rational beings that were slaves by nature — as human beings are not — so that treating them as property wasn’t wronging them by taking away the liberty for which they lacked the natural capacity, would that be desirable?

Or would it be better to endow them with that capacity, and accept their exercise of liberty? Luna and Vaughn make it clear what Alex chooses, and invite the reader to sympathize with him. And that’s what makes Alex + Ada not only good science fiction, but libertarian in spirit.

Awards history note: Alex + Ada is the third graphic novel to be recognized in the Prometheus Awards – following author Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta, the 2006 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner; and author L. Neil Smith and artist Scott Bieser’s The Probability Broach: The Graphic Novel, a 2005 Special Prometheus Award winner.

Biographical note: Jonathan Luna, a well-known Filipino-American comics artist-writer, has worked on many comics and graphic novels, often with his brother Joshua Luna.

Comic artist Jonathan Luna (Creative Commons license)

Among them: Ultra, Spider-Woman: Origin, The Sword (including Fire, Water, Earth and Air) and Girls (including Conception, Emergence, Survival and Extinction).

With writer Sarah Vaughn, Jonathan Luna created Alex + Ada and Eternal Empire. He also published the hardcover graphic novelStar Bright and the Looking Glass in 2012.

* Read the introductory essay of the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade-plus history, that was launched in 2019 on the 40thanniversary of the awards and continues today.

* Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to all published appreciation-reviews of past winners.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the  international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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