Karel Čapek, Robots, and Queer Family (Queering SF #23)
“You still stand watch, O human star, burning without a flicker, perfect flame, bright and resourceful spirit.”
In 1920, the Czech writer Karel Čapek (he/him) wrote R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). In the play, he used the Czech word “robota” to describe the beings created to work in the factories. Robota means “worker” or “slave,” but has since come to signify an artificial being. The factory creates these robota, which are synthetic beings from organic material. So, they were not metallic or mechanical beings, but made of artificial flesh and blood. These robota also have intelligence and can think for themselves. Although initially content to work in the factories for humans, they eventually rebel and take over.
Arguably, Franz Kafka’s (he/him) 1915 short story, “The Metamorphosis” gained greater recognition, they deal with similar issues, namely the alienation of modern life and work, and the exploitation of people’s labor. In Kafka’s story, the alienated Gregor Samsa discovers he has turned into a beetle. In Čapek’s play, the alienated robots rebel and take over. Both, in short, address some of the changes wrought by modern society.
In 2011, comic writer Blue Dellaquanti (they/them) began work on their self-published webcomic, O Human Star. In the very last page of the comic, Dellaquanti provides the (above) quote from Čapek that became the title of Dellaquanti’s comic. In an interview, Dellaquanti says that the origins for the comic came in a dream. They began with the basic premise of a man who wakes up in a synthetic body, and went from there.
The comic ran from 2012–2020, with weekly updates, sometimes a single page. OHS takes on multiple issues, from autonomy for synthetic beings, to “passing” for queer folx and for synthetics, to the exploitation of labor, and others. Read O Human Star, and then read it again. You’ll find even more the second time. But, at its center it is about three individuals: Alistair Sterling, Brendan Pinsky, and Sulla. The copy is drawn in three basic color palettes, blue (2021), orange/pink (2001), and green (2019ish). Al is a robotics genius, laboring away in his small lab. He hires an assistant, right out of MIT, who is Brendan. They get off to a rocky start. Like the robota in R.U.R., Brendan is not comfortable with his position or the work he is asked to do by Al. Instead of rebellion, Brendan humanizes Al, and they become lovers. After Al dies of an autoimmune disorder, the devastated Brendan tries to recreate Al from a memory recording he had made when Al was on his deathbed. The resurrected Al, however, asks to transition to a girl, and Brendan helps her with her transition to Sulla.
In some sense, OHS illustrates the differences of coming out and being a queer person in three different historical moments in time. Al was born in 1961, and he had a difficult relationship with his father. Because of his past, because of the time in which he grew up, Al cannot be open about his relationship with Brendan, and it is a source of friction. That tension exacerbates Al’s autoimmune condition, and it ultimately causes his death. In other words, his reluctance to be open about his relationship with Brendan kills him. Brendan, though, was born in the mid-80s, and so is much more open and comfortable about his sexuality. Friends and colleagues know he is gay, and he wants to be open with is relationship with Al. Finally, Sulla was created in 2006, and has an even more fluid notion of gender and sexuality than Brendan does. More importantly, she has the unflinching support of Brendan went she does transition. Each of the three characters reflect some of the cultural and social biases of three historical periods regarding queer folx. Each of the three represents some of the issues for family and community that queer folx confront on a daily basis.
More than being three individuals, they are very much a queer family. When the synthetic Al is delivered to Brendan’s front doorstep, Brendan rejects him. But then he relents. Dellaquanti depicts lovely domestic scenes as the three of them sit around the dining room table. As Brendan returns to work, Al and Sulla go into town together. Sulla catches Al up on the changes of the past 16 years; Al boosts Sulla’s self-confidence as she sees a group of school kids. By the end of the comic, Sulla calls Brendan and Al her dads.
Their family replicates, in some ways, a nuclear family. But only superficially. Brendan was 25(ish) years younger than Al when Al was alive. Furthermore, Al is now synthetic and Brendan human. Brendan will continue to age as Al remains as he is. How do they even calculate age difference now? They have a child, a synthetic child whom they both love. Though Sulla is the product of Brendan and Al, she has been produced via non-sexual means. Sulla is their child, but she is also the resurrection of Al — even as she is her own self.
SPOILER: The comic has TWO major surprises. If you don’t want to know what they are, skip to the concluding paragraph. One of the central mysteries of OHS is: WHO produced the synthetic Al? Was it Brendan? Lucille? Tsade? Near the end, we discover that Al’s synth form was commissioned by Sulla. Because she was intended to be a new Al for Brendan, she felt like a failure. As a trans girl, she felt she had failed her parent. So, she brought Al back for Brendan. So, for one, Sulla enacts the guilt many trans kids feel at disappointing their parents. For another, Al, who is her dad, is produced by Sulla. She brought him to life. Sulla is her father’s creator. In the second surprise (though Dellaquanti provides breadcrumbs throughout), in the final pages, we see Al say that he is not “gay” because “I’m not a man.” Does Al mean, “I’m not a man because I’m a synth?” Does he mean, “I’m not man because I’m a woman?” Does he mean, “I’m not a man because I’m non-binary?” The answer remains ambiguous. Nevertheless, on the final page, Al enters the tank in order to transform into his true self, the self he could never be in his human body.
In the end, Dellaquanti creates a queer family comic for the modern age. A Modern Family, if you will. The lines of affiliation are redefined. The relation of parent and offspring is reimagined. The fluidity of family roles are remade. It is, perhaps, a family of a queer futurity.
Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of Feminist Epistemology and Feminist Science Fiction (Palgrave), editor of “The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism” (Aqueduct), and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls (McFarland).