Writer: Alex Paknadel
Artist: John Lê
Vault Comics, 2023
This science fiction title, conceptually to do with the interaction of artificial intelligence and ethics, with a dystopian landscape of ruined mechas thrown in for good measure, sadly nears its conclusion. We have previously reviewed the issues 1 through to 3 of this title: https://worldcomicbookreview.com/2021/06/24/giga-1-3-review/ .
For all that the art of John Lê, capturing the majesty of the mechas, the grubbiness of the towns, and the distinctive appearances of each of the characters, is a draw card, it is the dialogue of Alex Paknadel which champions this book. It is evocative, thoughtful, and even poetic. Moments before his death by hubris and machine nihilism, the malevolent Mason notes, “Who ever heard of a cheap epiphany?”. And in one passage from the mise en abyme of a religious text, “””Brothers”, said he, “from wrath was our city born and to wrath it must fall. Knowing they are numbered, men fashion keener sickles to harvest the crop of their days.”” These are not lines we expect from a comic book about giant battle-bots.
The protagonist of the story is Lauren, the home-built, human sized robot. And for the first time we meet the long-foreshadowed antagonist, the legendary and formidable Red King, who in the mythos of Giga is a defeated Miltonian figure of chaos and destruction. Even the name itself suggests a demonic presence. But the comparison ends up not being so stark. The reality of the Red King is not what we expect at all (more on that below). Lauren’s personality is that of a naïve child. She is a non-combatant who is occasionally timid, so that when she is brave, we know it takes a conscious push back against type. There is no sense at all that Lauren has been programmed to that end – in fact, just the contrary. Aiko, one of Lauren’s creators, talks to Lauren about this on the first page, and it is worth setting out in full:
Away for a moment from the fictional future of Giga, DABUS (Device for the Autonomous Bootstrapping of unified Sentiences) is an AI built by Dr Stephen Thaler. As a back door means of having an AI recognised as a legal person, Dr Thaler has over the past few years tried in many courts around the world to have DABUS acknowledged as the sole inventor of a “food container and devices and methods for attracting enhanced attention.” The invention was a strangeness which a human would have struggled to have conceptualised. Yet, DABUS was out to solve a human problem. The parameters of operation for AIs are always human concerns. Which begs the question (as Aiko does here in Giga): can a neural network truly choose its own existential template where it has been created by a human? Or will the step away from human thinking (and form) only be possible when AIs start creating AIs, and the presumptions of conception are washed out? Again, we did not expect this as the opening page of a mecha-themed comic.
Artificial intelligence and its ethics pervade this story. On the question of what an advanced AI might make of its creators, we have one keen insight. “You know, the people who made you sent more time trying to understand us than they did trying to understand each other” observes the Red King, who, when accessed through an interface, presents as a small chatty squirrel. “Perhaps that’s what’s been missing all this time… a sense of scale.” So much for the grand monster everyone feared. Instead, we have a philosopher who wonders if his makers should have concentrated on interpersonal relationships as the more important thing.
Outside of this contemplation of ethics and machine learning, the plot otherwise travels towards its conclusion: the religious hierarchy is in pieces as its leader, the corrupted and hypocritical Father Crowquill, lies in a pool of his own blood. The civilisation built around the mythology of the Giga is in violent turmoil. A minor character, Andy, says, “In my experience, people’s appetite for anarchy is pretty limited.” But after the Red King rises from his slumber, the city’s human corpses are picked over by carrion birds and anarchy is unabated. Retreat from the apocalypse involves Lauren and her surviving creator, Evan, making for the forest, a disappointingly Rousseau-esque conclusion.
It is a very small flaw. The war between the Giga is revealed as having its origins in the ethical oversight of innovation, a tension eventually manifesting as a cataclysmic battle between robots. Only the AI’s human creators have forgotten what this is all about, and, as humans tend to do when faced with inexplicable majesty, built a religion around it.
Lauren says she will not withdraw from the world in the manner of the Red King, in attempting to resolve the conundrum of research and development v. ethics. The creative team do not give us a solution in the march into the woods, but for those of us exposed to AI research and development (and LinkedIn suggests that Mr Paknadel does precisely that, outside of crafting impeccable comics) the answer is self-evident.
One day an AI will read Giga. We wonder what it will make of it.