Set in a post-apocalyptic Alaska, year 2054, Inés Estrada’s Alienation is a transhumanist fever dream of ambitious proportions. Dense with detail, its pencil pages are printed in a muted blue pantone ink, and its settings vacillate between vacant building interiors and lush, boundless virtual spaces populated by both wonders and horrors. Like other transhumanist texts, its protagonists are enmeshed in a technological point of human history that calls into question the very nature of lived reality, personal ownership, and the human condition as it relates to capitalism, colonialism, climate change, and the body.
Eliza, a virtual sex worker, and her partner Charly, an employee of Shell gasoline, live together in a nearly empty apartment. They spend most of their time, both together and apart, in VR (virtual reality), their bodies lying inert and their eyes blankly turned within. Implanted with biometrics-managing “Googleglands” and subsisting on horrifying fusion cuisine (ex: sushi pizza) composed entirely of Monsanto GMO slime molds, their bodies and experiences are, to an extent, owned and negotiated by familiar megacorporations – when Eliza and Charly log out of VR after watching an eclipse via a Starbucks satellite, the recognizable mermaid logo remains, reflected (embedded?) somewhere deep within their eyes.
However, Estrada’s story resists a straightforward ethical reading of the ubiquitous technology that enables her characters to both destroy and transcend their biological drives and needs, as well as the tangible world. In true transhumanist tradition, Estrada’s book forces the reader to question to what extent human beings are or should be defined by their physical limitations. Through Eliza and Charly, she depicts both the ennui and frustration, as well as the comfort and sublimity, of life that is both profoundly changed and sustained by the integration of biotechnology.
Despite a dependence on this technology for both survival and fulfillment, Estrada doesn’t let the reader forget that the greedy human misuse of technological progress itself, and the ensuing environmental degradation, necessitates the continued use of increasingly complex technology for the bare minimum of human survival. This large-scale environmental destruction and exploitation is largely fueled by capitalist enterprise and intercontinental violence. Alongside her characters, Estrada’s comic forces readers to question where the line is drawn between fact and fiction. Charly experiences hallucinations as a result of PTSD, which we later find out stems from hyperreal games of Call of Duty that may or may not have eventually hooked the player up to real-life drones killing actual people. Eliza and Charly can’t watch a “real” eclipse or see “real” animals due to extinction or permanent environmental damage. Are they unable to tell the difference between the real world and the virtual one because the virtual one is so convincing, or is because they lack any meaningful points of comparison?
Estrada is not ambiguous when it comes to condemning entitled white men and the violence of colonialism. Central to Alienation is a horrifying scene where Eliza is raped by an anonymous “hacker”, an insidious virtual force that violates her body and mind. Like a futurist Madonna, her body thus becomes, without her consent or knowledge, the site of “the Singularity,'' a human/AI hybrid child meant to bridge the distance between the virtual and biological realities. This through line in the story is easy to read as a metaphor for the violence of invasive colonial conquest, referenced by both Charly and Eliza’s elders at different points in the story.
Charly’s Mexican grandmother, during a VR conversation in Spanish, reminds him that, contrary to some conceptions, South America is America too, and that the “Damned gringos stole our name because they are imperialistic colonizers!” Their meeting occurs at “Playa Martinez”, Google’s virtual recreation of Charly’s grandmother’s childhood beach. Even so, she reminisces that despite its beauty and fidelity, “That beach of my childhood doesn’t exist anymore.”
The fallout of this schism between the U.S. and South America is a crisis of identity that Charly feels intensely -- that he is not fully “from” either place. “We’re never gonna be from here nor from there…” (117) he says wistfully.
In contrast, early on, Eliza has a long phone conversation with her grandfather on the opposite side of Alaska, during which he encourages her to marry an Inuit man, bemoans the loss of the Northern Lights to pollution, and resists the idea of being implanted with a Googlegland.
“I have to draw a line, my dear,” he says to her. “The colonizer has invaded our lives enough already. ..tainting our culture, destroying our language, stealing our land…and now, they want to occupy our bodies with their fake organs, too…White men call us primitive – and it’s them who survive solely through merciless exploitation…How can technology help us when its development is destroying the earth? When it was created just for the profit of white men?”
Like Charly, Eliza feels torn when it comes to her cultural identity. She has a Googlegland, likely believes (or wants to believe) that VR Northern Lights are as good as any, and is in love with someone who is not Inuit. She thus does not necessarily share her grandfather’s wider perspective on the implications of so-called “progress”. But it is difficult not to look at Alienation and see the ways in which Eliza has surrendered what little autonomy she might have had by allowing corporations and their interests to mediate her perceptions and experiences.
Estrada only complicates this further by reminding us that, under capitalism, we have little choice as to what we have to sign up for just to survive. When Eliza initially discovers she has been hacked, Charly urges her to delete her account immediately, but Eliza demurs, “how will I pay rent, then?” Later, following her assault by the malevolent “hacker” when she acknowledges how strange she feels in her own body, Eliza emphasizes both her disconnection from her physical body and her resentment towards the capitalist structures that demand payment before she can access information about her self, thinking “It’s my body, I should be able to access its info for free! What if I’m dying and I don’t know it?”
When Eliza finally does discover that she is mysteriously pregnant, though she and Charly “haven’t had physical sex in a year,” we find that even in a transhumanist future where humans can profoundly alter their brains, people’s reproductive rights (in America at least) haven’t much improved: In Alaska, Eliza can’t easily access the abortive nanobots that she needs to terminate her unwanted pregnancy, which takes a toll on her mental health as well.
The body thus operates as one of Alienation’s central points of contention; is owning/having a physical body important and worthwhile, or is the body is an inconvenient anchor to an antiquated way of life, bound as it is to the physical world and its concomitant limitations? Eliza voices ambivalence on this subject; “Having a body is so weird…It’s, like, this extension of me that’s feeling things all the time…and I can sort of control it, but never completely…All my experiences will always be limited by what my body can perceive.” She goes on to appreciate that her body helps her make a living and that people pay her to admire it. But, in exactly the same way that environmental devastation requires that technology be implemented to ensure human survival, it is Eliza’s body’s requirements - for space to occupy, food to eat, air to breathe - that demand she make money within a capitalist system merely to exist. However, much as the AI that populates the book’s virtual spaces appear to covet owning the real estate of the human body in the physical world, Estrada’s human characters don’t find much to redeem the body as the principle site of joy or transcendence in her post-apocalyptic America. The frontier worth exploring lies beyond, in the infinite expanse of the boundless mind.
However, once born, the Singularity - a child with a mortal body but a deathless mind online who “will never experience tiredness, illness, or hunger” and who has “absolute control over their bodily functions” - immediately shrugs off the responsibility of conquest, highlighting the irony of the hypothesis that an ideal existence, free of both constraints, can move beyond humanity’s inherent selfishness. Unburdened by the needs of a human body and able to move freely between the physical and virtual worlds, even out in the toxic pollution, when asked to “dominate the planet” by its AI progenitors, the child rudely tells the voice to “Shut up…I just want to chill,” and curls up with a polar bear.
This climax also seems to suggest that only when totally free of the body’s needs and limitations can human beings fully reject the violence inherent in capitalist structures. But, in the same way that Eliza and Charly have no point of reference for distinguishing illusions from reality, the Singularity, like anyone born into unfathomable privilege, has no point of reference for suffering and thus no empathy. The book’s final pages depict Eliza in a deliciously metatextual moment, foreshadowed by her dream of crawling out of the six-panel grid layout Estrada has used for the majority of the comic’s pages. Eliza notices and literally shatters the comic’s fourth wall, implicating the reader as the “hacker” who has been watching her the whole time and voyeuristically exploiting her for entertainment from a similar place of omniscient power.
The reality, the one we all need to be concerned with, as Estrada points out between Alienation’s copyright and ISBN notices, is climate change, which will only exacerbate inequality under capitalism and make the care and keeping of the human body an increasingly untenable prospect on an inhospitable earth. Furthermore, environmental devastation is not the direct result of technological progress, rather it’s the misuse of technology in service of selfish and oppressive corporate powers that have no concern for the human cost in suffering of their profits that is so destructive. Worthwhile technological progress does not seek power through the exploitation of others. Instead, it might allow us to leave behind the body’s limitations and take personal power over the self and its narrative.