by Matthew Peckham
What if virtual reality was instead "reality" experienced virtually through remote-controlled
bodies? Would crimes like rape or other forms of physical assault be felonies, or
just "property damage"? What sort of world might it be if everyone locked themselves away and filled
it with stand-ins? Top Shelf's new trade collection of Robert Venditti's The Surrogates
mini-series explores those and other issues in a weird future where humans
interact vicariously through robotic simulacrums.
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In an interview with Pop Thought, Alex Ness asks The Surrogates's author Robert Venditti "To what extent is The Surrogates... a morality tale...?" Which is one of those questions where, well... you might as well ouija up Philip K. Dick and ask how much of A Scanner Darkly was a commentary on 60s drug culture. After responding that he wasn't writing didactically, Venditti adds "In order for there to be a moral, I'd have to know the answers to those questions. I don't." Fair enough, but what I'm betting Venditti really meant, because The Surrogates is hardly ethically ambivalent, was: maybe there is, maybe there isn't, figure it out for yourself.
And there's plenty of figuring to be done, even if, as SF plots go, The Surrogates's central conceit seems unremarkable at first. Instead of people lying about in comfy recliners neurally jacked into elaborate simulations Matrix-style, Venditti's future America circa 2054 is one in which over 92% of the population employ "surrogates" -- artificial bodies that allow their human puppeteers to interact with the actual world virtually: chair, head gear, and full sensory experience. As in cyberspace, your surrogate in the world can be anything you like, so males can be females, the old can be young, the overweight can be slender, etc. (Instead of worrying about sexism or racism, just change your appearance to deflect your would-be employer's prejudices!) Yes, that is a bit of logic leap, since today's futurists would argue even near-perfect simulations of reality are, certainly within the next 50 years, going to be vastly cheaper than offering in excess of 300 million people their own personal cybernetic proxies (once we figure out how to fiddle the brain appropriately, why go external?). And then you have to wonder why even half as advanced robotic tech wouldn't be used instead to run the planet on automatic pilot, so-to-speak, allowing us to slip guiltlessly away to our own virtual Byzantiums.
Then again, probability didn't stop Phil Dick from inserting nonsense like precognition and other forms of pseudoscience in his fiction in trade for this or that ethical dilemma. The reason I suspect Dick generally gets a pass is that, for all his turnabout plotting, he keeps his eyes trained on the everyday people he's placing in prickly, often dreadful circumstances... ordinary folk testing the measure and merit of their resolve. Venditti's The Surrogates shares that virtue and adds many others of its own. It's a crime-noir tale about an anti-surrogate techno-terrorist that, despite its share of hard-boiled patois and whodunit moments, is in the end really the story of Harvey Greer, an aging investigator with the Central Georgia Metro Police Department, whose wife has descended into her own surrogate fantasyland. (She's essentially barricaded herself in her room and refuses to interact with Greer save through a prettified simulacrum). Greer is middle-aged, overweight, and -- like everyone else -- uses a surrogate to conduct his business, though he's of late begun to question his vicarious existence. With his younger, cheerier protege Pete Ford, Greer shuttles between scenes like a subdued Commissioner Gordon (or perhaps an older, more depressed Rick Deckard), building toward his "I'm mad as hell..." scene which, gratifyingly, never comes. He's like a man sobering up at the edge of the abyss, and indeed, the choice he makes may cost him everything.
The story opens as a young man and woman step out of the rain and into an alley for a quick tryst, but are interrupted by a masked figure (the techno-terrorist) who grabs their arms, speaks a single word ("live"), then discharges a lethal dose of electricity, killing them instantly. It's a wonderful moment, juxtaposing two young lovers in the act (what better way of living!) alongside the fact -- you don't have it at this point but get it a few pages later -- that these two were surrogates, coupling like remote-control husks grinding lifelessly against each other.
That sense of bleakness, complimented by line work and coloring from the masterful Brett Wendele (who pulls off stylized dread to the tune of David Fincher's bleach-bypass effects in Se7en), infects everything from Greer and Ford's conversations to the action sequences in which Weldele uses his mastery of -- not so much the human form as the "idea" of that form in motion -- to create scratchy, sprung lines that leap between the panels. Weldele imagines Venditti's world as scrunched-up faces and rain-lashed vistas colored over in grimy greens, yellows, blues, and oranges, supplemented with washed-out photographs of buildings and other structures to create an "edged" 3D look that crackles off the pages.
The Surrogates was a five-issue mini-series published by Top Shelf over the past year and now collected in this special softcover trade with several extras including a wonderfully candid dissection of how Venditti and Weldele work over a page (right down to the Photoshop tools). It's genesis is another tale of timing and luck. Venditti -- at the time a staffer for the company -- turned his script over to editor Chris Staros for advice on marketing it to another publisher. As it happened, Staros and his co-publisher Brett Warnock loved the script so much they decided to snap it up and make it Top Shelf's first, as they put it, "foray into mainstream comics."
Mission accomplished, Mr. Staros, and Messieurs Venditti and Wendele -- more please.
Matt Peckham writes for The Sci Fi Channel, Games For Windows, and 1UP. He's also working on a book of annotations to Mike Carey's Lucifer and runs Mike's official website. For more about Matt, check out his blog.
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