More than any others, one work deserves the qualifier of “post-cyberpunk”: Carbon & Silicon, from awarded French author Mathieu Bablet. However, the label itself has no importance, as this new entry in a genre that has found itself rooted in the past has one merit that stands out among its peers: it debunks the theory that “there’s no way to make science fiction today”.
When I read Shangri-La, a surprise phenomenon in French comics from Editions Ankama that made the scene in 2016, I was awestruck by its explosive graphic style and its radical political point potentiated by an organic and sensitive relationship to fiction. The exploitation of life (animal, human) and the impossibility of a revolt leaves the reader with a terrifying observation on the human condition as beholden to an improbable inheritance. Therefore, it was a great honor and pleasure to host the Carbon & Silicon launch event with Mathieu Bablet in August 2020 at Le Mans. Even though I jumped vigorously onto the hype train, I was still floored by its indirect (but just as incredible) sequel, which tells the story of two wandering androids on Earth spanning 300 years.
Since there’s been a successful Kickstarter campaign from Neurobellum Production to launch both Shangri-La and Carbon & Silicon in the US, let’s have a closer look at the latter.
It all starts with a statement of failure. Humanity at the height of its power (“very unequally distributed” as William Gibson would put it) creates two strong artificial intelligences, Carbon and Silicon, prototypes and the first representatives of a long series of robots intended to “flood the care market”.
Funded by investments from the retirement home sector, the Tomorrow Foundation makes this great intellectual leap typical of late capitalism: dedicating the most cutting-edge of technology to overcoming humanity’s empathy deficit. Taking care of the elderly is not profitable, unlike selling them overpriced robots. Obsolescence is scheduled after 15 years (“like a cat”) allowing the market to be renewed. The timeless cyberpunk motto “high-tech, low life” has its first occurrence in a long series.
The two Carbon and Silicon droids are thus born of empathic failings, mercantile weaknesses of humanity and the demiurgic dream of Noriko, their neurotic workaholic designer. She, who has a presentiment of a world on the edge of collapse, places all her hopes in her creations, which she imagines will be emancipated from the psychosocial legacies inherent in all education. Detached from parentage, robots would be freer. She neglects her own daughter due to this, considering her androids as necessarily more “perfect”. The little girl does not appreciate this.
Created for these “wrong reasons” the two twin robots will try to make sense of their life, one (Silicon) through travel, solitude and the discovery and preservation of a body identity of its own; the other (Carbon) by forging links with others, through a sedentary lifestyle, commitment and constant reinvention. Although designed exactly the same, they have different experiences and their distinct life paths lead them to develop quite unique personalities all while the world crumbles around them.
The book sketches, without going into the details of the causes and consequences, a collapsing backdrop as the years go by. Northern societies, at the height of consumption, high-tech, and inequality, crumble and ignite, collapse, disappear… reconfigure themselves. Corporations become sects, robots emancipate themselves and become a new form of life, slums grow as far as the eye can see and life tirelessly goes on. Carbon will see in it an eternal pattern of violence and domination, consubstantial with human nature because it is subject to “ego and the inability to think outside of oneself”.
Humanity’s failures are everywhere, revealing head-on the author’s dejected, brutally honest observations of the violence of the world. Humanity, in fact, accumulates errors and violence that (almost) not an ounce of benevolence or solidarity catch up with throughout the book. Beauty is there, it’s true, in the world and its landscapes, in the intoxication of simply being alive and in the unique relationship between Carbon and Silicon, in eons of romantic clichés about love, brotherhood or friendship.
Yet this beauty struggles to catch up with the violence of the repeated and unsurpassable failures of humanity. And the explicit reference to little Alan Kurdi, a Syrian Kurdish refugee who died on a Turkish beach at the age of three and whose photo had traveled around the world without causing any change in the European policies for welcoming refugees, the highlight of collective moral bankruptcy.
For Carbon and Silicon, life itself is to be reinvented without a model to follow. Humanity is no longer the pinnacle of sensitivity and intelligence that robots should strive for. The classics of robotic sci-fi, Ghost in the Shell, Blade Runner, Asimov… are overwritten by Mathieu Bablet’s post-humanism.
Nothing will come to save humans, prisoners of their desires encased in a facade of rationality. Humanity is not a horizon to be reached, it is exceeded from the first boxes (“you already know how you’re going to end up, right?”). It is an outdated, dysfunctional model whose pseudo-intelligence (“a stupid question of not having enough neurons”) has nothing to offer.
From then on, the worlds are fragmented in time jumps of fifteen years (the duration of each robotic generation, changing colors according to a process, cyclical, entropy / reconstruction …). Jumps during which Carbon and Silicon ultimately seem less looking for something to live for. Left to their own devices in the existential quagmire, they are reminiscent of Grave of the Fireflies (火 垂 る の 墓, Isao Takahata, 1988) where two children watch over each other in the chaos of the collapsing world. Carbon and Silicon are privileged witnesses of the transition, both heirs and strangers to the world. One foot in, one foot out.
Carbon & Silicon is post-cyberpunk because it goes beyond the hackneyed patterns and themes of its predecessors, assuming their heritage (several works are explicitly cited) to better go beyond it in a post-humanist perspective that crushes the simplistic convictions that would make human beings the center of the world. “Maybe we just put the humans on a pedestal a little too high” Silicon says. Amen.
Robots with feelings
Then what’s the problem? Where does this feeling of longing come from that permeates the entire book, a feeling crystallized by the fabulous landscapes of the wild Earth, built, destroyed or reborn?
Carbon and Silicon are the heirs of this world. This is where the book is the obvious sequel to Shangri-La, which ended with the emergence of a new humanity on the moon Titan, born out of the demiurgic dreams of the Thianzu company and its mercantile horrors. Carbon & Silicon no longer dwells on the description of outdated companies or the revolts that are going through them, and starts from three notches down.
Designed to watch over vulnerable people, the characters contrast radically with the cliché of cold and insensitive robotics. Their main quality is precisely to feel, to show empathy for the humans with whom they share the world and who gave birth to them – although they frankly deviate from it. Neither Carbon nor Silicon is plagued by the fascination of many sci-fi robots for their creator. They understand where they come from, their relationship to life is materialistic and tangible. Their enigma is not in the mystical / psychoanalytic relationship with the demiurge (Noriko dies quickly and dirtily) but in the existential question that haunts them, as it haunts part of our generation in the face of the predicted climatic cataclysms: what to do?
From his sensitivity, Silicon draws a thirst for wonder at the beauties of the Earth. He wants to see everything and alone explores some of the most sublime landscapes I’ve seen in comics. Gradually, the ugly cities, gray and concrete, leave more room for grandiose natural settings as if to turn the page of humanity by purging it in the beauty of a resilient world. Under Bablet’s pen, the post-apocalyptic settings become sublime and poetic while Silicon invokes an individual right to escape.
Carbon, on the contrary, connects with those who live with it, exploring another type of sensitivity between connection to others and vital engagement in the world. She sets up a robotic emancipation movement to leave physical corporeality and go into a network, a symbol of her abdication of the tangible in favor of the lightning purity of an intelligence and a sensitivity unlimited by the fusion of beings. “For wisdom and intelligence can only be collective.”
Escape or revolution? Desire or intellectualization? Sedentary lifestyle or nomadism? Own identity or collective fusion? Physical life or dematerialization? The protagonists have no answer to the tangled ambivalences of the questions that torment them.
However, both of the androids are wrong to sometimes believe that they are extricating themselves from the masses. Created by humans in their own image, they remain deeply close to their creators–a paradox and a curse, prisoners of their fragile and stupidly bipedal bodies. Paradoxically, however, this body is the only vehicle of their consciousness and the only interface they have to perceive and feel the world, and therefore to develop their emotions. Subjected to cyclical time for Carbon, which changes envelope every 15 years, and to aging for Silicon which tinkers with the maintenance of itself to the extreme limits, their carnal envelopes are the first places of the process of vital reinvention. Carbon and Silicon change, improve, reconfigure themselves by very quickly dropping the rags of gender, sex, ethnicity and ultimately anthropomorphy. Thus they live by successive mutations, embodying the ambivalence of a stable identity in a changing world; trying to paint the world on themselves, replaying the match between identity and collective.
Unlike a majority of robotic cyberpunk science fiction which places robots as first rational and then sentient (machine-to-human evolution); Carbon & Silicon features robots for which the rational and the sensitive are intertwined. Designed for “care”, they put their superior intelligence at the service of an atypical vision of the world (far from, say, the plot of The Terminator, also mentioned explicitly), of the care of the planet, of others, of themselves. They deplore, generation after generation, what the French philosopher Baptiste Morizot calls a “crisis of sensitivity”: “an inability to feel, perceive, understand and weave with regard to living things. A reduction in the range of affects, percepts, concepts and practices connecting us to him.”
Faced with the eternal return of violence, wars of egos and domination of desires peculiar to humanity, Carbon and Silicon is permeated by an abysmal wistfulness throughout the entire graphic novel.
In a science-fictional landscape obsessed with the 80s and reworked patterns to the point of disgust, Mathieu Bablet imposes the themes and returns to the source: confronting the world with its failures and its responsibility, anticipating a possible future in order to posit the question of the role of humanity and the prospects for generations to come.
Torn between hope for a golden age in which he has no illusions and melancholy of a future that he senses will see more worse times than better, Bablet sublimates his sadness without being deluded, shaping the dialogue to portray separate perspectives we see in the world today–between collective commitments and personal life, denial and reality, responsibility and flight. He is “desperate but not pessimistic” one might say, using the words of philosophers Yves Citton and Jacopo Rasmi. He paints a generational picture that invites us to take a step back on ourselves and on the world we inherit and that we will leave as a legacy; by ceasing the narcissistic fascination that leads us to see ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution when we would rather be mistaken.
As ambiguous as Shangri-La, the end of Carbon & Silicon sounds both like a pursuit of the dream and a renunciation, a collective accomplishment in which self-awareness does not completely dissolve. It leaves open the lines of flight sketched and then developed throughout the album. Left to their own devices, Carbon and Silicon experience the loneliness inherent in the human condition: “We have never seen a coffin for two.” Silicon says. And yet… over three hundred and a few years for as many pages of solar beauty, the two twins will manage to counteract this loneliness. They forge a unique bond and together roam the depravities of the worlds to come.
~ Antoine St. Epondyle
Original paper (in French) : https://cosmo-orbus.net/blog/sf/cyberpunk/carbone-silicium-bablet-bd/
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