Glitch vs. Abyss: On Queer Sci-Fi Webcomics
How do we recognize a queer piece of science fiction? Most tropes that signal a narrative’s legible queerness belong to realist stories: the momentous epiphany or coming out; the secret romance or transition; the punishment for non-normative identities and acts. Although these primary genre-markers of gay and trans movies could be directly transplanted into speculative story-worlds, one wonders what the point would be. After all, science-fiction is most useful for transforming the concepts it employs — including the mutation of social and biological norms.
How we recognize “queer science fiction,” then, might need to start with the tropes we think mark sci-fi and not the tropes we think mark queer stories. If we’re reading for the usual plots of sexuality, we might miss the ways that queerness can shape and be reshaped by its involvement with the sci-fi genre. Here, I turn to webcomics, a medium itself tied up with new technology and marginal creators, often young and queer themselves. In particular, I’ll be looking at Ciaran and Anka’s alt-1980s epic Superpose and Der-Shing Helmer’s Mars survival drama Mare Internum, both of which make science itself the queer part of their “queer science-fiction.”
For all their supposed nicheness, webcomics enjoy a dedicated and substantial audience, often built-up over several years. Though most still adhere to the unit and look of a physical page, many utilize the digital format for aesthetic experiments, with looped animation or an infinitely scrolling canvas. Still more circulate on multiple new media platforms, gathered on the comics-reading platform Tapas, dispersed on an artist’s Tumblr, or serialized in online lit mags. Webcomics are as much demonstrations of new technology as they are vehicles for narrative; they’re always involved with the present-future of sci-fi, even when they’re not working in the genre.
For comics like Superpose and Mare Internum, sci-fi isn’t simply the set-up for a metaphor, or a window onto futuristic settings. It entails an intimacy with science itself, and all the history, norms, and desires that science contains. From this intimacy, queerness emerges. In Superpose, early computing becomes a wild and unpredictable queer subject. One of the central characters, Royal Romanenko, shows a couple kids the miraculous, useful glitch in his favorite arcade game, which exists because of its “hurried … just a little wild” production by a single programmer. “I like it because it’s broken,” Royal tells them, “I figured out how to use these broken parts to move forward.” This glitch becomes the narrative’s queer epiphanic moment, the inspiration for a battle against computing’s physical limits.
The scientific leap pursued by Royal and his newly hired astrophysicist, Kasra “Kas” Al-Ridha, isn’t queer as a result of identity alone. What Royal asks for, after all, is teleportation. Unstuck from the respectable objectivity that usually marks “science,” the technological push in Superpose relies on the idea that glitches in a game’s programming might be mirrored in similar gaps or oddities in the physical world. The glitch turns out to be a close sibling of the black hole, both acting as blips in a lawful-good conception of science, and threatening to open up the world to unpredictable consequences.
“Queer science” describes these disfavored enterprises, hazarded without the promise of respectability — a lot like the premise of webcomics or of queer knowledge in general. Kas’s research on retrieving information from black holes is eerily resonant with the task of queer history. The desire for black holes to emit energy, rather than only invisibly dispose of matter, is also a desire for gaps and disappearances to have meaning. It is a desire for access to lost, long-destroyed information.
It seems telling that scientists’ professional disgrace is a common theme between Superpose and Mare Internum. This queer pursuit of “amazing error” and “unexpected probability” is a gamble with real consequences for these fictional scientists, weighted with their own individual desires and marginalizations. Kas, understandably, feels leery about Royal’s proposition, since their previous research derailed their academic career. They say yes to him, anyway.
By centering characters’ desirous relationships with research and technology, both Superpose and Mare Internum thicken the “science” of science fiction, making it a palpable character in its own right, not just a plot device or setting. Besides Royal’s arcade game, there’s also Kas’s unobtrusive, yet functionally vital Optacon II, an electronic device that facilitates the reading of tiny, non-Braille text. In Helmer’s Mare Internum, meanwhile, a scientist’s fraught relationship with his childlike AI robot arguably kicks off the story, bringing about Dr. Michael Fisher’s firing and subsequent suicide attempt. This first attempt opens the comic’s prologue; a second attempt puts the main plot in motion, trapping Michael and the newly arrived Dr. Rebekah “Bex” Egunsola in an ancient ecosystem deep beneath the planet’s surface.
Michael’s sexuality is never straightforwardly relevant to the plot. Really, his identity only surfaces explicitly in his terse response to Bex’s introductory questions. Even his being fired has little to do with his sexuality, since Michael is a demonstrably terrible decision-maker, both paranoid and vindictive (if sometimes rightly so). So while Mare Internum is a queer narrative, it’s not because the comic stages a gay romance, a coming-out, or even a punishing retribution. It’s because the survival premise plays out a queer’s struggle with suicide, inflected but not determined by his sexuality and experience of sexual abuse.
Helmer queers Mare Infinitum’s “survival in an alien landscape” plot by removing the macho, Darwinian element of individual survival (comparable to The Martian or Pitch Black). The landscape — an underground, oceanic cave — is essentially an organic bunker with helpful alien parasites and an unsettlingly parental central processor. Without an outright existential threat, Mare Internum doesn’t hinge on the scientists’ ingeniousness or toughness, but the emotional contours of loneliness, intellectual desire, and escape. Michael and Bex have to reckon with the fact that the drive to “escape” is also the reason they’re in this trap. Both are incredibly driven scientists, but their devotion is as much about escaping their own pain (and other people) as it is about pursuing knowledge.
Even a tiny alien crab mistakes the intensity of Bex’s desire for an immovable strength. “It’s easy, right? For someone so driven?” it tells her cheerfully, as she breaks down into exhausted tears. Being “driven” in Mare Internum also entails a brittleness, an uneasiness, about the direction of one’s inquiry.
Queer science fiction might best be recognized by its imprudent drive towards the glitch, the black hole, the abyss. The resulting conflicts aren’t so much shaped by a predictable press forward against death, ignorance, injustice, but by the messiness of an unwise attraction, and all the haphazard advancing, backsliding, and entangling that goes with it.
This devotion is what you’d need to make webcomics to begin with, especially ones as ambitious as these. Webcomics dramatically transform the genres they live in, but they are a “hurried … just a little wild” art-making, with rapidly shifting styles, sometimes uncertain or halting in their progress. As a medium for queer sci-fi, then, the webcomic is oddly fitting. An inadvisable labor, an untidy technology, a glitch of desire; it is capable of the most perfect surprises.