Aphelion is a series of short stories and comics created by Deviantart user Turbofanatic. It's a science fiction set in 2086. Sci-fi is kind of a crap shoot. The future is so expansive a subject that it's hard to create a believable vision of it without falling back on cliches. Flying cars, the Metaverse, and warp drive are all clear ways of showing off how much the world has changed that require little effort and rarely stretches the suspension of disbelief. Other work will occasionally go in the complete opposite direction and throw in tonnes of wacky new ideas to try and stand out. The middle road is a hard path, creating plausible technological progress without choosing the most obvious example requires either a lot of thought or one really good idea that hasn't been done to death.
The comic begins with a transcript of a conversation between Aleph-B also known as Babyface and someone named Ada. Babyface wants to talk to someone he knew in a past life. Ada explains why that's not such a good idea.
On the next page we see Babyface for the first time. He's sitting in the fetal position next to Ada. Beyond him is a flat patch of wasteland surrounded by hills and mountains with a huge aerostat tethered somewhere far behind and far above it all. None of that is nearly as interesting as what is sitting with his arms wrapped defensively around himself. Babyface is an advanced combat chassis, a quasi-biological tank that would resemble a human if he weren't ten meters tall and possessed of a dozen eyes, clawed hands and feet and enough internal weapons to take on the whole armed forces. This is one hardcore posthuman. And he's very scared because he's about to run an unknown executable left to him by his creator. In his head. What could go wrong?
Well for starters he has a seizure during which the human part of him (a copy of Brian) has a short, unpleasant chat with the AI part (Aleph null). The executable also triggers some sort of contingency that has a monstrous bird/robot/rocket quasi-bioogical weapon like himself dropping out of the sky and carrying him into the exosphere where ICBMs are already headed to his location. The missiles do not explode and Babyface has an uneventful trip back to Earth courtesy of gravity. After surviving reentry (glassy titanium alloy bones and carbon nanotube mesh skin) he's informed that the hives in India decided to eliminate him before being persuaded that he's more of a asset than a threat. Babyface begins the long walk back to base while discussing the test and what kind of damages he's received.
The comic ends a few pages later but I'd be hard pressed to describe the remaining pages in a comprehensible fashion so instead of spoiling the ending I'll talk about why this is an awesome comic. Firstly, the art work is gorgeous and surreal. It's qualitatively on par with any professional work. Turbofanatic puts a ton of detail into every panel and her effort really pays off by creating the kind of environments you study just to see if there's anything you've missed. If you haven't caught on from the above description this story just drops you in the middle of things with little priming. If your confused on your first read through then you're doing better than me. I was completely lost. The whole comic can be found here. It has a prequel in the works as well as several snippets in the form of concept art and short stories.
If you've made it this far into the write up you might be wondering what's actually going on in this setting. As I said at the beginning of the write up it's hard to create something original and believable. I have yet to see a sci-fi that accurately predicts the future and most writers stick to painfully pedestrian portrayals of the future. In the sixties it was the space age, in the seventies it was weird social commentary, eighties and nineties feature the cyberpunk future. The current trend is either the Google Glass future of always being online or if they're ambitious the technological singularity. Space opera waxes and wanes as fads come and go but things as creative as say our site's own Fine Structure are few and far between.
Here's what we know. In Babyface's world Moore's Law died in the 2020s. Nanotechnology (not magical universal assembler clouds) made a variety of new materials and medicines possible but it couldn't change the direction that civilization was headed. By the 2060s the climate was a wreck and industrial farming's use of huge monocultures had made us susceptible to epidemics. We were saved by the hives. If you have brain interfaces then it's a small step to create links between two brains. With enough bandwidth the distinction between the two psyches dissolves. Daisy chain a lot of brains together and you have a posthuman super intelligence. The hives put mirrors in the sky to fix the weather and created hundreds of new crops ("including the glorious cheese pumpkin"). The hives rule the world now, not overtly, not by force, but simply because they're the only ones capable of performing the feats of engineering that keep the world running. They are generally benevolent, creepy, and in many cases all too fallible.
For all that we know about the setting the stuff that's been withheld is just as interesting. What is the sanity complex and why is it bad news for AI. What are the Ashers, why are they making North America uninhabitable and how is Babyface going to fight them when nuclear strikes failed? What does a world populated by nanomachined flesh golems and run by kind super intelligences have to fear? Other than itself of course.
When I read Aphelion I feel like I'm looking at what a post-singularity world would really be like. Lovecraftian in its strangeness. And really that's all I can ask for. A person from seventy years ago would be astounded and probably more than a little afraid of the present. Not just because of new technology like smart phones irrecoverably changing the experience of being alone, not having a fact on hand, or even being lost but because of how deeply our core values have changed. Not many works challenge me to think about a future that I would be scared to live in without being overtly apocalyptic or dystopian and for me this makes the world of Aphelion believable in a way that most science fiction just isn't.
RUST IS FOR THE WEAK