Friday, May 26, 2017

Review - The Vision: Little Worse Than a Man by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta

Short review: The Vision builds an android family and sets up house in the suburb of Arlington, Virginia. This is about as creepy and goes about as badly as one might it expect it to.

A nice family
Android parents and children
And it all goes wrong

Full review: Imagine that an android who doesn't really understand humanity decided to build himself an android family, infuse them with the personalities of a collection of dead people, and then went to live in the suburbs as a way to try to figure out how to truly be human. This might seem to be creepy at first glance, and The Vision: Little Worse Than a Man will do little to disabuse one of that notion. Set in Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., this first installment in a new story featuring long-time Avenger the Vision is a story about alienation, xenophobia, betrayal, deception, and the consequences flowing from that toxic mix. It is also a story about love, loyalty, and curiosity, and how those can go horribly awry and make a bad situation that much worse. It is, in short, a tragedy, in the most classic sense of the word.

The book opens with the Visions moving into a typical single family home on a typical suburban street with sidewalks, manicured lawns, and neighbors who stop by to greet newcomers with a plate of cookies. The Visions themselves are a picture-perfect android family headed up by Vision himself plus the three loved ones he constructed with his own hands: His wife Virginia, his son Vin, and his daughter Viv. But even at this early state, when everything is supposed to be as normal and ordinary as can be, the scenario presents nagging and unsettling questions. If Vision constructed all three of the members of his "family", aren't all three his "children"? Or are none of them his "children"? In an off-hand remark, Vision explains that Vin and Viv are twins, but what exactly does it mean for a pair of android children to be twins? Even at their most domestic and unthreatening, the Visions are deeply disturbing.

It does not take long for the oddness of the Vision family to become even more apparent. When they are with outsiders, such as George and Nora, the couple who open the book with a "welcome to the neighborhood" visit, the family seems almost normal, although they are noticeably socially awkward. Once their visitors have left, the Visions shift to a conversation that is far more in keeping with what one would expect from a collection of inhuman androids working with highly logical minds devoids of much in the way of actual human experience and emotional understanding. Through these interactions it becomes clear that Vision has something of an ulterior motive for constructing and maintaining his family - he wishes to understand what it means to be human. He wishes to understand humanity, and in effect become human in the way he thinks and thus avoid the tyranny that results from purely logical thinking.

After a few pages of the Visions being a neighborhood curiosity, with the children showing off their powers for their peers and their neighbors taking snapshots of the androids in their midst, disaster strikes, and this reveals the true danger that "becoming human" poses for Vision, and the rest of the book lays out the path that, once the Visions are upon it, seems like it will inevitably lead to disaster. The catalyzing event is an attack upon Vision's family by the Grim Reaper, who is enraged by the fact that the Vision used the personalities of the Grim Reaper's family to construct his own. In a sequence of almost shocking brutality, he severely injures Viv, nearly cutting her in half and wrecking the family home before Virginia acts to defend her children and kills the assailant with a baking pan. The viciousness of this sequence is all the more horrific due to the placid and tranquil events that had gone before. But as terrible as the attack is, the decision that makes everything go wrong is almost trivial: Virginia and Vin cover up the Grim Reaper's death by lying to Vision and burying the body in the back yard.

From this point, relatively early in the book, the idyllic life that Vision had put together for his family starts to pull apart at the seams, and Vision is left trying to protect those that he loves. The only trouble is, trying to protect those he loves is a recipe for disaster. Vin gets in trouble in school, and Vision essentially pulls rank on the High School Principal to protect the boy, asserting that as he has saved the Earth thirty-seven times, he can make the decision as to how his son will be punished. And at the time, Vision's position seems eminently reasonable, but when he later resorts to the same logic when Virginia's poor judgment leads to an even larger problem, it becomes apparent that events are spinning out of control. What makes this story even more horrific is that every step down the path Vision takes logically follows from the the previous one, and every step that Vision takes also seems to be entirely the wrong decision. This is, to be blunt, an illustration of how logic can go awry when the decisions are left to someone who wants to be human, but doesn't actually understand what it is to be human.

Much of the terrible truth revealed in this story is contained in a single scene, relatively early in the book when Vision awakens in the middle of the night to see what seems to be a small glitch in Virginia that causes her eyes to open and shut even though she is "sleeping". Twice he repeats a haunting line: "This is my wife. I love her. I must love her". It is in that "must" that the flaw from which all of the misguided decisions flow is found. Vision understands what someone who loves someone does, but he doesn't understand what love actually is, because if he did, he'd know there is no situation in which one can will themselves into loving someone. There is no "must" when it comes to being in love. Later in the book this sort of problem is formalized by the narrator, the witch Agatha Harkness, who reveals the limitations of machine thinking with a simple comparison, and also reveals the limitation in the entire Vision family that seems destined to turn the hero into one of the greatest threats the world could face.

What makes Little Worse Than a Man such a compelling book is that everything that takes place seems almost inevitable, and at times, entirely normal. There is no moment where someone makes a decision that seems irrational, and in the early going, all of the choices made seem to be even reasonably morally well grounded. But every reasonable decision that turns out to be the right one comes back later to be the foundation of a reasonable decision that is entirely the wrong one. This progression is at the heart of the brilliance of this book, showing how, step by step, a heroic figure can go tragically wrong. King has taken the strengths of the Vision character, and then deftly used them to set up his downfall. The true essence of tragedy is for a character to reason his way to making all of the right decisions until their way of thinking leads them to a position where they go through the same process in the wrong situation and make the wrong decision. Vision is a character almost uniquely suited to feature in such a tale as his thinking is based on patterns and algorithms, making him ripe for a fall, and, just as critically, powerful enough that his fall is bound to be a cataclysmic event for all those around him.

Little Worse Than a Man is, in the end, the first act of a horror story. From the creepy off-kilter nature of the opening pages through the rising dread of the core to the chilling and terrifying note at the end, this volume contains a work of suspense and tragedy. To be perfectly honest, this story is not what I expected when I sat down to read a graphic story about Vision and his robot family living in the suburbs of the nation's capitol, but it now seems like the only story that could come out of such a scenario. Only the best storytellers can give you something that you didn't expect and yet at the same time feels ineluctably correct, and in this volume King and Walta have done exactly that.

2017 Hugo Finalists

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