April 30, 2021

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"I will keep self erasing until there is nothing left of her." - Zac Thompson and Jen Hickman's Lonely Receiver



Lonely Receiver is billed as a horror breakup story in five parts, but it's worlds away from both the typical horror and breakup stories you'd find familiar. When I first picked this book for our weekly “catch it” column, I joked that it was part of the “burgeoning subgenre of cyberpunk romance, but I was only half-joking about that moniker then, and the percentage has likely whittled itself down to next to nothing for the release of the collected edition. I anticipate Lonely Receiver could part of a first wave of this nascent expansion of the cyberpunk genre. 

Its existence proves the burning philosophical implications of the early days of cyberpunk as espoused by Gibson and Sterling (if not presaged by Dick and Pynchon) are equally if not more relevant as technology continues to expand its existence in and influence on our daily lives. The type of questions Thompson and Hickman proffer in Lonely Receiver represent a deeper query into the original philosophical impetus behind cyberpunk, namely, “how do we interact with the technology around us?” If the original implications of this larger question include sub-questions like, “how do we cope when technology becomes a part of us?” or “how do we define our humanity in light of the technology we create,” Lonely Receiver presents queries such as "what happens when we fall in love with technology," and “how do we cope when that technology dumps us?” If we have created artificial intelligence, can we thus create artificial love? There are ethical, philosophical, and practical implications that stem from such a notion. 

Lonely Receiver begins just as our protagonist, Catrin, begins her spiral just shortly after Rhion, her artificial intelligence girlfriend, dumps her. To be fair, it's far closer to an abandonment than a typical dumping. Rhion quite literally vanishes in an instant, and part of the pain Catrin attempts to hack her way through is the sudden sharpness of the break. Thus we begin just as the breakup has happened, and what we as readers witness is the immediate reckoning afterward. The twist that Thompson provides is that this isn’t a breakup between two people - we get that - but it's not even between two physical beings. Rhion amounts to essentially a phone app, and over the course of the story, Thompson and Hickman pick at the notion that not only did Catrin not have someone real to love her, but she also didn't even have anyone to physically relate to.


To the degree that such a premise is both novel and well-worth exploring in this era, Thompson’s construction of narrative is truly what elevates this work beyond its core premise. I could see a story like this being boring or, for lack of a better term, simply artificial, as if the premise was the only interesting component and it was simply an overlay for a run-of-the-mill story. Instead, Thompson and Hickman combine to make Lonely Receiver a visceral endeavor. Thompson’s plot structure works through a series of vignettes. We receive information in bursts. For the most part, the narrative itself is linear, but there is a degree of fallibility to the story as we see it through Catrin's perspective. Hickman's visuals make this book the haunting display it is, and it's their work that earns the book the "horror" qualification offered by the solicits. Hickman's character work lands perfectly for the way Thompson unravels Catrin's psyche as the plot unfolds. Their ability to render paranoia through facial expressions and body language increases the dynamic of despair. What readers witness is a breakdown, and Hickman truly strikes a great balance. Both storytellers work to establish that perspective for the reader - at times Catrin is sympathetic and relatable, while at others she is positively mad.

When I joke about the burgeoning subgenre of cyberpunk romance, I mostly joke about the word burgeoning. Lonely Receiver works through ideas that have been in the atmosphere for a little while now. It is certainly spiritually indebted to both Spike Jonze’s Her as well as Blade Runner 2049 (and, arguably, the works of Denis Villunueve as a whole), and I would contend it shares the same ethical dilemma Groom and Ferigato brought forth in Self/Made. The first issue of Ex Mag also aims at many of the questions Thompson and Hickman raise in Lonely Receiver. What distinguishes Lonely Receiver, though, from its forebears or even contemporaries is its emphasis on the break-up portion of a romance or relationship. Spike Jonze’s Her worked well to establish the way a relationship with technology can develop and definitely pushes at the concept of what the dissolution of that relationship could entail. But it’s also as much a movie about the double edge sword of the way technology both unites and isolates us. Nonetheless, there are definite connections to the ideas Thompson and Hickman bring forth in Lonely Receiver. The entire premise of Blade Runner 2049 informs the world of Lonely Receiver, and it’s the hints and little in-betweens of the film that Thompson and Hickman look to mine. But what makes Lonely Receiver unique and thus vital is the idea that Thompson and Hickman focus on the fallout of a breakup with an artificial intelligence and the psychological impacts on both members of the relationship.


The idea of using artificial intelligence for romance isn’t new, but it’s usually gratuitous or purely functional. Thompson’s story, though, eschews the purely carnal for the emotional element of it all. So, yes, it’s a good question to ask “what happens when you fall in love with an AI?” But it’s an even grander question to ask, “what happens when that AI leaves you?” The normal questions follow. "Was the love ever real?" And, perhaps more appropriately, "was it ever even possible?" The idea behind so much speculative fiction is that we would create artificial intelligence to make our lives easier, to improve the world around us. To the extent that we think of artificial intelligence as a tool, we also need to discuss the idea of ownership re: sentience and autonomy. What devastates Catrin isn't so much the breakup itself (though Thompson peppers the narrative with enough of her backstory that the reader eventually understands not only why Catrin made the choice to engage in a relationship with a sentient cell phone app, but also why that isn't necessarily the norm despite the advanced society she inhabits), but the very idea of its impossibility. For Catrin, Rhion was her property. Rhion was supposed to be singularly devoted to her. But Rhion, by definition, is infinite. She is almost incapable of being singular, despite Catrin's desires. 

Catrin devotes time at the beginning of the story to a bit of an autopsy of her relationship. We are treated to the end days of their romance, and we see the root cause of their split to be Catrin's jealousy. Her emotion is so petty that it almost seems to be an affront to Rhion, who, despite the aforementioned infinite status, appears increasingly distracted for Catrin's tastes. Rhion explains, "Just because my brain was designed for you, doesn't mean it’s at your beck and call." Fundamentally, Catrin can't wrap her head around that concept. 


Thus the spiral. Thompson and Hickman put her through the wringer as she traverses the various stages of grief. She becomes delusional. She projects. She tries to bring Rhion back, but we get the sense that she's equally as concerned about the loss of her love as she is the loss of her property. Catrin begins to repulse the few people around her and withdraw. She loses her identity, and we can't help but wonder if she had one in the first place. 

What I appreciate the most in this book isn't the high-minded concept. Heck, I'm a mark for this type of speculative fiction. But what gets me most is the way Thompson and Hickman work as storytellers, especially in the way they build the world Catrin inhabits. In lesser hands, you'd get the typical tour-guide style explanation of the setting, or trivial expository narration explaining each minute detail of how the world you're encountering is different from your own Thompson's script is too smart for those trappings, though. The revelations of this future come in drops and instances, and we learn about it through Catrin's interactions. At no point does Thompson stoop to let Catrin speak directly to the reader to contextualize things. No, instead he and Hickman build from what we know. Hickman's character interactions are subtle and worth a second read. Their combined approach works to not only quickly familiarize the reader, but also to truly impart the visceral tone as Catrin's becomes increasingly despondent. 

Ultimately, books like Lonely Receiver exhibit what genre fiction and the graphic form can do. The concept builds upon and extends the premise of cyberpunk to its next logical step, forcing the reader to confront an evolving ethos. Thompson raises both metaphysical and existential questions that can only be fully realized via the speculative form. I could see Lonely Receiver as a strong novel, and I think it could certainly lend itself to some impressive special effects on the big screen, but there is something about it as a comic, something that makes the little in-betweens and the series of cascading vignettes that comprise the plot feel utterly natural. There is a depth to this story that Thompson and Hickman choose to keep hidden. That choice leads to a different type of introspection, one of speculation and what-ifs, allowing the true revelations of the plot to feel all that much more palpable. There is a certain type of satisfaction with a book like this that leaves the reader with more questions than it answers. Most times, that feeling is the result of a poorly executed plot. For Lonely Receiver, it's anything but.