In the near-future, people use technology to give the illusion of all kinds of body modifications—but some people have “Egan’s Syndrome,” a highly sensitive immune system that rejects these “mods” and are unable to use them. Those who are affected maintain a “natural” appearance, reliant on cosmetics and hair dye at most to help them play with their looks.
Sunati is attracted to Austen the first time she sees her and is drawn to what she assumes is Austen’s bravery and confidence to live life unmodded. When Sunati learns the truth, she’s still attracted to Austen and asks her on a date. Gradually, their relationship unfolds as they deal with friends, family, and the emotional conflicts that come with every romance. Together, they will learn and grow in a story that reminds us no matter how technology evolves, we will remain . . . always human.
Rendered in beautiful detail and an extraordinary color palette, Always Human is a sweet love story told in a gentle sci-fi setting by a queer woman cartoonist, Ari North.
Always Human is a fun and light-hearted read, but within it is a plethora of deep themes rarely explored in YA Science Fiction, let alone graphic novels. While reading it is an absolute pleasure, you are absorbing concepts that are for many hard to understand. The author, Ari North, does an exceptional job presenting these themes in a way anyone can understand while not losing the overall tone of the story. I’d like to take some time to look deeper into some of the themes I picked up on while reading Always Human and further discuss their representation and lessons.
Self-Expression is the theme that truly at the forefront of this series. After all, this story takes place in a future where people use technology to enhance their bodies in various ways, including aesthetically. These modifications are implied as being endless and allow the society represented to be much better suited for a wide variety of self-expression. Always Human is unique in that it includes a wide variety of characters with differing sexualities, race, and gender identity. It’s implied that such differences no longer hold the weight they do in our current society, as it’s much easier for one to alter their physical self to better reflect their feelings and personal views. It’s interesting to see how society would view people in a world where you can truly look however you want, and “other” is commonplace.
Invisible Illness (disability) is the second most important theme as it closely pertains to the protagonist, Sunati’s, love interest Austen. Austen suffers from the fictional Egan’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that makes her unable to use mods, which in many ways leaves her “disabled” in a world where people use mods to help with things such as memorization and illness prevention. Throughout this volume we see not only how this affects her but how people respond and act towards her. North does an exceptional job illustrating life with an invisible illness and how it can often skew other’s perception of someone, as well as how it can negatively affect the person’s mental health and relationships. It’s refreshing to read such an honest representation that manages to stay away from some potentially harmful tropes that often follow characters with a disability. We view Austen’s struggle in a very honest way from both her perspective and Sunati’s which provides a lot of room for learning to the readers.
Communication is the key to a healthy relationship and is explored at length in this graphic novel. Whether through mistakes and triumph, North presents a realistic representation of communication that is mostly healthy but definitely not perfect. There are things to be learned from the conversations that go well and, of course, lessons to be learned from the ones that don’t. Both are in this book and so well written.
Humanity in the technological era is a theme often explored in science fiction, and North definitely takes a more literal approach to this one. We are given a society that is very different from ours in a way that could be seen for the better. The amount of self-expression allotted to individuals in this world has opened up peoples mind to many things otherwise considered “other.” At the same time, this leaves some people at a great disadvantage (those with Egan’s syndrome). The way disease is handled is different, and the human body becomes, in a way less organic. The book explores what it means to be human is an area of endless possibility.
In addition to my analysis, I was to create fan-art for this comic which was an absolute pleasure. This series is truly worth the read and the publication of it is also for a good cause. I highly recommend looking into it and buying a copy of your own.
Special thanks to Hear Our Voices book tours for allowing me to participate in this tour.