Upgrade Soul (2018)
Written & Illustrated by Ezra Claytan Daniels
Hank and Molly Nonnar have been married for 45 years when they agree to undergo an experimental to give themselves new bodies and a second lifetime. However, as these things so often go, there are complications, and the couple’s bodies and souls undergo something life-shattering. As the two are led through the recovery process by the unethical scientists and researchers at the institute, they begin to uncover truths about themselves and their relationship. Molly makes breakthroughs in her research and sees her typical day to day needs fading away. Hank finds intimacy in an unexpected relationship and begins to imagine a future beyond the walls of their hospital. But as more is discovered about their conditions the bleaker the outcome appears to be.
Upgrade Soul exceeded my expectations while somehow falling a little flat. I was expecting a transhumanist body horror story, which is there, but the story is much more positive in its outlook on humanity than I thought we’d see. Hank and Molly are definitely in a painful and daunting process and have the breadth of their condition kept from them. However, even so, as they are developing and adapting to what is going on, there’s a sense of hope, that things will work out regardless of the circumstances. What happened may not have been planned, but the result is that Hank and Molly are becoming something more than human, and they’re okay with that.
Science fiction has a long history of exploring questions of identity and Upgrade Soul is right there. Hank and Molly are an interracial (black & Latin respectively), so there are more layers to a change in their physical form. Hank’s father created a popular black pulp hero whom Hank still pens stories for and has overseen a television adaptation about. Hank is troubled as the adaptation compromises much of what makes this character unique and particularly black. Later, when the experiment is performed, and Hank is no longer physically a black person we see him processing this new sense of identity. How much of our body makes us who we are? What bodies are considered “normal” who makes those judgments?
Don’t come into Upgrade Soul expecting David Cronenberg because creator Daniels chooses not to make this a descent into darkness. Yes, there are somber moments in the story but the way it plays out we see a very even-handed exploration of these themes. There is beauty in the way Hank and Molly handle their developments, even creating adaptive technology to assist them in interacting with the world. Their emotional and academic intelligence seem to bloom and grow. Eventually, there are consequences revealed and the motivations of their caretakers are shown to be duplicitous, but the horror is never in the transformation.
While Hank and Molly may be the protagonists, there is a large ensemble cast in the book, made up of scientists, family members, and other supporting characters. Molly and Hank’s relationship with their young niece Del is thematically essential to understanding the overall journey. Through Del and how her life turns out because of the actions of her uncle and aunt we see how foolish our main characters were embarking on this journey. The aftermath of what happens at the clinic ripples out into the outside world the cost is very heavy for many people. Partnerships and relationships are forever severed at the end of the book. Upgrade Soul is classic science fiction that marries the fantastic with the very grounded and human to inform us about ourselves.