Parenting is the most human of callings. But could an artificial intelligence, in extenuating circumstances, step in and do the job of raising children? That’s the question posed by the Jeff Lemire-written Sentient, one of the most compelling graphic novels I’ve read in a long time. Not only is the overarching premise intriguing, but the art — from Spain’s Gabriel Walta — is also a revelation. You will know Lemire’s name from frequent mentions in this column. Originally from Woodslee, near Windsor, he is the Southwestern Ontario farmboy/comic creator who gained much attention with his first mainstream success, Essex County, and followed it up with superlative books such as The Underwater Welder and Trillium. In Sentient, Lemire takes stock elements from science fiction — seemingly infallible shipboard computers, outer space colonies, spooky spaceship corridors, a dying Earth — and fashions something new and fresh.
I was reminded of the 1979 film Alien. The artificial intelligence in that case is a computer named Mother, which betrays the Nostromo crew with the help of the amoral android Ash. In Sentient, the A.I. is VALARIE, which has been left with a free hand by a quirk of her programming to care for a group of a dozen children on board the U.S.S. Montgomery. Sentient takes many unexpected turns. Lemire and Walta strike a solid balance between action sequences and thought-provoking passages. It’s not surprising, given he’s a European talent, that Walta’s style evokes Moebius’s work for Heavy Metal magazine. When I say VALARIE is free to raise the children as she chooses, what I mean is she doesn’t have any kind of an inhibitor chip. She can cajole. She can adopt the voice of the departed parents to keep children, like spunky Lil, in line. She can even visit violence on humans when the situation calls for it.
This is a cinematic book, which is probably why I kept thinking of other precendents: HAL 9000, TARS, GERTY and AUTO.