Ian is one of those names you don’t hear that much any more. There must be Ians out there, I’ve been acquainted with a few over the years, but I haven’t heard of any babies being given the name. So it was with some surprise to see this book appear, the first in a new ongoing French bandes dessinées series from Cinebook, apparently with a main character bearing the name. So, who is Ian?
Well, the character in question isn’t an Ian, he’s an IAN: an Intelligent Artificial Neuromechanoid. An IAN is a sort of biological robot, built around a sophisticated artificial intelligence, designed to closely emulate the human condition but with the processing power of a computer. Ian can feel emotion and pain, and can even learn as he experiences the world around him, but he’s naive and unsophisticated compared to human adults with years of experience.
Ian is one of a kind: a prototype android that has taken his creators years to build. To test his capabilities, his creators arrange to have him inserted into a crack team of international rescuers. This unit, a special forces team for saving lives in extreme conditions, reluctantly take the automaton on a mission to rescue a submersible team, who were trying to decommission a wrecked nuclear facility when they crashed into a large whale. As you do. However, as if the rescue weren’t complicated enough with the nuclear angle and the massive injured whale, there’s something dodgy going on in the background, with a criminal gang apparently interested in nuclear material that might be hidden in the wreckage. Ian takes a relatively backseat role in proceedings, sidelined by his human colleagues, but we learn more about him through his acceptance and handling of the casual bullying that he’s subjected to.
This is a slow but confident build-up, something that serial French graphic albums often do so very well, taking its time, building character, but still providing a satisfying self-contained story in this volume. Read in isolation, it’s a thrilling, near-future sci-fi action thriller, but it’s also thought-provoking and gently intelligent. It hasn’t followed the obvious path (yet – this is only the beginning) of artificial intelligence seemingly capable of ruling over humans, though this is clearly the worry of the rescue team’s commander, who lays down the law and ring-fences Ian before he can establish his own modus operandi. It’s more about how we’ll treat AI when it arrives: will we still be barking orders to Alexa and Google when they inevitably change shape from smart-speaker to humanoid?
Ralph Meyer’s art compliments Fabien Vehlmann’s story well. It has a bold European style, grounded in reality but with a capability to slot future tech into place seamlessly. The ensemble cast is expertly rendered, the backdrops feel authentic, and the cutting-edge, near-future tech blends in. It starts slow but ends in an intense action sequence, and Meyer can handle either with apparent ease.
It’s a great start to a new series, which I’m looking forward to reading more of.