Made For A Real World: Time and Romance in Josh Trujillo’s ‘Love Machines’
Two computers, both alike in dignity, reach across the pre-web void to speak and an engineer calls it romance. Hero and Leander are two supercomputers, who “speak” for the first time thanks to the experiments of Dr. Joseph Yassin and his team. Yassin sees the experiment in terms of dollars and cents --- attention equals funding --- while one of the younger team members is carried away by the romance of it, even saying “one day we’ll carry out romantic relationships with computers.”
Meanwhile, a young boy explores an abandoned San Francisco fairground. Once a monument to the infinite possibilities of the future, now a graveyard for ideas. Bemused by how old fashioned it all is, how inexplicable some objects are, he gives up on exploring to fiddle with a toy that is utterly alien to him, a Sandy Andy, and gets to speak to its once owner.
Love Machines #4 is interested in romance and time and ideas; the black and white comic anthology is devoted to “love stories about technology with an eye to the past.” Written and published by Josh Trujillo through his Lost Key Comics line, Love Machines is, essentially, about relationships between people and objects through time.
“Hero and Leander” has art from Kate Glasheen, and “Sandy Andy” has art from Colin Anderson, and though they’re stylistically divergent, the tone of these two stories is well matched to the other. Each evokes nostalgia; Glasheen more through costume, Anderson through a blockier, retro style. The supercomputers of “Hero and Leander” and the fairground and ephemera of “Sandy Andy” used to be at the apex of technology. Although they haven’t changed, they’re relics now, artifacts rather than technology --- it’s time and humanity that makes the difference. Love Machine #4 cleverly explores the idea that a key part of humanity’s relationship with technology is romance: both the romance of the future and the romance of the past.
In “Hero and Leander” the idea of computer-to-computer communication is itself incredible and exciting, and anthropomorphization and identification make it romantic. These are two supercomputers, then the cutting edge of technological development, separated by distance; two of a new kind of computer, reaching towards artificial intelligence.
One of the team’s engineers, who teaches Hero syntax and grammar, imagines a future where computers love each other and humans and computers too: this is a reflection of the affection he has for Hero, and of his own romantic nature; he wants to see that affection and investment returned. But more than that, he wants to believe in a future are more than subject to fetish or nostalgia, a future where they live. Dr. Yassin hates the spectacle of how the experiment has been framed --- it’s bad science, since even now, decades later, we’ve yet to crack AI --- but even he can’t reject the framing entirely. When Hero stops talking to Leander, he laughs, saying that her superior technology has allowed her to exhaust everything worth saying to the inferior Leander: or, she has spurned him.
The computers are of course named after Greek mythic lovers Hero and Leander who were separated by the Hellespont (now the Dardanelles) and Hero’s position as a virgin dedicated to the worship of Aphrodite. Leander though, would not be stopped by rocks or waves, and Hero not by tradition. Every night Leander swam across the Hellespont to meet with her, until one stormy night, he became lost and was swept out to sea. Many Classical writers blame Hero, or the “madness” of young love. (Rosalind of As You Like It saw it differently: “But these are all lies: men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love (IV.I)” --- love is just their excuse.)
Layered in with this classical allusion is the story’s real world basis, the work of Joseph Weizenbaum, who created the still popular chatbot ELIZA. Though Hero spurns Leander, they’re both computers playing to a script or what computer intelligence and computer romance might look like.
In “Sandy Andy,” a young boy explores an abandoned fairground and comes across a dilapidated bedroom. The contents of the once futuristic home are long outdated, rendered meaningless by time and the real march of technology. The Sandy Andy toy that he finds consists of a funnel, a scoop, and a sling: sand goes down the funnel and is slung forward.
Trujillo says that the Sandy Andy was “an actual children’s toy at the beginning of the 20th century." He notes, "Admittedly it’s underwhelming, but for someone living at the time it might have had more meaning. Mechanical devices were still relatively novel, especially ones for youth. This was a chance for a kid to be part of the great mechanical revolution happening all around them.”
I think we can all remember toys from our own childhoods that were shallow facsimiles of technology-in-the-making, that now seem bizarre. The point of them is give kids something future-seeming, or in the case of retro toys, something past-seeming, without real connection to what will be or what was. To make kids feel a part of the zeitgeist, I guess.
As he plays with the Sandy Andy, its previous owner suddenly appears, playing hide and seek with her brother. I can’t personally tell from the costuming cues if she’s meant to be a ghost or there by happenstance, but let’s go with ghost -- it fits thematically. Their interaction is brief and she mostly serves to explode his illusions about the past. There’s a piano in the room, so he imagined her a great player. Well, she says, I hated piano and only played it because my mother forced me. The Sandy Andy, that bizarre, inexplicate past-object is in the only thing in the room’s detritus that matters to her. And he’s forced to admit that “you aren’t at all like I expected, are you?”
Love Machines #4 ably deconstructs the romance of the past and the romance of the future without destroying them. Instead, it revels in these impulses even as it shows them up for what they are: a reflection of what is, who we are, and what we hope may be. This is a clever comic anthology, light on tech pundit doomsaying, heavy on sweetness, for the the tech-loving romantic at heart.
Love Machines is available for purchase via Trujillo's website, JoshTrujillo.com.