Walkingnorth’s Always Human is a hard-SF-romance webtoon.
Intrigued by the oddly modless woman whose path she keeps crossing at the local transport station, VR environment designer Sunati sees the stranger’s hayfever attack as a chance to introduce herself. The offer of an appropriate mod (biomanipulating nanotech) does not go as Sunati envisioned. Instead of gratitude, the offer provokes tears.
University student Austen has Egan’s Syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder that makes it impossible for her to use the mods around which 24th century society is built. Other people can change their appearance at will, can augment their memories, even adapt to the rigours of deep space travel. Austen is stuck with baseline human abilities, which means she has to work very hard at goals that other people achieve without thinking.
Hopelessly smitten, Sunati takes advantage of her next encounter with Austen to ask the younger woman out. Of course, Austen says no; she does not even know Sunati’s name. Sunati presses her suit; Austen relents and agrees to go on a single date.
The path of romance is not smooth — Sunati is habitually secretive and unwilling to share information she thinks could upset other people, while Austen is stressed by her course work and a lingering fear that Sunati is in love with an imaginary Austen, an Inspirationally Disabled version that exists only in Sunati’s mind.
Half a year into their relationship, Sunati is offered a life-changing career opportunity. Yay! But … it would mean separation from Austen for over a year. Their relationship seems solid, but will it survive if Sunati accepts the offer? Will it survive if, out of a sense of loyalty to Austen, she turns it down?
This has a sound track on which I do not feel competent to comment.
Romance is hominid brain chemistry and some cognitive programming, inherent and otherwise; clearly the stuff of hard SF.
In the romance webcomic Always Human the existence of powerful body-modifying nanotech shapes the love story. Because virtually everyone is able to modify their bodies more or less at will, how one looks is mainly a matter of fashion (rather than something one can modify only through exercise, diet, hair dye, and surgery). Austen’s whole life has been shaped by her lack of access to commonplace conveniences. Even simple anti-cancer measures, which would mean a few minutes spend downloading a mod for anyone else, mean months in hospital for Austen. Travel in space beyond low Earth orbit is forever denied her (her body cannot handle high-acceleration mods).
In the beguiling future setting of this comic, people (and governments) are open-minded and reasonable. Gender or a‑gender is a choice. Gay or straight, monogamous or poly, are choices. No one seems to be poor. It is a capitalist society, but no companies are loading their workers with mods that enforce overwork (culminating in karōshi) or slavish obedience to the corp. No politicians waving religious texts are enforcing their beliefs on the populace. There don’t seem to be any griefers in this world, no malware in the mods.
Yet technology and a supportive society cannot completely change human nature. There’s nowt so queer as folk . Sunati twists herself into knots trying to keep everyone else happy. Austen doubts Sunati’s sincerity. Sunati’s friend Rae arrogantly violates confidences because she is convinced that she knows better than her friends. These may not seem like earthshaking conflicts (like winning the magic McGuffin or defeating the Big Bad) but they are very real to the characters of the webtoon … and I can assure you that they will matter to readers. [Editor’s note: YES! ]
If you need a pretty pastel version of the world as an escape from ugly realities like climate change, environmental devastation, over-population, authoritarianism, etc. this is the webcomic that will satisfy. While I almost never engage in award promotion for the works I review, I’ll make an exception for this one: consider this for the Hugo and the Tiptree.
The first instalment of Always Human is here. Clear your day for an archive binge.