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Virtual reality eases the reality of natural destruction (somewhat) in 'Alienation'

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Inés Estrada's new graphic novel is sci-fi, but a special kind of sci-fi. It's sci-fi that doesn't imagine the future so much as remind you just how strange the present is. Though it's set in 2054, Alienation sketches a world that, in most aspects, feels just a few ticks off from the present day. Its characters experience online communication, virtual reality, sexual fluidity, cultural heterogeneity and the increasingly compromised natural environment in much the same way we do now. While their specific activities are more "futuristic" than ours, the overwhelming familiarity of their world makes the differences seem practically cosmetic.

That sense of familiarity comes down to a mix of paradoxical emotions that saturates their lives just as it does ours — a mix that Estrada gets spot-on. It's a combination of dizzy glee at the incredible things technology can do and a grim, omnipresent awareness of pending disaster. It's no accident that this book's title rhymes with "annihilation." While protagonist Elizabeth and her partner Charly frisk about in virtual worlds and enjoy an array of futuristic conveniences, the Earth is clearly undergoing an inexorable collapse. Elizabeth and Charly summon dinner through an internet link (choices include "mycoburger," "pizza taco" and "sushi pizza") but since all marine life has been tainted by radioactive waste, the sushi is fish-free. (And then there are the soylent shakes ...) The pair have fun exploring gorgeous VR worlds and meeting AI creatures, but Elizabeth hasn't "been outside in real nature in years."

In fact, Elizabeth barely ever leaves her and Charly's womblike apartment in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. She makes a living performing virtual sex shows for online clients and interacts with her family and friends the same way. Charly, though, is more in touch with reality. Through his work at an oil refinery (a job he commutes to in a self-driving pod) he's face-to-face with the horror of planetary destruction every day. Estrada draws him standing at the edge of a magnificently nightmarish, two-page scene of belching pipes, distant fires and a miasmic ocean. The back of his coverall bears the Shell logo. Soon he plans to get a job in Russia, working for a Chinese company that uses pollination drones as substitutes for now-extinct bees. It's not the first time an author has imagined this scenario, but Charly and Elizabeth's blasé acceptance is particularly chilling.

A former soldier, Charly also has traumas in his past that Elizabeth doesn't. She talks him through flashbacks by reminding him of the joys of virtuality. "Only you can make yourself perceive [something] as real or fake," she says. "I know, war is real. Your memories are real. But don't let them become your reality forever ... This is your reality, too. Our apartment, being at peace, being able to do whatever the f*ck you want online."

For Elizabeth, the possibilities of virtuality make the death of the natural world easily bearable, and indeed, the pleasures of VR have seldom been conveyed as compellingly as they are here. Rendered in extravagant detail, Elizabeth and Charly attend a Jimi Hendrix concert, transform into snails to have sex, explore jungles full of imaginary flora and fauna, and have 1970s punk band Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers perform in their apartment. When Elizabeth wants to hang out with her friend Kaarina, who lives in Finland, the pair "soak" in an iridescent lake. In reality, Kaarina has an unspecified — but apparently chronic — illness that confines her to a medical pod.

Writers and artists have depicted many of these topics before, but Estrada uniquely encapsulates the schizophrenic blend of exhilaration and alarm that they engender. Even as her vibrant drawings maintain a fizzing, slightly hysterical ebullience, a section of footnotes lurks at the end to bring the reader back to Earth (literally). One points out that we're "currently going through what scientists are calling ... The Sixth Mass Extinction." It's at the end, too, that Estrada — as if unable to help herself — spells out her theme. Buried amidst a page of copyright information and credits, Estrada finally eschews all ambiguity. "Climate change is real. The Earth is alive and we are killing her," she writes. "Technology is not the enemy; oppression, greed and exploitation are."

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.  Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.