Up there as one of the least appreciated art forms is the webcomic. Often maligned for meager art and absurdly large amounts of content, making them difficult to break into. Girl Genius is a webcomic that often straddles the line between legitimate art and nonsensical internet content. It has been running 3 pages a week since 2000, published over a dozen collected graphic novels, 3 novelizations of the first 3 story arcs, and is still going strong.
Both the webcomic and the novels hold great strengths: the webcomic helps visualize the mechanical wonders of the world full of mad scientists, robots, zeppelins, and monsters, while the novels showcase some fantastic writing skills from the two authors as well as some incredibly funny pieces of world building in the form of footnotes and articles or other media from within the world itself.
For the purpose of discussing how this series interacts with Artificial Intelligence, I’ll be looking at the presentation within the third story arc/novel, Agatha H. and the Voice of the Castle.
Main character Agatha Heterodyne is returning to her family’s ancestral home to take command of the family castle. The problem is Agatha’s family were a bunch of mad scientists (just like herself) and turned the castle into an artificial intelligence. 19 years before the story starts, the castle is damaged and the mind within it splits into a dozen separate beings all fighting each other for control in the ruins. It’s up to the intrepid heroine and her band of misfits, including an amazon princess and the emperor of cats, to fix the castle and save the day.
What makes the presentation of the castle fun is the great lengths the authors Kaja and Phil Foglio take to make the castle play up the expected stereotypes of AI (pure evil, inhuman, develops emotions or abilities beyond its creator’s intentions), while simultaneously feeling like an independent character in the story. The castle exists everywhere at once in the building that it still has control over but still has a protective feeling over the building like it was it’s body instead of merely a shell for its inhuman consciousness. The creator intended to make the castle an evil lunatic (just like himself) instead of it developing those traits as an accident. Late in the story, the castle decides the only way to save the main characters is to kill them, a trope that they all consider a standard logical decision that AI make in order to follow their master’s orders.
Overall the thing that’s astonishing about the castle is how funny it is.
So often AI is a monster, a menace, a replacement, or a slave. It’s not usually a silly sidekick. The Foglios present the castle as a mix of crazy and witty, going back and forth between begging it’s master to let it kill all of the invaders, to joking with one of the minions about Agatha’s love life, to grumblingly agreeing to Agatha’s demands. After the initial shock of interacting with a living building wears off, much of the story just has the castle making funny remarks on the goings on, especially if it sees a chance to push Agatha towards breeding a new heir for the family with one of the two major love interests.
Making the castle funny normalizes it, and lets the characters and the reader think about AI like a regular living thing.
Even the fact that the castle can be turned off and runs on hydroelectricity doesn’t negate it’s personhood to the characters. Granted, there are far more unusual life forms in a world where mad science runs in the bloodlines of thousands of families across Europa, but the point still stands. Deciding whether or not the AI in fiction or real life deserves the status of personhood fundamentally changes how characters or we should treat them. The Castle in Girl Genius cements itself as a defined and independent entity, a person, not just by being a powerful processing unit, but also by having a complex and very human personality.