Upgrade Soul by Ezra Claytan Daniels

Song Pairing: “Another Time Lover” by Kadhja Bonet  Listen Here / 2018 HELLO YELLOW REVIEWS Playlist

Science Fiction has a new holy tome.

We’re having a conversation over here at Hello Yellow about how much we love Upgrade Soul. Care to weigh in? Leave Samantha & Elizabeth a comment below.

Samantha: This is without a doubt the graphic novel I’m most excited about this year. It’s everything I want in a comic. It’s sharp, intelligent, horrifying and graphic. Upgrade Soul appeals to me in the same way that exceptional science fiction/horror movies appeal to me; fantasy lingers at the edge of possibility, begging the question, “We can, but should we?”

ElizabethFirst of all, Sam, I can’t think you enough for telling me about this book. It’s one of the most interesting and well-crafted books I’ve read in forever. This is a book that reminds me of lots of things I’ve read, but is a completely unique story that raises such interesting ethical issues with no easy answers.


Samantha: To anyone who hasn’t read the comic, here’s a short synopsis. Hank and Molly are undergoing a very dangerous procedure to cleanse their cells. A scientific breakthrough makes it possible for their youth to be reintroduced, the longevity of their already long-lived lives to renew, with ever improving mental faculties and physical abilities.

Like all brave experiments, this one goes awry. Kenny, the scientist in charge of the transformation, leaves out one important aspect of the rejuvenation process: Hank and Molly’s bodies aren’t the ones renewing. They’re being cloned. And even worse news, the clones they’ve created in Hank and Molly’s image are physically deformed. Though their aptitude is exceptional, their memory retention perfect, their bodies appear as malformed fetuses struggling for life. As the experiment continues, only one set of Hank and Molly can survive, but which will it be?

Elizabeth: While this book is largely focused on quality of life and the ethical questions the procedure raises, a theme I noticed is the search for knowledge. This book is full of scientists, and the non-scientist characters are on journeys of their own. Manuela and Henry are building off of the experiences from Molly and Hank, but also seeking their own path in life. There’s a character who decides to give up her life of seclusion to try and truly live, and watching her journey is heartbreaking and exciting. Molly and Hank, and the company behind the procedure, have to deal with the disaster they created.

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Samantha: This has been a super unique reading experience for me. As our resident comics advisory expert, are there any connections you’ve found to other works? 

ElizabethIf I had to compare it to another comic, I’d probably go with Nowhere Men by Eric Stephenson or the classic Watchmen by Alan Moore. Ethical questions abound in both works, as do egotistical scientists. More than anything, this reminded me of one of my favorite series, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy. Kenny reminded me a lot of Crake, a brilliant character who truly believes he knows what’s best for humanity, and (mild spoiler) ends up essentially bringing on the apocalypse. While the impact is much smaller in Upgrade Soul, the effects of trying to play God are still felt.

Would you ever get the procedure? 

Elizabeth: I’m afraid to get LASIK, so I know the answer for me would be a “HELL NO!” But I thought it was smart that Hank and Molly spent so much time doing research before deciding to go through with everything.

Samantha: I’m with you. I totally want to live forever, but not with this kind of procedure. I’ll wait for a cursed painting or a magic pill or a vampire bite, something that requires less cloning.

A Note on the Author Ezra Claytan Daniels

Samantha: Ezra Claytan Daniels doesn’t pander to the audience. There are very few instances in which the plot is spelled out for us, which leaves only nuance, insight, and a beautiful lack of spoon-feeding that I respect and enjoy so much. Ruminating on the implications of Daniels work is going to be my favorite part of finishing the novel–the thought experiment carries on. There’s as much horror as there is heart, so prepare yourselves for a journey into some dark concepts and even darker decisions.

ElizabethI had the opportunity to hear Ezra Claytan Daniels speak at the American Library Association’s Annual Conference in New Orleans this year (I also got to meet him and be a dork when talking about how much I liked Upgrade Soul.) In the panel I attended, which was all about representation in comics, he gave some insights that I found interesting. Daniels is biracial, and he said growing up he never really saw biracial characters in comics. He also said that it wasn’t until he won the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics in 2017 that publishers took interest in his work. It’s about time that publishers did! I can’t wait until September when I can (kindly) shove this into the hands of every sci-fi loving person who comes into the library.

Samantha: And if somebody knows where I can find a gigantic poster of that Upgrade Soul cover art, shoot me a line. That belongs on my wall.

Thanks to Net Galley for the advanced readers copy. 

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