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SYFY WIRE Indie Comics Spotlight

Indie Comics Spotlight: Biohacking, transhumanism, and gender identity in 'The Dark'

By Karama Horne
The Dark

The Dark, by screenwriter and playwright Mark Sable (Unthinkable, Godkillers), is a graphic novel about a world plunged into chaos when a biotech virus pulls everything offline. The plot twists around government conspiracies, techno warfare, biohacking, and the unlikely pair out to stop it before another world war breaks loose. To make it all the scarier, Sable bases his fiction on fact. As a futurist who has consulted with think tanks and The Art of Future Warfare Project, he is well versed in techno warfare scenarios. 

The Dark begins in 2035 and follows Master Sergeant Robert Carter, a N.E.O. (Networked Exoskeleton Operator) Marine whose power armor links him to the world’s technology, and whose implants mentally connect him to his unit. He feels what they feel, which proves torturous when his unit is attacked. The Dark takes on a double meaning as the experience leaves him both physically and technologically blind as the world’s tech crashes.

His world changes when he is sent after Camille — a skilled biohacker and analyst for NSA’s Bumble Hive — who is on a mission to expose the government’s use of bio-hacked surveillance. But she’s also attempting to recode herself in the process. You see, Camille is a trans woman and has discovered a way to change her gender at the molecular level. Camille’s quest to expose the truth and Carter’s pursuit of that very truth throw them together in a race against time to save the world.

Sable co-created the story with artist Kristian Donaldson (Unthinkable, The Guild) and Mey Rude, a transgender woman who served as a consulting editor on the project. Sable took some time to talk to SYFY WIRE about biohacking, transhumanism, and how science fiction often predicts the future.

The Dark_cover

Is the virus that essentially creates “The Dark” some type of EMP?

Mark Sable: In a way. It’s definitely a computer virus, and when developing the story I wanted to plunge the world into technological darkness. The EMP threat is really exaggerated. Whereas I think people really underestimate cyber threats, which will include viruses, but also very much like disinformation.

So the story starts in the Baltics, and then when things start going bad for this Russian separatist group that [the Marines] are fighting, they unleash this computer virus that essentially shuts down the electrical grid all over the world. I don't think they intended it to spread that quickly. So it's the virus that winds up plunging the world into literal darkness.

Does it ever freak you out that you wrote a book about a biotech pandemic that people are now reading in the middle of a real pandemic?

The high concept for the book was, “What replaces computer technology when the world’s grid goes down?” Instead of silicon-based technology that could be vulnerable to a computer virus, it's going to be biotechnology. One of the threats is this bio-engineered virus that comes out of China that's specifically targeted to take out [enhanced soldiers] in the American military. So yeah, there were a couple of surreal things about it.

I don't pat myself on the back for predicting anything bad that happens, or anything good for that matter, and I’m certainly not happy that there's a pandemic. [As a futurist] there's all this talk about biowarfare and people creating viruses and I think I really underestimated just how bad a natural pandemic could be. The mental toll quarantine takes on people, and what [it does] to the economy.

The Dark A

Did you choose to make Camille’s character transgender from the beginning? Or was that a choice you made later as a revision?

That was right from the start. I thought about Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, actually. I thought about if Bumble Hive (which is real) had a real bio-computer (which they don’t), who'd be trying to steal from it, and why? And then if our world [is advanced enough] to have biological computing in it, maybe it also has the tech to perform gender reassignment on a microbiological level.

And in that way, it made sense just right from the beginning to have a trans character. I was also very nervous [as a cishet man] to go forward with it. Because when I hired Mey Rude, who is a trans person and our editorial consultant, if she said the story wouldn’t work at all, then I would be kind of messed up. That experience taught me so much. I'm still learning, and it’s important to point out that Camille’s story doesn’t represent all trans people, just her character's path in this story.

The Dark B

Who is Gustav Maguson?

Gustav is a successful metadata broker when the story starts. He makes money off of all the information that you can gather off people on the web in 2035. For him, it's not all about the money because he’s more interested in owning information. He feels that the government overreacts to this computer virus. Because instead of building a new and safer grid for everybody, the government says, “Nope, you can't have internet.” Gustav views that as the equivalent of burning books. 

The world-building in this story is fascinating: Texas being independent and Cuba having better healthcare. Can you expand on your thought process there? 

Well, in reality, Texas is the only state that has their own grid. That means if they were closed off from the rest of the country, they would be able to survive. So in addition to Texas blocking [their southern borders] from Mexico and Central America, in this story they're keeping out energy [reserves] from the rest of the U.S. They've got power there, but at the same time, they don't have internet and they become a right-wing, militia-based society. Camille tries to get her surgery there initially... but the healthcare system has not been improved.

Cuba, even with all of its issues even now, has a healthcare system that is better than most. I felt like that would also be a place that might be insulated from a computer virus because they're basically walled off from the internet. Cuba has also become a haven for people to get experimental and unorthodox procedures done. So that was part of it, too; I'm envisioning this world where there are some major changes, but some things are the same.

The Dark C

 Are Camille and Carter two sides of the same coin or are they antagonists that grow to understand each other?

I think they're pretty well-balanced protagonists. It’s interesting because Carter becomes a recluse at one point because he realizes he’s this cyborg soldier whose government has augmented his body for their use and he doesn’t have a choice. Before the Dark, he was connected to everything and he relishes the quiet after it’s all ripped away. While Camille is not comfortable with her own body or how others perceive her and misses the world of the internet and would love for that to come back. 

What do you feel is science fiction’s purpose besides entertainment? Can it predict the future? Should it comment on society’s ills?

I still think there is a value at looking toward science fiction. I mean, not just in terms of prediction, but I think also because of the real value of science fiction, and what it says about the world today.

So for me, what I was trying to say with The Dark was: If the world goes from being super connected to being in the dark, [and] everybody's sort of back to the way things were before the internet was, what is [the value] of being connected to people, at least in a virtual way? What are the benefits of it versus what are the prices? To some extent, we’re seeing that play out right now.