Worthwhile Webcomics: Freefall, by Mark Stanley

Mama Fisi
Mama Fisi's picture

One of the better hard sci-fi-based comic strips out there, is "Freefall" by Mark Stanley. Sure, it progresses at the speed of lint (a running joke among his fans is how he made a single day in the strip last for several real-time years), but for sheer inventiveness and the ability to work a gag into every strip, it really can't be beat.

Running three times a week, just about every week, for over ten years, "Freefall" follows the misadventures of a mutant wolf astro-engineer named Florence Ambrose, who was kidnapped out of coldsleep on her way to an experimental space station by Captain Sam Starfall, a charmingly slippery alien confidence man who wears a blue environment suit because his squidlike body cannot exist under Earth-like conditions. Plus his looks tend to creep humans out.

Sam is assisted in his good-natured prankishness by the four-legged, two-armed service robot Helix, round of body and innocent of mind. Their space ship, the Savage Chicken, is a rusting wreck only barely capable of flight, with an on-board computer that views Sam as an alien menace and keeps trying to kill him. Sam has hopes that Florence can get the ship running again before the colony's law enforcment runs them off the planet. Sam has a habit of taking things that don't belong to him--including the doors to the town jail.

Beginning life as a series of rather random science fiction cartoons back before the Web really existed, "Freefall" has evolved into an ongoing story about the development of artificial intelligence and the complex morality of keeping sapient beings as disposable slaves. The robots in Mr. Stanley's story have been sent to terraform the planet Jean in order to make it habitable for human colonists; along the way, the robots were invested with neural architecture which allows them to learn in much the same way that human brains can learn and adapt. But this creates complications when the robots also start developing personalities, and begin to resent the idea that they will be scrapped out once the colony is established for the humans.

The humans, meanwhile, are, for the most part, obliviously or incompetently unaware of the approaching problem. Only Florence, as a more advanced AI using the same neural architecture as the Jenian robots, understands what is happening, just as the colony's development company, Ecosystems Unlimited, prepares to release a "patch" into the robots' communications network which will cause them all to reboot to their factory presets--effectively lobotomizing their entire population.

Florence has to fight against nearly insurmountable obstacles--including Sam's attempts to be helpful--in order to avert the disaster, save the robots, and prevent the colony's infrastructure from collapsing due to the short-sighted nature of the Gardener in the Dark program. It also doesn't help that this "patch" is being pushed by a character with nefarious designs of his own.

"Freefall" is one of those comic strips you wish someone would make into a movie. The drawing style is clean and uncluttered, and the slapstick is tempered by good, solid science. Full disclosure--Mark Stanley's a good friend of mine. But I still believe Freefall is one of the best comic strips on the Web today.

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