With the advent of newer technologies and advanced AI, humans are being systematically phased out from everyday life. This is the machinist’s nightmare: to be replaced by the very things they fabricate and build. What has made humans, thus far, special and intrinsically innovating, is the self-perpetuating idea. As advances in AI are made, however, very soon even this novel ability will be subject to the supremacy of the machine. Naturally, this concept and logical path of development has spilled into the realm of modern combat, and is the subject of debate in Royden Lepp’s Rust, a two part graphic novel featuring the untimely meeting between Roman Taylor and the titular Jet Jones. The conceptual universe of Rust is a world on the precipice of industrial modernization, ready to pass the torch between man and machine to a future of mechanized labor and warfare. In Rust, robots are coded for simple tasks, performing menial work from a simplified programming slate. This only dehumanizes them however, lacking any kind of anthropomorphic features. While it is revealed through the conversation of Mr. Alcot that the robots remaining from the WWI era were the first of their kind, newer, more “experimental projects” were fashioned as well, implying the creation of Lepp’s primary protagonist, Jet Jones, an android or synthetic humanoid. It is within this universe that Lepp establishes the dichotomous relationship between man and machine, and the first volume, though focused towards a general audience, touches on mature themes ranging from the death of American agricultural communities to drone infantry combat. And, though r ust would imply something in a state of decay, or unmaintained neglect, Lepp’s timely words are well tuned, and slick as oil in this steampunk treatise on the dwindling distinctions between man and machine.
Roman Taylor is a second generation farmer, clinging to his shrinking identity in agriculture, writing to a father whose absence is disconcerting and demoralizing to Roman. He recalls in passing that on a very normal day he came into contact with Jet Jones, a spry youth wearing a jet pack, virtually indistinguishable from flashback appearances of identical clones that fought in the Great War. Midst an aerial conflict between Jones and a larger rogue machine, Roman clinches victory for Jones, and secures him as a farm hand to help repair the damage to the barn and tractor. Oswald, Roman’s younger sibling, then asks about the nature of the war, seeing both Jones and the disabled Model-C that Roman has taken an interest in rebuilding so that Oswald can go to school on time instead of staying for the full harvest season. The ensuing conversation establishes the primary dialogue of the book, and its proceeding subtext. Roman recalls his limited knowledge of the Great War as the impetus that spawned the machines fabricated by each belligerent in the war. Oswald curiously asks, “Did the machines help?” to which Roman replies, with tantalizing uncertainty, “Well… we won.” The nature of drone combat offered by Lepp is a dubious one, asking whether or not the leveraging of technology was beneficial to the war.
Historically, warfare has gradually introduced a theme of cognitive and spacial distance between combatants. Bows and arrows stand as the earliest innovation to modern warfare, predating the Mesolithic period (c. 20,000BC) by almost 40,000 years. Over time the fabrication of synthesized materials and advancements in engineering developed longer range systems of combat. Long after the bow and arrow, the siege engine’s appearance in recorded human history offered an alternative to personal long range weaponry, which still needed a body to exert force to fire the ballistic. And so, down the line of human ingenuity, combat has grown steadily distanced in proximity to the war fighter. So then what does one make of Lepp’s discussion on warfare? It can be ventured that a mechanized drone infantry, now present in global military powers is only the next logical conclusion from a long line of weapon achievements. From bow and arrow to sword to black power musket and chambered fire-arms, the line goes on. Though drone warfare introduces the ethical conundrum of distinctions made between non-combatants and enemy soldiers, the completely subjective nature of drone warfare is easily transferable to humans who, though discriminating, are historically calloused and opportunistic. In Rust, the unnamed soldier (possibly a youthful Mr. Alcot), who scavenges downed sentries in the prologue, appears bold and cavalier in the heat of combat, hardly shell shocked, unlike the soldiers of the real Great War. Perhaps this is commentary by Lepp on the nature of distanced warfare. No longer is battle a question of human lives, but one of resource management and scrupulous tactics.
Though Jones’s qualms with re-purposing of the Model-C are voiced, Roman’s mind is clearly made up, set on taking advantage of the windfall of progress, though the interaction raises questions of another nature set on ontological significance. While at the conclusion of Rust Volume 1 it is revealed that Jones is some form of android or fusion of the two, his relationship between the aberrant machines descending on the farm remains undefined for the length of the volume. During the early 20th century, the world saw the advent of militarization-driven economic and industrial progress, particularly coined in the United States as the “military-industrial complex.” From the auto industry to the space race, military development drove technological progress, but also, consequently, inundated the world with fear and paranoia against a world-ending nuclear incursion. Nevertheless, the spurious advancements introduced new technologies so rapidly that their implementation was hopelessly mired. It was only in the context of warfare that they found actual purpose. The aptly named Model-C, the designation of the disabled robot being repaired by Roman, is reminiscent of the Model-T Ford, the first consumer vehicle available to the public at the turn of the century. Its advent also shared a part in one of the most devastating economic panics in US history, after over speculation and inflation nearly drove the US into the ground. However, at the dawn of WWII, these technologies now had purpose and contextualization. Automobiles were used for rapid transport and infantry mobilization on the front lines, creating a formidable effort against the “blitzkrieg” warfare evoked by the Axis forces. But even in the most mundane industries, pasteurization and chemical processing undoubtedly boomed to procure better rations for soldiers. Jones’s qualms in Rust are problematic because many of the technologies enjoyed publicly in the present are subject to, and have always worked in tandem with, the historical stimuli of military conflicts.
How then is this resolved? Jones’s problem is a problem of ontology. Functional ontology would stipulate that the intrinsic purpose related to an object lies in its representative function. For instance, a couch with cushions can be dismantled to produce a pile of sprawling cushions, but each of them will still have infused significance drawing back on the original purpose of the couch: recreational comfort. Material ontology is different, suggesting that the same couch is the sum of several distinguishing parts, ultimately a collocation of pieces with individual uses varying to the user. In this scheme the couch no longer has meaning but is fixed to the meaning prescribed by the user. Therefore, Roman’s re-purposing of the Model-C is ethical, as he is fashioning a labor unit from something that is subject to his will. Jones however contextualizes the nature of the machine by its functional purpose: a killing machine, meant to terrify and bewilder human combatants. Jones furthers his convictions that the reprogramming will be unsuccessful by insisting that the larger combat model he confronted in the introduction was trained onto him automatically and working off a foundational subroutine.
Probably the most intriguing dialogue of the comic can be found in an interaction between Roman and the aging Mr. Alcot, whose cryptic revelations shed light on the nature of the mechanization of the US Army’s infantry. In his words, “It became a war of technology, a war of secrets and lies.” In the context of the grander narrative this would perhaps establish the mystery around Jones, however in the context of Alcot’s granddaughter, Jesse, Rust’s compelling subtext comes to light. In the comic, Jesse’s desire to move from her rural community to a larger city in an effort to start her own life and secure the proper education for her blind daughter, Ava, is typical of many dissidents in the Midwest. Historically more people than ever before are moving closer to major cities and hubs to connect with varying jobs and opportunities. The fact that Jesse is doing this out of her own self-interest, under the cover of night without the knowledge of her grandfather, reveals a continuing battles American farmers face in a rapidly industrializing agricultural climate fraught with GMO foods and expensive farming methods. It is indeed a “war of technology,” in which she wages against the paternal wishes of her family “a war of secrets and lies,” unbeknownst to her grandfather. Rust’s subtext therefore is that of the shrinking industry of Middle America, where technological advancements, automated resource acquisition, and cheap labor is putting generational farming communities out of business. As before, the question of ontology is at stake, and perhaps Roman is making his best attempt at growing GMO lemons to make nutrient rich lemonade. Needless to say, the tone of Rust is characteristically somber to emphasize this moral and ethical conundrum that millions of Americans face each year.
The tone and secretive charm of Rust is enchanting, and wholly compelling. Every year modernization in communities around the world introduce changes and innovations, unleashing them upon the unsuspecting public. Each year these “Black Swans,” a phrase coined by Nassim Taleb to represent unprecedented statistical outliers responsible for changing geopolitical climates around the world, both shut down and establish careers and industries, often leaving non-combatants in the crossfire to see their lives overturned and forever changed by the advancement of society. Roman’s family is one of the many families on the brink of disintegration, desperately struggling to save face in a changing world. What will come of their farm is yet to be revealed, as this is a treatment of only the first volume aptly named, “Visitor in the Field.” The title evokes a sense of nostalgic wonderment and a chance occurrence in the life of Roman and his family that will change their lives, for better or worse. For his sake I hope Lepp is gentle with the Taylors, and spares them from the Steinbeckian tragedy that so many Americans face each year.