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Webcomic / A Miracle of Science

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"When you're a recovering mad scientist, you're always afraid you'll lose control and wake up some morning with a half-built time machine in the living room and a plan to go back in time and pants Hitler."

A Miracle of Science is a science fiction Webcomic written by Jon Kilgannon and drawn by Mark Sachs. It ran from 2002 to 2007 and was set in the year 2148, when humanity has spread across the solar system from Venus to Ganymede and robotics and artificial intelligence are well-developed advanced sciences. Also of note is the science of memetics, which can be used to treat (or cause) psychological issues. Of key importance in the story is one specific meme, Science-Related Memetic Disorder (or, more colloquially, mad science).

Key characters include Benjamin Prester, a field agent of the Vorstellen Police, a law-enforcement agency specializing in SRMD; Caprice Quevillion, a Martian forensic psychiatrist assigned as his partner; and Virgil Haas, the Mad Scientist they attempt to capture. The story opens not long after Mars, a utopian group intelligence, has ended a century of self-imposed isolation.

Given its Mad Scientist motif, one should expect that a significant number of those tropes appear as important plot points in the comic. In fact, given the science of memetics, the characters themselves use tropes (common examples being the Chase Scene and the Dénouement) as psychological aids when dealing with mad scientists.

Kilgannon and Sachs went on to collaborate on a second webcomic, Afterlife Blues.

This webcomic contains examples of:

  • Absent Aliens: Mars's version of SETI turns up with lots of aliens...but they're all dead. By at least a thousand years. "You've got to love existential angst on a planetary level."
  • A God I Am Not: Mars is quick to point out that it isn't omnipotent; merely extremely powerful.
  • America Takes Over the World: Well, not exactly the world, but they seem to have taken over Canada. And there's a space colony that's nominally in the US, contravening present-day treaties.
    • Annexing nearby countries isn't just a US thing in the AMoS-verse, either; Peru has been absorbed into Brazil.
  • And Mission Control Rejoiced: When Mars found out that Caprice is still alive.
  • Androids Are People, Too: No one doubts that even for a millisecond, Venusian Fantastic Racism aside.
  • Animesque: The art is incredibly reminiscent of some lower-quality manga. It is mostly noticeable in female character design.
  • Anti-Villain: Yes, Virgil Haas is a Mad Scientist. Yes, he wants to take over the world. But he'd rather not kill anyone to do it. Like the crews of the civilian ships with which he could have rammed the first Qin.
  • Auto-Doc: The hospital. A rare example of a sentient Autodoc.
  • Badass Boast: Delivered to an apathetic police officer: "Sergeant, I've just been to the outer solar system and back to track down a mad scientist. I've been shot at with secret weapons, destroyed robots that could take down tanks, and fallen from orbit without benefit of a re-entry vehicle. [beat] I don't need your rudeness added to my troubles, okay?"
    • He gets more poetic while relapsing into Science-Related Memetic Disorder.
      Benjamin: Oh, come on! I've plunged down from orbit on wings of fire. So don't even think you can scare me!
    • And Caprice gets in a good one, too.
      Caprice: Did you think my abilities were gifts from Mars? You have it exactly backwards. Mars exists because of us.
  • Badass Longcoat: Benjamin wears one most of the time. During his SRMD relapse he steals one of Virgil's labcoats to replace it.
  • Batman Can Breathe in Space: Caprice can, thanks to Martian technology being sufficiently advanced to keep a pocket of air around her wherever she goes. This freaks the living daylights out of the customs officer on von Hayek station.
  • Big Guy, Little Guy: Dryden and Chaucer, respectively, are a robotic version and thus able to take the trope to new heights: Chaucer is the size and shape of a hamster ball; Dryden is several times bigger than a human.
  • Black Eyes of Evil: Minus the "evil" part. See the Voice of the Legion entry below.
  • Blasting It Out of Their Hands: Seems to be an unfortunately regular situation for Benjamin.
  • Boxed Crook: Benjamin Prester - as revealed in the third part, he's a reformed Mad Scientist who became a Vorstellen officer as part of a plea deal.
  • Brought Down to Normal: Caprice Quevillion gets disconnected from Mars. Subverted, though - see Badass Boast above.
  • Cartridges in Flight: This page shows a closeup of several bullets being stopped in mid-flight. Note that the cartridges are still attached.
  • Chase Scene: The Chase Scene is actually a vital part of proper treatment of SRMD; if the Mad Scientist is not given the psychological fulfillment of a direct confrontation with authority, he'll go even more crazy.
  • Cheerful Child: Wei Quevillion, Caprice's seven-year-old sister.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Benjamin Prester's therapy is reported to be robust against anything less than a major psychological disturbance, such as a major injury or the loss of a loved one.
  • Closer than They Appear: This strip does it with a pair of glowing evil eyes in the middle of a chase scene.
  • Colonized Solar System: The Moon, Venus, Mars, Callisto and Ganymede are all populated, with different forms of government and technology.
  • Concealment Equals Cover: Subverted on this page. When Benjamin is attempting to take cover behind an upturned table, the man shooting at him simply shoots through the table...and then mocks him for taking cover behind such a flimsy object.
  • Crystal Spires and Togas: Martian society has this vibe.
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check: Justified as actual insanity, but also subverted as mad scientists' inventions are quickly turned into useful technology for everyone. It's implied that The Government's willingness to cut those checks is what led to the advanced society depicted in the comic.
  • Cyberpunk with a Chance of Rain: Venus is a very rainy place practically run by gangs.
  • Da Chief: Chief Nyerere, Benjamin's direct superior.
  • Dénouement: Another vital part of SRMD treatment.
  • Determinator: Benjamin is a very stubborn man, more than willing to push through any kind of obstacle to achieve his goal. Best shown in the final face-off against Haas, with his response to You Can Barely Stand. Of course, once Haas surrenders and Benjamin has reached his goal, he promptly collapses.
    • Mad scientists in general, unless you're able to set up confrontation, chase and denouement for them.
  • Double Entendre: On the mug: "Astronomers do it in the dark"
  • Everybody Lives: The story ends with zero casualties.
  • Evil Laugh: Mad scientists do this a lot. Obviously.
    • If you get a group of them together in one place, though Benjamin is so far the only known example of an SRMD sufferer who sought out allies, they will apparently hold contests.
  • Exact Words: Mars is very precise about the fact that it cannot project military force past the orbit of Deimos. They neglect to tell anyone that they've turned Deimos into a Planet Spaceship. It's implied later on that the Terran government aren't particularly happy about this blatant rules-lawyering, but Mars wasn't particularly happy about catching them mounting experimental weapons specifically designed to attack Martian vessels on their warships; fortunately both parties have a lot to lose and very little to gain from making an issue of it.
    Caprice: "There have been some... painfully polite speeches in the Solar Parliament."
  • Expanded States of America: Mostly background material, but not only has the United States annexed more land on Earth (Benjamin was born in what is current-day Canada, but part of the U.S. in the comic), but at least one part of the lunar colony is American. It's not the only country to have expanded; Brazil has annexed at least part of modern-day Peru.
  • Flat "What": The Venusian customs agents, when their Martian Detector suddenly gets up, walks away, and wishes him luck on his upcoming proposal.
  • Foreshadowing: Benjamin being a mad scientist is hinted very often before the formal reveal:
    • As early as page 13, Benjamin is speculating about all the different high-tech ways a Martian could probably scan the station to find him, and he's alarmingly good at coming up with these ideas off the top of his head...
    • Caprice jokes that there are no mad scientists in the vicinity, unless Benjamin thinks she's one, or her Robot Buddies, or Benjamin himself, which gets a suspicious "er" out of him.
  • For Science!: This is a story about (reformed or otherwise) mad scientists. Virgil Haas, currently suffering (or enjoying) SRMD, is the most prominent example, but Beatriz Juruna's... fascination with sodium seems stronger than would be considered healthy, and Manny mentions some crazy things mad scientists do because they can.
  • Future Music: When queried on his musical preferences, Benjamin responds with "The classics" — and names Bach, Prokofiev, and The Beatles.
  • Genius Bruiser: The Pindars, which gets on Chaucer's nerves at one point:
    Chaucer: Rrrg! I told Doctor Haas he shouldn't make you Pindars so smart.
    Pindar-Two: I'm going to take that as a compliment.
  • Genius Loci: The Martian people form a collective consciousness, as indicated here:
    Caprice: Mars likes you.
    Benjamin: That's like saying "Brazil has decided you're cute".
  • Genki Girl: Wei Quevillion, the seven-year-old volcano of energy, as the protagonists comment on this page.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: Caprice being the good, cheerful cop to Benjamin's bad, snarky cop. Lampshaded.
  • Good Hair, Evil Hair:
    • In addition to his glasses, as noted below, one sign that Haas has developed Science-Related Memetic Disorder is that his bangs suddenly jut up and out, and start to look like horns, or perhaps broken antennae.
    • Benjamin also has a different hairstyle while in mad science mode. Notably, he messes his hair back into this style when he relapses. Maybe everyone has "normal" hair and "Mad Science" hair...
  • Graceful Loser: Most mad scientists seem pretty relieved when they're stopped. Benjamin wasn't relieved, but was delighted to have been stopped by a Worthy Opponent.
  • Gratuitous German: "Vorstellen Polizei" (the name of the "Vorstellen Police" that written over the entrance to its HQ) is bad German for "Imagination Police". The correct form would be "Vorstellungs-Polizei" or something like that.
  • Ground-Shattering Landing: When Benjamin and Caprice crash into the surface of Mars from orbit, they make a crater and Benjamin suffers a scaphoid fracture. No other injuries, though.
  • Hand Blast: Caprice can do this, along with lots of other things;
    Jon Kilgannon: Never tick off a transcendentally powerful member of a group intelligence. She might just fire a coruscating beam of lambent force at you.
  • Hero Stole My Bike: Dodging the usual legal concerns behind the trope, when Benjamin and Caprice get into a firefight, the Mars Hive Mind sends another of its members to track down the owner of a nearby motorcycle and buy it off them for five times its value.
  • Hive Mind: Mars, or, to be more precise, the people of Mars.
    • What makes it unique among other fictional Hive Minds is that all members are their own individuals. They relay information to each other, and there is a distinct unified "Mars" meta-personality that can take possession when appropriate, but all information is not immediately shared; the hive mind is divided in two, like the hemispheres of the brain. The Martians' greatest fear is that if both hemispheres were totally connected, the entire planet would become collectively susceptible to SRMD—with the safety redundancies removed, a single case could spread rapidly through the population.
    • Haas has built an army of information-gathering robots that function like a simpler version of Martian collective.
  • Honest Advisor: Chaucer. Dr. Haas complains that Chaucer's always picking holes in his plans; Chaucer's response is that he's trying to help, and merely being a yes-man isn't helpful.
  • Human Cannonball: Suborbital Express variant. A one-man pod is shot into space with a giant cannon, design courtesy of a Mad Scientist. When it fails, Ludicrous Gibs result. Fortunately, the failure rate isn't very large...
  • Hypocritical Humor: A background character here says "no one who is in favor of eugenics should be allowed to reproduce".
  • Identical Stranger: The random couple who serve as Bait-and-Switch on venusian spaceport sure look like our heroes in disguise. But they aren't.
  • Imagine Spot: Used in the explanation of the benefits of an AI Hive Mind. Apparently, unlinked computers think about socks.
  • Insistent Terminology: It is a thing mad scientists do. Special mention, though, goes to Beatriz "That's Doctor" Juruna.
    • Also of note: Benjamin Prester insists on not being called "Ben".
  • Instant A.I.: Just Add Water!: "Any device complex enough to detect Martians is going to eventually become self-aware." Although it's implied that Mars helped the process along.
  • Instantly Proven Wrong: After their crash-landing on Mars, Caprice reassures Benjamin that he's on the safest planet in the Solar System. Immediately, debris from their landing slams down behind her. "Second safest." WHAM! "Among the safest." WHAM! "Forget I said anything." Though, as Benjamin points out, it was an invoked example, as the Martian Hive Mind knew darn well that debris was coming.
    Caprice: Made you smile, though.
  • Just a Machine: Haas reacts to Dryden's betrayal by calling him an "ungrateful device". This is actually played with: the author notes that he's actually saying the most hurtful thing he can think of, because he knows Dryden IS a person and has feelings to hurt.
  • Killer Robot: Averted. Even Pindars (giant, nearly-indestructible war machines created by a Mad Scientist) prefer to intimidate their enemies rather than actually harm them.
  • Knowledge Broker: Taro Watanuki, one of the very few people who can get away with calling Benjamin "Benny." It's Foreshadowing to show that there's more to Prester than we've been shown, and how Taro knows more than he seems to. Benjamin uses him to get leads on the case early on.
  • Labcoat of Science and Medicine: Wearing one all of the time seems to be a symptom of SRMD.
  • Lens Flare: Used in the epilogue here and here.
  • Lightning Bruiser: The Pindars, giant, nearly-indestructible war machines created by a Mad Scientist.
  • Mad Scientist: Dr. Haas, Dr. Juruna. Ben Prester along with his pals, Manny Delger and Djaya Sumatera.
  • Magical Girl: Caprice, of the Cute Witch variety, although this is Magic from Technology (nanites, namely).
  • Mama Bear/Papa Wolf: Mars is very protective of its people. That link is full of implicit spoilers, by the way.
  • Memetics in Fiction: SRMD, naturally. It's spread from one science-inclined person to another by communication, or even by reading a book. Mars is extremely wary of even studying the condition too closely, as they have no idea what would happen if one of their citizens contracted it but there's a strong possibility that it would spread via the intellect-link network and infect every single Martian before they could react.
  • Mental Fusion: Technologically achieved. Martian metapersonality is the gestalt of all networked Martians as mediated by their data network.
  • Mission Control: Mars plays this role on occasion.
  • Nanomachines: Martians' advanced technology is mostly these, including large objects like ships, which are made out of lots and lots of nanites.
  • No Medication for Me: One SRMD sufferer, Manny Delger, notes that he can't perform even non-mad science when he takes his treatment under the recommended daily regimen — he claims it makes his head feel "stuffed full of felt." He takes it on alternating days, which leaves him able to work on robotics and networking... but also makes him increasingly paranoid and has Benjamin worry about a potential relapse into SRMD.
  • Noodle Incident: There are multiple references to the case Benjamin wrapped up previous to the Haas case, involving a Dr. Hanford, although we don't find out any specifics beyond the fact that it involved genetic engineering in some fashion.
    Benjamin: Radiocative spiders, chief. They spit green fire.
  • Oblivious to Love: Good God, Haas, Dr. Juruna is not being subtle about her interest! Everyone Can See It: your robots, even Caprice, who spent like five minutes, tops, in a room with her. And in this fanfiction (not official, but one of the official site's extras) he still hasn't figured it out after the events of the story.
  • People's Republic of Tyranny: The People's Republic of the Moon, a drab-looking lunar colony that's heavily implied to be a Communist state (USSR imitation - they even have cyryllic lettering), at least at the time of flashback.
  • Planet Spaceship: One turns up in the finale - Mars' moon Deimos is now mobile, and Mars demonstrates it by moving it to orbit Venus. As to why they demonstrate this, see above under Exact Words.
  • Plot Technology: Subverted. When mad scientists are captured, their inventions and research are used for the benefit of society as a whole.
  • Politeness Judo: Benjamin Prester dealing with Chaucer and Pindar 2. All it takes to convince the latter Benjamin is a good person is to call them "gentlemen", signifying he considers them equals. The Rant notes that it says some ugly things about Venus in general and Haas in particular that the robots are surprised by this.
  • The Rant: Reading Jon and Mark's columns is strictly optional, but they offer a bit more insight into the comic's world and also occasional scientific lectures.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Chief Nyerere and (oddly enough) Haas. In the latter's case, while he may be an insane mad scientist trying to take over the world, he does listen to Chaucer and Dryden when they give him advice (even if he does threaten to disassemble the poor fellows occasionally).
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Fabula and Syuzhet, color-coded little ball-shaped robots from the Martian Constabulary.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Invoked by Benjamin when trying to get through customs on Venus. He makes quite a show of revealing his railgun (which has been decorated with a rainbow and a unicorn by Caprice's sister) and discussing it with customs, because he knows it's completely legal and he'll be allowed to take it through. This way he keeps all the attention on himself instead of Caprice, who by law is not allowed on Venus.
  • Remember When You Blew Up a Sun?: Benjamin does not hesitate to tell people about the time he plunged from orbit on wings of fire.
  • Ridiculously Human Robots: Robots with sentience will talk to themselves out loud; in fact, Benjamin points out that only sentient AI's are known to do this: suggesting it's actually rather common amongst them.
    • Also averted insofar as the robots are rarely, if ever, humanoid, being shaped to their purposes.
  • Rocketless Reentry: After escaping the destruction of the original Qin, Benjamin and Caprice reenter Mars' atmosphere with only Caprice's personal Force Field to protect them. Fortunately, these 'wings of fire' suffice to get them down almost unharmed.
  • Sanity Slippage: Noticeable in Benjamin if you know what you're looking for, though thankfully he gets better.
  • Sapient Ship: Qin, although its AI core can be removed. Which is fortunate, because Dr. Haas ultimately destroys the first ship Qin inhabits.
  • Scary Shiny Glasses: The only time Dr. Haas doesn't have these is in the prologue, just before he catches SRMD.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Benjamin's stance when he and Caprice are to investigate Haas on Venus, which has laws barring Martians (like Caprice) from entering. He quotes his boss' philosophy on how one shouldn't obey unjust laws, and said boss asks that everyone at headquarters forget he ever said that should Benjamin's and Caprice's actions become public knowledge.
  • Sex by Proxy: A romantic example: everyone on Mars loves Prester.
  • "Shut Up" Kiss: On the penultimate page.
  • Shown Their Work: Kilgannon and Sachs are both computer professionals and science geeks, and it shows, making A Miracle of Science one of the hardest-SF webcomics out there. They're courteous enough to confine the worst of the infodumps to the "John/Mark Sez" columns beside the latest panel.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Solidly Idealist.
  • Star-Spangled Spandex/Bishie Sparkle: Caprice's hair; Word of God says it's a fashion accessory.
  • The Stoic: Benjamin, who doesn't laugh until page 141. This is part of the memetic blocks that keep his SRMD in check: he's more expressive in the flashbacks before he got them.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Aliens: Subverted with the Martians, which are Sufficiently Advanced but actually human.
  • Synchronization: When Caprice vanishes off the collective, as if she suddenly died — since Martian intellect link protocols are, according to Caprice, inherited matrilinearly, her mother and little sister feel this happening. No wonder Xia is uncontrollably crying while telling Benjamin about it.
  • Take Over the World: A seemingly common compulsion among mad scientists. Unusually for a Mad Scientist story, we get several hints as to how, exactly, the various loonies in the story intend to "improve" the Solar System once they're in charge of it.
  • Talking Your Way Out: When Caprice is captured, she pulls this off by convincing Dryden that the only way to stop Mars from attacking is to get her access to a telephone.
  • Theme Naming: All of Virgil Haas's robots, much like himself, are named after famous writers and poets.
  • There Are No Therapists: Averted. Both main cast members are therapists — Benjamin is as much a counselor for mad scientists as he is a detective, and Caprice is a medical doctor and psychiatrist. Therapy for Mad Scientists is a major plot point.
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: Benjamin Prester, Caprice Quevillion, and even Virgil Haas are or become unwilling to kill innocents. How well they stick by this rule during a disaster tells us quite a bit about their resistance to Breakdown, and in Prester's case, Character Development.
  • Tome of Eldritch Lore: While not mentioned directly in the plotline, it's said in the site's glossary that the book Crank Theories of Robotics is a known cause of SRMD; effectively, one can become a Mad Scientist simply by reading it. Doctor Haas is seen with it in the prologue.
  • Trojan Horse: Sally the Martian detector and presumably other Martian technology that could be used against Mars. Although Caprice says Mars never does this with actual gifts, even to Venusians and even as useful as build-anything autofactories.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: Haas has a bad case of this. Chaucer also doesn't see how building a utopia could possibly be morally wrong, and The Rant notes it's proof that he is remarkably intelligent and human, because those are necessities for believing something so stupid.
  • Voice of the Legion: Whenever the Martian group mind speaks through one of its members. Said member simultaneously acquires Black Eyes of Evil, except they're not evil.
    • The Voice is visually represented by the speaker's spoken or telepathic dialogue being written in BOLD CAPS, the rest of the bubble being filled with repetitions of what is being said, in different-sized typefaces and various shades of gray. At one point, when Mars finds out that Caprice isn't dead, the telepathic response is jumbled up with about two dozen different expressions of relief, most of them in lowercase.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Virgil Haas is pretty much this. He's a Mad Scientist, yeah, and he's willing to hijack ships and kill people who are on his trail. But he doesn't want to kill innocent civilians, and he's intent on taking over the world to create a society where robots do all the drudge work, so that humans can dedicate themselves entirely to pursuits of art, science, exploration, and leisure.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Caprice immediately calls Benjamin out on his plan to escape Haas' attack on their ship by blasting up five civilian ships and killing a few hundred people. This may or may not have been foreshadowing.
  • White-and-Grey Morality: The Big Bad is a Well-Intentioned Extremist who actively avoids civilian casualties and even the Venusian Mafia is mostly just selfish.
  • Wig, Dress, Accent: Subverted in this page by having a poorly-disguised version of the protagonists going through customs... and then having the actual protagonists enter the scene in the next page.
  • Won't Take "Yes" for an Answer: When Haas describes his Plan to Beatriz, she approves thoroughly, but he reacts so quickly to her assumed disapproval that it takes him a second to notice what she really said.
  • Wrecked Weapon: Benjamin has a gun that he just built with his mad science abilities shot out of his hand. Twice.
    Ben: [mild hysterics] "He shot my gun! He shot my gun! Why are you negotiating with the man who SHOT MY GUN?!"