What if you had the chance to live in utopia but your friends and family had to pay for it? In essence, that's the heart of the upcoming series Arcadia from BOOM! Studios.
Mixing the digital second life of The Matrix with layered clans and infighting of Game of Thrones, Arcadia puts a science fiction bent on a real world divide between the "have's" and the "have nots." Scheduled to debut this May, Arcadia is promised by BOOM! as a breakout series from writer Alex Paknadel and artist Eric Scott Pfeiffer.
Newsarama talked with both creators about Arcadia in what is their first in-depth interview, and we delve into the sci-fi sheen of this fictional world but also the real world issues that makes this a timely tale.
Newsarama: Alex, Eric -- how would you describe Arcadia?
Alex Paknadel: Arcadia is set during the distant aftermath of an unnamed global pandemic that wiped out most of the human race. In desperation, the survivors uploaded the personalities of four billion infected people into a simulated reality to give them a semblance of a future following their deaths. Six years have passed and Arcadia has become a digital wonderland while the real world struggles to meet Arcadia's growing energy demands. The virus that wiped out most of humanity is still active, but Arcadian scientists have managed to hold it at bay with new antivirals; however, the virus has now adapted to the point where the handful of survivors are falling ill once again. Suspicion has grown between the real and virtual worlds, so when a theoretically impossible death occurs in Arcadia it sparks a conflict that these two worlds will be lucky to survive.
Eric Pfeiffer: Arcadia is a grisly genre mashup of everything I love to draw and everything I love to read. It has the dystopian world of survivalists adjacent to the digital frontier of a new and overpopulated digital 'after-life.' It's cruel in its politics yet it's warm and hopeful with it's deep characters and their interactions. It's a complex narrative so it's a real challenge but I'm getting to work on a series that I know I'd be reading even if I wasn't involved in creating it.
Nrama: That's a big concept -- who are the individuals at the center of this?
Paknadel: It's essentially a family saga. You have the Garner family in Arcadia, all of whom are monumentally screwed up in their own unique ways. Sam Garner's a bored housewife who used to be a human rights lawyer while she was still alive. She's sad all the time, but she doesn't know that this is for a very particular reason. Giacomo is this very distant, odd kid who (again) is unaware that this is for a very particular reason. Sam's daughter Coral is 18, so she's old enough to remember being alive and thinks the decadence of Arcadians is pretty disgusting. Lee Garner is a Beverly Hills 'mnemonic surgeon' who basically accepts fistfuls of cash to remove rich Arcadians' memories of their own deaths. Back in the real world we have Lee Pepper, whose connection to Lee Garner is... let's say it's complicated. These guys are all drawn into the tangled web of Arcadian-Real World diplomacy following the first ever Arcadian death, and this is because the Garner family are the proud owners of a really juicy secret.
Pfeiffer: Starting off we're more focused on Lee Garner and his family life while getting the reader established in this new setting. The political dynamics of the of the 'Meat' and 'Digital' world make their way to the forefront which is when President Melina Gomez is introduced as well as General Secretary Binetti – who by the way, is completely made of glass. As soon as I read that character description I immediately counted how many panels he was in – he's is not easy to draw! Now that I'm digging into the arc more I'm realizing that he's easy in comparison to what I have coming up.
Nrama: Boom! is promoting this as being heavy on the 'world-building,' citing things like Game of Thrones and The Matrix. What would you say to that?
Pfeiffer: I'd agree with that in the sense that it's dealing with multiple areas on conflict manipulated by a web of opposing political agendas – it's a definitely a house of cards on the verge of collapse. In terms of visuals though, it's very far removed from either. When I read the script I couldn't help but start to see my Enki Bilal influence taking hold and the H.R. Giger sense of man and machine that I loved so much growing up. I'm sure their influences will come through in certain moments but I'm really trying to make this world look like something no has seen yet.
Paknadel: I love a good sandbox, and that's exactly what BOOM!'s Editor-in-Chief Matt Gagnon and Managing Editor Bryce Carlson told me they liked about the project when they first got in touch last year. A fully immersive fictional world should make you want to find out how everything works: economics, health care, sanitation... the whole nine yards. I've worked really hard with our editor, Jasmine, and the two Erics (Harburn, our other editor, and Pfeiffer) to cram the book with easter eggs for those who want them, but of course world building without story is an indulgence. I'm passionate about making Arcadia a living, breathing world, so I'm watching George R.R. Martin very closely to work out how he keeps all his plates spinning without sacrificing emotional investment in the story.
Nrama: How would you describe the digital world of Arcadia for someone who lives there?
Pfeiffer: Every country has it's own laws of physics and the politics of what counts as real and not real, alive or dead, plays a big part in the overall psyche of the Arcadian population. You can imagine having qualms about your place in this world. Certain elements of what makes us human will transcend into the digital world, i,e. needing a sense of purpose, feeling loved and the sense of your own mortality and willingness to live. Social hierarchy and massive income gaps from their "Meat" self carry over into the Arcadian program. You can imagine what kind of personal qualms would arise after having "died" and then uploaded into a digital existence. Some people choose to just carry on while others find ways to manipulate the code.
Nrama: What's it like now for the survivors, back on Earth?
Pfeiffer: Bleak and lonely, I'd say. It may feel like a triumph having survived the pandemic but the question is, "who really won here?" The Arcadian lifestyle seems very easy in comparison but they're deceased right? What really counts as life anymore. This dynamic is really where it gets interesting.
Paknadel: Life is hard for the hundred or so million survivors of the pandemic. Although land and resources are now plentiful, what's lacking on this side of the looking glass is expertise. Oil reserves are running low and there isn't really the manpower or know-how to safely extract it, so that's fertilizers, plastics and reliable energy off the table for the moment. The enormous power vacuum in the world isn't helping matters either, so there's a huge amount of political instability, which in turn affects trade and livelihoods. A scavenger culture exists, which we'll see in all its grisly glory in the second arc. Perhaps the biggest challenge the real world (which the Arcadians scornfully refer to as 'The Meat') faces is the fact that the unnamed virus that wiped out 99% of humanity isn't over and done with. The scientific community in Arcadia has developed antivirals and suppressants to hold it in check, but a cure is still a long way off.
Everyone left alive knows they might not be sticking around for too long, so there's a profound nihilism in the air. It's a fearful, violent place. There's also a massive amount of resentment toward the Arcadians for their outwardly blissful, easy lives, with no real understanding of the two worlds' mutual dependency. The real world needs Arcadia for a cure and Arcadia needs the real world for the energy and maintenance it needs to survive.
Nrama: I can't help but seeing an analogy to rising health care costs in modern society. Was that all on your mind in creating this fictional sci-fi story?
Pfeiffer: I'll let Alex answer this one.
Paknadel: In all honesty it wasn't, if only because I'm British and an insurance-based healthcare system isn't something I've ever experienced.
If you're looking for a general theme in Arcadia then I suppose it's this dodgy idea that technology is somehow a magical gateway to utopia. I'm no luddite, but I do think silicon valley's played an active role in reviving the concept of utopia, which I find pretty troubling. In the next decade we're going to see self-driving cars, haulage trucks and subway trains. That's pretty utopian on the face of it, but when you consider the millions of people whose careers in haulage and transportation are going to disappear overnight in a puff of efficiency then suddenly our future doesn't look quite so shiny. Efficiency (by which I mean utopia) seems to be about removing as much skin and bone from the equation as possible. Utopian projects are usually more about what's to be excluded than what's to be included, i.e. "if we remove this blockage (which usually takes the form of a person or a group of people) then we'll regain paradise." Well, nowadays the blockage is humanity itself. We grieve and we take sick days. We have messy breakups and we burst into tears in meetings. That's not very efficient, right? In other words, we have no role to play in the perfect world we're being sold. Here's the kicker though: the machine isn't doing this to us... we are. The deprecation of human experience is something we're doing to ourselves because we see too much to admire in these tireless algorithms we've created.
With Arcadia what I wanted to do was take this theme and put a human face on it. What if these algorithms were our friends, our relatives, our children? What would they make of us? Would they pity us? Would they hate us? Perhaps most significantly, as products of messy and predatory human minds, would they really be able to leave our bloody history behind? Are our tools soaked in the violence of their conception and therefore doomed to repeat it? You know, light and fluffy stuff like that.
Nrama: Last question, how did you two connect to work on this series?
Pfeiffer: Eric Harburn came to me with the series after we spoke about possibly having me tackle the art on some a couple new projects they had in the works. After we spoke more about my interests he said he had "just the thing," and was he ever right. Not only do I love the series but casting wise I think Eric and Jasmine Amiri made a great call putting Alex and I together. We just immediately hit it off and our vision for this series really began to accelerate once we got on the phone. Since Alex lives in England and I'm stateside on the East Coast so our communication is limited to Skype and Twitter, but when you share a vision those limitations become obsolete.
Paknadel: Eric and I were happily thrown together by our wonderful editors Jasmine Amiri and Eric Harburn. As I understand it Eric was on their radar from some work he did for Dead Letters, a book so good it makes me skip meals. We got together on Skype to discuss the themes and I could see his understanding of the material far exceeded mine, which is honestly the coolest thing in the world. We're not finishing each other's sentences yet, but give it six months and I'll be able to sense when he's stubbed his toe. That said, the book's so much bigger than Eric and me. Colin Bell's killing the lettering, Bryce Carlson's whispering encouragement to us from the wings, and Eric and Jasmine are losing sleep to make sure the whole thing gels. It's alchemical really. I couldn't have hoped for cooler collaborators.