Ashes to ashes, Dust to Dust -- with Chris Roberson riffing off Philip K. Dick, the war between humans and androids might be heating up in a major way.
As a prequel to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Roberson has crafted a detective story set in an environmentally-unfriendly future. Humanity has been hobbled by poisonous dust that has killed much of the animal kingdom -- and left some lucky surviving humans irrevocably changed. With the investigator Victor Charlie teaming up with the empathic schizophrenic Malcolm Reed to hunt down rogue androids, it looks like the plot may go deeper than either of them know. We caught up with Roberson to get us caught up with the series, to explain his love of Philip K. Dick and to tease about what's coming next.
Newsarama: Chris, just to start off with, for those who haven't been keeping up with Dust to Dust, what are some of the big moments of this series so far?
Chris Roberson: The story opens in the immediate aftermath of World War Terminus--a war in which there weren't really any winners, only losers. The conflict came to an end when one side or the other released a radioactive substance called “dust” into the atmosphere. Animals began to die off in extinction-level numbers, and many people died or developed genetic defects. Many of the survivors are now in the process of leaving Earth behind and heading to the offworld colonies, where they will be assisted by androids programmed to serve their every wish. The androids were originally developed for combat, though, and some of them rebel against the idea of become servile colonial servants. When a group of androids goes “rogue” and runs away, it falls to a veteran named Charlie Victor to go after them.
Victor is assigned one of the “specials” as his partner, a man named Malcolm Reed. The specials are being who have been affected by exposure to dust. Reed developed a brain tumor, and that prevents him from joining the offworld colonies, or even from reproducing. But Reed was set apart from normal people even before he ever came into contact with dust. Diagnosed as a schizophrenic in his teenage years, Reed suffered from a lack of affect, an inability to experience emotions of his own or to understand or empathize with the emotions of others.
Reed's brain tumor changes all that. Now, he still can't feel his own emotions, but he has a heightened empathic sense and is able to pick up on the emotions of those around him. Since androids don't have emotions, if he encounters someone and can't feel anything from them, chances are they are one of the rogue androids. So Reed serves as Victor's walking android detector.
Nrama: For you, what's been the big appeal for you for playing in Philip K. Dick's universe?
Roberson: I was in middle school when Blade Runner hit theaters, and I've probably seen it a few dozen times easily since then. But even though I was aware of PKD's novels when I was in high school, I don't think I read any of them until I got into college. I must have started with the wrong ones, or I wasn't ready for them, but after reading a couple I just kind of shrugged and moved on.
I kept hearing great things about him, though, and so I gave him another chance when I was in my mid-20s. Clearly I hadn't been ready for his work before, and I needed a few more years to develop before I could appreciate what was going on in those books, because when I read PKD again at the age of 25 or 26, it was like a bomb went off in my head. I read them one after another, as fast as I could lay hands on them.
One of the things I respect about PKD's novels and stories is that he was always working his way through the same basis themes, approaching them from different angles all the time. What is reality? What is identity? What is humanity? But as much as I get from the thematic underpinnings of those books, it shouldn't be forgotten that they aren't philosophical treatises. They are first and foremost really terrific stories. They work on multiple levels, with loads of memorable characters, settings, and scenes, but with this deeper layer of meaning underneath as the author continues to interrogate these essential questions.
Nrama: Things have been really heating up thus far, with the empathic Malcolm Reed being held hostage by some renegade androids. But our hero, Victor Charlie, has made some friends, too -- so what's the next step in his pursuit?
Roberson: As Malcolm is being kidnapped by the renegade androids, Victor is in the process of interviewing Samantha Wu, and when Victor goes after the renegades to get Malcolm back, Samantha ends up tagging along for a variety of reasons. Victor's experiences with Samantha give him new insight into what it means to be human, just as Samantha gets a better sense of what androids are all about.
Nrama: Just as far as Victor, Malcolm and Dr. Samantha Wu, can you get us into their heads a little bit? Ever since the dust hit, things have been bad -- but now that they're sucked into this conspiracy, how are things getting worse?
Roberson: Well, Victor has a job to do, but as an android with a limited lifespan he doesn't have much time left to do it in. Malcolm has spent years cocooned in a haze that shuts out the emotions of other people around him (and the hallucinations that accompany them), but he's been off his meds since Victor drafted him as an android-detector, and reality is getting increasingly difficult for Malcolm to navigate. As for Samantha, she's dedicated the last few years of her life to the search for a cure to Dust, but in addition to the android hunter and the crew of renegades that have complicated her life, she's also being drawn into the burgeoning religion of Mercerism, which is making things even more complicated for her.
Nrama: It's so interesting, the fact that you've been able to give so much personality to androids. Considering you've had such a history of establishing rules for fictional universes, how have you approached giving these robots, well, a soul?
Roberson: One of the central threads in PKD's original novel was the idea that the humans and androids weren't really all that different, and in crafting this prequel I've simply tried my best to pick up that idea and run with it.
Nrama: Looking back at what you've done with Dust to Dust, what are you most proud of, so far?
Roberson: My goal was to give each of our three viewpoint characters -- Malcolm, Victor, and Samantha -- a distinct identity and voice, and then put them into collision so that we could learn about all three through their interactions. It's up to the readers to decide how successful that attempt has been, but for my part I'm pleased with the results.
Nrama: You're working with Robert Adler, correct? Can you tell us a little bit about the strengths he brings to the table, and how has he stepped up his game since you two started?
Roberson: I think that Robert's work for the series has just been FANTASTIC. He's done a stellar job of making this seem like a REAL world, one that's worn-down and lived-in. And the interplay between the present moment and the flashbacks has been done so skillfully. I just couldn't be happier with the work that he's been doing on the book, and I can't wait to see what his next project looks like.
Nrama: Finally, are there any moments ahead that you can tease, as far as your take on the Electric Sheep saga goes? If you wanted to get people on board for this book, how would you sell them?
Roberson: As far as upcoming moments go, that would be spoiling things! But if someone hasn't tried the book yet, I'd just point out that my mom likes it, and she's a tough critic! So maybe they should give it a shot, too!Are you dreaming of Electric Sheep yet?