Androids. Animals. Empathy. What happened before we dreamed of Electric Sheep? The answer is Dust to Dust, the upcoming series by Chris Roberson and Robert Adler over at BOOM! Studios. Set as a prequel to Philip K. Dick's , this eight-issue miniseries kicks off the ongoing battle against androids hidden deep within a war-ravaged future society. Before the series debuts May 26, Newsarama caught up with Roberson to talk about his love of Philip K. Dick, World War Terminus, and the first two hunters before Rick Deckard.
Newsarama: Chris, you're really moving into uncharted waters with this prequel to Electric Sheep -- how did you end up getting involved with this series?
Chris Roberson: I’ve been admiring from afar the work that BOOM! Studios has been doing the last few years. Last summer at SDCC, Chip Mosher introduced me to the rest of the BOOM! gang, and I was delighted to discover as much as I enjoyed the comics, I enjoyed hanging out with the gang even more. Managing editor Matt Gagnon and I spent a long time one night talking about our mutual favorite science fiction authors, and after the convention we swapped emails back and forth with recommendations and the like.
Fast forward a few months and Matt shot me an email, seeing if I’d have any interest in doing a prequel to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? As if the answer would be anything but “Yes!” I had a proposal written and back to him in a matter of hours. He and publisher Ross Richie liked it, and the PKD estate liked it, and here we are.
Nrama: For you, what do you like about Philip K. Dick and the original Electric Sheep book? How did you get introduced to his works, and what do you feel his impact was on science fiction and literature?
Roberson: I was in middle school when Blade Runner hit theaters, and must have seen it a few dozen times. I was aware of PKD’s novels through high school, but I don’t think I read any of them until I got into college. I think I started with the wrong ones, though, because after reading a couple of them I moved on to other things. A few years later in my mid-20s, knowing that I was probably missing something, I went back and revisited PKD. Maybe I wasn’t 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, but when I read PKD again at the age of 25 or 26, it was like a bomb went off in my head. I just DEVOURED them one after another for months and months.
One of the things I respect about PKD’s novels and stories is that he was always working his way through the same basic 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 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.
I think that PKD’s impact on modern science fiction and literature is considerable, but I think his impact on popular culture is even more significant, in particular in science fiction films. So much so that it’s impossible to imagine what pop culture in the 21st century would be without his influence. In so many ways PKD provided the template for what we think of now as “smart science fiction cinema,” and those intelligent SF films that *aren’t* based on his novels and stories are often just thinly disguised bits of plagiarism!
Nrama: This series focuses on the people who hunted androids before Rick Deckard -- Malcolm Reed and Charlie Victor. Can you tell us a little bit about who they are, what their skills are, and what their overall mission is?
Roberson: Charlie Victor is a soldier, a veteran of the just-ended global conflict, World War Terminus. His first experiences with violence and dead came on the battlefield, and now that the war is over he’s being asked to put the skills he gained in combat to use back at home.
World War Terminus came to an end when one side (neither is willing to admit it was them) released a toxic, radioactive substance that’s come to be known as “dust” into the atmosphere. In addition to his impact on wildlife, dust very quickly affected the human population. Some have died outright, but many more have been affected with tumors or other genetic conditions.
The government has instituted strict controls on the population, and anyone found to have suffered genetic defects as a result of dust exposure is not allowed to reproduce or to join the colonies in space. Such people are referred to as “Specials,” and their movements and activities are controlled by a government agency.
Malcolm Reed is one such special. But he was already set apart from other people even before the dust affected him. As a young man, Reed developed schizophrenia, and as a result of an affective disorder was unable to experience emotions or to empathize with the emotions of others. When he was exposed to dust, however, he developed a brain tumor in the region of his brain that governs empathy, and as a result, though he still has no emotions of his own, he can now FEEL what other people are feeling. Medications tamp down the effect, but when Charlie Victor needs a quick mechanism for identifying rogue androids who are hiding among humans, he is assigned Malcolm Reed as his partner. Since androids don’t feel emotions, anyone who Reed can’t sense in a crowd is very likely an android. But in order to be effective, Reed has to go off his medication, which means he experiences a return of all of his other schizophrenic symptoms as well, and in particular visual and auditory hallucinations.
Nrama: Now, those who have just seen Blade Runner might not understand the importance of animals in this story. What can you tell us about the world of Dust to Dust, and why animals are as critical as they are?
Roberson: It’s all down to the radioactive dust released at the end of World War Terminus. Dust’s immediate effect was that it caused the death of domestic animals and wildlife on a massive scale, to the extent that many now believe that the mass extinction of all animal life is inevitable. That means no pets, no meat, no dairy—and that’s just the short term. The long term effects are even worse.
In the world of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the animals are already dead. In our prequel story, there are still a few left alive, and it’s the work of scientists like Samantha Wu to try to stem the tide, and find if possible a way to keep all of the animals from dying.
Nrama: The themes for Electric Sheep are pretty deep, focusing on humanity, free will, empathy... so the question I have is, what do you feel you add to the mix with Dust to Dust? How do you feel you're going to be adding your voice to Philip K. Dick's universe?
Roberson: I think the fact that PKD kept returning to those same themes again and again means that he never reached a final answer. He kept asking the questions to see what the possible answers might be. I think the main thing that I bring to the story is another perspective. I’m not PKD, but I take all of the bits of the equation that he spelled out, and see if I can’t put them together in a new and hopefully interesting way. It’s much the same process I’ve seen happen in film over the course of the last thirty years or so, where talented filmmakers approach PKD’s ideas on their own terms, and often come up with interesting formulations that we haven’t seen before. But speaking for myself, my primary goal here is to tell an interesting and compelling story first and foremost.
Nrama: Because this is a prequel to the main book, how did you go about navigating that link? Are there any ties, any loose ends from the original Electric Sheep series that you will be addressing in Dust to Dust? How do you make this series both satisfying for the veteran Philip K. Dick fan, yet open for the new readers?
Roberson: In PKD’s original novel there are lots of references to things that have happened in the past, both the backstories of the individual characters and the history of the world in general. All of the references to World War Terminus and to dust, the mentions of difference makes and models of androids and the various mechanisms the police have devised to identify who is human and who isn’t—tantalizing hints about the chain of events that led from here and now to there and then. In Dust to Dust I’ve tried to find a way to weave those hints and references together into a cohesive whole. The reader who is unfamiliar with the original novel will just see these as the furniture of this future world, but to the devout PKD fanatic who has committed Electric Sheep to memory there will hopefully be a lot of familiar signposts along the way.
Nrama: Let's talk a bit about the artist on this book, Robert Adler. What strengths do you feel he brings to the table for a series like this?
Roberson: This project was my introduction to Adler’s work, but when I saw the first pages I knew he was perfect for the job. The San Francisco he depicts is recognizable as the city of today twisted a few degrees out of true, the San Francisco of the day after tomorrow. Nicely moody and atmospheric, the whole nine yards. Couldn’t be happier.
Nrama: Finally, for those who haven't read the previous series or don't know anything about Philip K. Dick, what would you tell them to get them on board for Dust to Dust? Anything you're excited to see hit the stands that you can tease?
Roberson: The series is designed as much as possible to be completely approachable, and to work as well for readers who know nothing about the original novel as though who have reread it a hundred times over. There are some nifty twists and turns along the way (this IS a book that carries PKD’s legacy, after all, so what would it be without a few reversals and inversions?), to say nothing of pulse-pounding action sequences. Our goal is to do a smart, fun, adventurous bit of science fiction, and hopefully we’ll succeed!Click here for a ten page preview of Dust to Dust!