Upon entering the library, it’s always a good idea to scour the New Arrivals display.
That’s where I found Arcadia, the brand new comic book series written by Alex Paknadel and illustrated by Eric Scott Pfeiffer. The edition I picked up, released in May 2016 by BOOM publishing, is actually the trade paperback edition that includes all eight books of the first series (now transformed into chapters).
That’s one of the great things about comic books: in their original form, they’re affordable and allow a reader to explore the work of different writers and artists (like Jeff Lemire), or dip into a wide variety of storylines at a modest cost, while in trade paperback compilation or graphic novel form, they present an entire series (and sometimes more!) under one cover, which libraries can then offer to readers and fans.
That’s what I wanted: everything under a single cover, because I know that if it’s good —and the back cover notes certainly seemed promising—I’ll want to read it all, quickly.
What is Arcadia? It seems best to go straight to the introduction in the first chapter:
“ In the early 21st century, seven billion people died during a global papillomavirus outbreak. As the disease tore through communities, the world’s governments took radical action to ensure humanity’s survival: the brains of the dying were scanned, modeled, and uploaded to a vast computer simulation housed in enormous data centers around the globe.
They call this simulation Arcadia.”
The idea of setting a story in a post-apocalyptic world is familiar of course, and Arcadia fits very comfortably within the tradition.
Paknadel’s story begins in the aftermath. There are no flashbacks to scenes of death on a massive scale; no harrowing portrayals of last moments. No corpse-strewn landscapes. No mass hysteria.
The narrative begins seven years into the quiet of the aftermath.
What the introduction doesn’t say is that while four of the seven billion dying were saved within Arcadia at the point of death, only about three hundred thousand biological humans survive on Earth, and it is they who are the guardians of Arcadia, responsible for its safekeeping.
This, of course, is the faultline along which the story fractures. Paknadel quickly establishes the moral ambiguity and physical schism within a new reality that includes the living population of Earth, referred to throughout the story as The Meat, and the billions of inhabitants of the cyber-utopia of Arcadia (in a demographic ratio of 1 to 13 000 ).
It’s a really clever story.
At first glance, it’s easy to see that despite their towering numerical advantage, Arcadians are utterly dependent on The Meat. The people of the biological world maintain the servers and programming of Arcadia (they have root access), and juggle the energy demands of the giant network. In principle, one flick of a switch could extinguish four billion virtual lives.
But of course, among the Arcadians live the husbands, wives, children, relatives and friends of everyone still able to breathe. It’s thus doubly cruel that contact between The Meat and Arcadia was made illegal because it drove too many biologicals to depression and suicide.
And then there’s the fact that the greatest medical minds now live in Arcadia, and continue to work to eradicate the virus that still claims biological victims (mainly those exhausted by years of deprivation and struggle).
This interdependence should provide the foundation for equilibrium between worlds, but tensions mount as the increasing energy demands of Arcadia become too much for The Meat. In addition, while the latter struggle, starve, get sick and die, Arcadians are exempt—even mortality can be written out of their programming.
In a really challenging interview he gave online, Alex Paknadel explains that Arcadia is in part a reaction to and an exploration of the far-reaching influence of Silicon Valley, specifically the cyber-utopianism that is part of its technoculture.
Paknadel’s narrative means to disabuse us of the notion that technology can cure every disease, redress every imbalance and solve every problem.
“ […] Something or someone always has to be removed to make utopia achievable, and that’s usually the unfamiliar and the vulnerable.
At the moment the supposed barriers to our great technological leap forward are the so-called disrupted – folks who, we’re told, are too lazy or too feckless to adapt when they’re replaced overnight by some shiny new algorithm. The thing is, societies and economies are massively and subtly interconnected, so each and every disruption ripples outwards in increasingly unpredictable ways.”
In Arcadia, complexity and interconnectedness interact and often clash in ways that challenge our predictions and allegiances to characters and even worlds.
When an actual death occurs in Arcadia—an event thought to be impossible—any notion of equilibrium is tossed aside. A line is suddenly drawn between Arcadians of privilege and those who are deprived, while order breaks down between the biological keepers of the source code and the political and economic powers that be in both worlds.
Whose world is it? Whose will it be?
In this first Arcadia series, the answers seem to lie with the people—both biological and virtual, which means…
Read it and find out!
Comic books and graphic novels depend on the vision of two creators: the writer and the illustrator. Eric Scott Pfeiffer was given the challenge of imagining two radically different environments and landscapes, and the result is brilliant.
Pfeiffer’s illustrations are clean and dramatically etched. A different colour palette is used in representations of The Meat which is black and grey, somber and gloomy—a shadow world; and Arcadia which is much more varied and where greys and blacks are combined with oranges, teals and reds to dramatic effect.
To me, the great challenge lay in representing the constantly shifting, physics-defying, non-corporeality of Arcadia—a place where the distinction between organic and inorganic is totally meaningless.
Pfeiffer met the challenge with brio.