Acheron Rising is a cyberpunk web series being developed by Brent Radford and Lucien Soulban. Radford and and Soulban have been steeped in cyberpunk since their early lives and Soulban has contributed to many well-known cyberpunk properties such as Cyberpunk 2020, Shadowrun, Deus Ex, and most recently Watch Dogs 2. They agreed to talk to us at Neon Dystopia to promote Acheron Rising, which is currently running as Kickstarter Campaign.
ND – What was your first experience with cyberpunk? What cyberpunk media inspires you most?
Brent – It’s hard to say what my first experience was but I can clearly remember seeing Blade Runner on a laserdisc player at a friend’s house in public school and it was the “awakening” for me. I’d never seen anything like it. Sure I remembered Harrison Ford from Star Wars but it was the first time I’d seen something that inspired me. To this day Blade Runner is my favorite film. I’ve seen it in 70mm film screenings and in the new digital projections and it can still fill me with wonder and I see something new almost every time.
After Blade Runner, I know it was the Cyberpunk RPG. My first roleplaying game was D&D, and that was my high-school thing. When I first went to University and started dabbling in Film I found a new group of people who were roleplaying and they introduced me to lots of new stuff, which I loved; Marvel, Rifts, Chill but it was when I first saw that Cyberpunk 2020 2nd Edition rule book I was hooked. As for what inspires me in the current media? That’s a tough one. I find myself going back to reading Gibson when I’m looking for inspiration. The current cycle of films doesn’t get me awed like some of the older stuff. I’ll go back and watch Stephen Norrington’s “Death Machine” or sometimes Cameron’s “Strange Days” to really feel Cyberpunk. Nothing really grabs me, chiefly because I’m obsessed with this project.
Lucien – For myself, I read Cyberpunk before I could really appreciate it. My first experience had to be Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” but it was too pessimistic for me at the time. It was Blade Runner that blew me away, and I came to love the visual aesthetics of it. Before I appreciated the themes themselves, I guess anime and manga like Appleseed and Bubblegum Crisis were my main source for Cyberpunk. I was more attracted to the notion of a future that I myself could see, as opposed to the far flung futures of Star Trek and Star Wars. If I’d really understood the themes of Cyberpunk, however, I’d have been more careful about what I wished for.
ND – You mentioned that want to keep the ‘content “pure” and dark.’ Can you elaborate on that for me?
Brent – Maybe because of Blade Runner and Aliens but I don’t have a “sunny day” outdoorsy feel of Cyberpunk. It’s the one aesthetic thing I really want to push for – Night shots. Things are more dangerous at night, more alive, and it’s, for me, the time where deals are made, and jobs are done. So Acheron has to live in this world – at night. Which until recently was incredibly hard to do without a significant budget. Lights, the generators to power them and the crew to work them all are a huge cost overhead. But this has all changed. The lights are more portable, LED and not huge tungsten lights, and now we can use the new digital cameras that have an incredible range, so it makes shooting a Cyberpunk show bother realistic and affordable.
“Pure” is a reference to the R-rated element or nature of Cyberpunk. If you’re going to deal with the underbelly of a society or write about the questionable morality of civilization and how it survives you need to be raw, realistic and edgy and willing to show the raw nature. I have always pictured Acheron as a violent and morally dark show, one where death is common, and one where there are few happy endings. It’s hard to make such a show because TV and movies are escapist outlets, and everyone wants happy or empowering shows. I/we are trying to do a show that is going to push the viewer to question and think and to do this I can’t see a network being interested. Game of Thrones is a cultural success because of its tone and having read the books years ago I understood and was happy it was an HBO show because it wouldn’t have done the source material justice if there wasn’t nudity or if the deaths all happened in cut aways or off screen. That said if you have any connections to HBO we’re open to talking to them.
The major theme in Acheron Rising seems to be the divide between the 1% and everyone else. In particular the Favela-like structure of The Sprawl doesn’t seems so far off with increasing wealth disparity and homelessness in the United States. How do you feel that this is going to play out in reality?
Acheron Rising is very much based on Rio de Janeiro and the current political and social economic future I can see happening. I watched the film “City of God” years ago and thought, at the time, how foreign it was to me how cyberpunk in the violence, life struggle, and the world -to me, a white, middle-class guy attending University in Montreal. In a way, it was like watching science fiction. Then after I got the bluray there was a documentary about the Favelas and the crime/drug wars and it just stuck with me. We’ve tried to predict where the world would go after an economic crash, not a post-war or apocalyptic thing but an actual slow spiral down and this lead us to look at Rio, Mexico and Central and South America as a prediction of our future Montreal.
What is scary is seeing some of this underlying corporate control already taking form. I based Mel on a couple of my friends who have done. High-level security work for international companies and (uhhhmmm) “dictators” and how disillusioned they became with the structure. They went from aid worker to Corporate Enforcer in a heart-beat. One was “hired” to do humanitarian work through a contracting company during Katrina. He believed or was told it was to help sandbag flood zones and get dropped into dangerous areas to bring food, but when he got there, he was given a gun and put on security for an oil company, protecting temporary housing units for the oil companies employees who were displaced but still keeping the oil refineries running. He had a lot of trouble with it and after seeing the disparity and inhumanity, he walked off the job and paid for his own flight home. His story really showed me the future or the reality that will set in if corporate profit is jeopardized by a humanitarian or national need.
I also see the increasing security measures in Europe as a step toward a cyberpunk style future. Security/police/military with full battle gear on street corners to keep the peace was a scary future for people/me when we were in the 80’s, but it’s common now all over the world. Security stops and checkpoints in search of “terrorists” – how Akira can you get. The computer attacks on public institutions and corporations by hackers is another step in the ladder toward exactly what Acheron is. Odd fact – we have about 1,800 followers on Facebook, and I would figure 75% of them are from Mexico and the Central and Southern Americas. At first, it surprised me but after talking with other people I came to think – it really isn’t science fiction to them. The Mega city with low-class housing kept at a distance from the rich tourists or corporate centers to them is a plausible future, and so they are totally into Acheron.
ND – Another aspect that stuck out to me is that the poor, “own basically nothing.” Is this a trend you see arising in reality as well?
Brent – I wish I could say “No”, but the truth is we’ve already passed that point. If you look at the total world population and realize how many live in poverty, or simply struggle to feed themselves – you would agree. Here in North America, we have a very egocentric understanding of the whole world. We are so isolated, perhaps by choice, to the world struggle. There are massive populations and cities that the struggle to survive is a daily thing, where violence because of the drug trade is normal because it’s the only way to make money. You can name a number of places where similar situations are occurring, corporations trying to or actually owning water rights, food shortages because nations are selling the food rather than feeding families and where the drug trade controls foreign police. I chose to push these stories in Acheron because to really explore a society/social problem you have to make it extreme, hoping that it will make the viewer subconsciously question the themes and ideas. I think Western Civilization has issues when it comes to needing and acquiring “stuff.” “He who dies with the most toys Wins?” do you remember that t-shirt saying? It annoyed me when it was a “thing” but I also see how that has created a huge divide between us, us here in North America, and the rest of the world. I really want to explore that, and I want to draw distinct lines between the classes in Acheron. I know it may not be popular, but it’s one of the main fault lines between Western culture and Muslim culture. I want to explore some of those lines in our stories.
So the 1% own pretty much everything. They’re the shareholders in these massive mega Corps that own 40 or 50 different brands and so their employees are living in corporate towers with credit cards that work in their company associated stores. So everyone in this Corporate class has pretty much the same “stuff” as the other guy in the company. Kind of like the Ikea student thing. When everyone you know all had Ikea furniture because it was cheap and designed to appeal to the “young business person.” But it wasn’t really unique or well made because everyone had it and to do that you had to mass-produce it all. I want this corporate class to be kind of soulless like that because they have to all shop at the same places, use the same brands that their parent company sells. To off set these higher classes I really want our “low Class” Sprawl Dwellers to be living a totally different lifestyle. They exist outside of the walls but also without some of the “needs and wants” that the upper classes hold so dear. So I wanted a culture and society where the money goes to basic needs not wants. Each person is struggling to survive, not going to a new car but to have a safe bed and food and or get some job inside with the corporation. In doing this I want the outside to have very little and inside corporate world to have too much, but the too much is an empty thing.
ND – The characters in Acheron Rising are really interesting, as you would expect in a cyberpunk inspired story, these characters have cybernetic implants. Much of cyberpunk/post-cyberpunk stories have stepped back from cybernetic implants, especially in film. Why do you think this is?
Brent – Two Reasons – Some would say it’s because writers wanted to work in a “fresh” genre or a cutting edge idea and that was the biopunk genre, and so they abandoned cyber or cybernetics to do this, and it just took a life of it’s own. I think that’s because bioware or biopunk is easier to believe in, for the audience, than cybernetics. Bio-enhancement is part of the Olympics, part of wrestling- the idea that you can improve and be better with science as a physical injection, and that is easy to accept than a meld between Man and technology. It’s less invasive and perhaps morally easier to accept. The most interesting thing The Matrix did was to not explain the science behind how everyone learned or uploaded their skills, and the story stayed simpler to believe.
The second one is that cyberpunk needs visuals to sell the story in film or TV which ups the budget on the production. The physical effects we saw in Terminator that made the T-1000 real aren’t used anymore (not because they don’t work but because companies just budget CGI, and it’s done). James Cameron is a film genius when it comes to understanding what he needs to sell a shot, all I hear on set these days is “oh visual effects will fix that” and BOOM there up goes the budget. So bioware or a quick reference line about his physical upgrades is easier than showing a metal arm or CG enhanced eye. Then again maybe Chrome just fell out as a fashion accessory? We’re bringing it back!
ND – Lucien, you have a long entrenched history with cyberpunk. Your first published work was part of an alternative Cyberpunk 2020 Setting called Playground followed by Sub Attica. Tell us about that experience.
Lucien – Wow, you really dug deep with that one! I’m seriously surprised! Well, Playground came at a time when my appreciation for good themes and story were evolving. I loved horror, and I loved Cyberpunk, but it was still all very visceral. Playground was my first published piece ever in the paper & pen roleplaying industry. While the Night’s Edge setting called for the supernatural as well, I cheated… I was more interested in science fiction that looked at social issues through the lens of technology. I can thank my father for that when he made me read the Lensmen Series by E.E. Doc Smith at ten years old. I hate writing from a point of ignorance, however, and Night’s Edge forced me to go book shopping with friends who introduced me to the works of William Gibson. I came to appreciate the gritty themes, the life and death struggle in urban sprawls, and the struggle to maintain a grip on our humanity. So I tried to reflect more real world concerns in Playground and Sub-Attica… if you didn’t mind tripping over the token vampire or two. Thankfully, none of them sparkled.
ND – In 2002, you wrote a supplement for Shadowrun, how was working on this franchise different from your experience with Cyberpunk 2020?
Lucien – Well, that one took me underwater again, but I love Scuba, and underwater factors into a number of my books and novels. Honestly, though, the Cyberpunk elements in Night’s Edge were more to my taste and I got to tell a story, which is where the genre thrives. I was grateful for the Shadowrun work, but it was tech and rules, and not terribly inspiring other than to provide game masters with material.
ND – From there you went to write for a number of other role-playing games until finally writing for Deus Ex – Human Revolution, where you inserted your partner Brent, into the story. Tell us about your experience writing for Deus Ex.
Brent – I think Lucien does this to get even for killing him all the time. As a friend I pull him in to play characters during my filming and it seems they often die! Or are dressed in bad attire. But he’s always a good sport about it.
Lucien – Deus Ex was a rich universe backed by dedicated fans and my mandate wasn’t very long before I joined the Far Cry 3 team, but I was in charge of the side content, much of which made it into the game. By that point, I’d come to understand that story was more about people than it was about the treating Cyberpunk like set dressing, and the team believed the same. It was an interesting experience, projecting what a future society would be like as well as who we’d be at our best and worst, as well as what would define our humanity. It was truer to the Blade Runner experience than anything I’d worked on.
ND – More recently, you have been writing for Watch Dogs 2, which also has heavy cyberpunk elements. Tell us about you involvement on that project.
Lucien – While I can’t discuss specifics about the project, I was Lead Writer for Watch_Dogs 2, and I came to see a marked evolution in Cyberpunk. The technology that we feared was coming, the technology that would be used against us, was not only within our grasp, but it was far more insidious than we could have imagined. The Internet no longer was about information and hacking, but it became a social experience that changed how we interact. It was no longer the purview of an elite few, but a melting pot that could be used to entertain, educate, bully, tantalize, preach, and hate.
I think that it’s no longer about just fighting for our freedoms and fighting the corporations, it’s about the monetization of us as a society and how all that data is being used to manipulate us. If anything, working on their project has opened up a level of nuance and fidelity in Cyberpunk that I never could have envisioned when I wrote Playground and Sub-Attica.
Brent, prior to working on Acheron Rising you created a short film called Chessgame. What was working on that film like, and how has it affected your plans for Acheron Rising?
Brent – There probably isn’t enough space or time for your readers to hear all the things that I learned on Chessgame and have used or plan to use Acheron. The most important thing I took away from Chessgame was – Lucien missed his calling as a Soprano’s extra. I am hoping that they do a Hawkeye film based on the new stuff Matt Fraction wrote because Lucien is totally perfect as one of the Russian gang members, I’ve seen him in the white tracksuit and hat look.
What I took away is – ask for help. If you watch the credits at the end you’ll see two or three names repeated over and over again. I loved every minute making it but hated every night because I was worn out. It’s hard when you’re wearing all those hats to see the little thing that might improve the scene or be thinking about the nuances when you’re worried about getting the crew meal out.
I have worked professionally for many years but it had been a long time since I had been relied on to do all the jobs. We had lots of pre-production and that was essential to prepare all the fighters and the gun training for everyone because it saved time onset. My last project “Past and Future Kings” I demanded the same thing and planned it all out well in advance so when the crew arrived everything was simple and I am happy to have a long prep time on this idea. But most of my time now is pushing the Kickstarter as much as I can.
This project I approached professional friends well in advance and, surprisingly, they all jumped on board. Maybe because of Chessgame or because they’ve heard stories about how we did it but either way I found a team to do the project and I think on series work you need that. Short film you can trudge on and get it finished as an individual entity but on something of this size and scope I really need and am thankful for talented collaborators. On Chessgame I even did some of the CGI work myself, basically because I didn’t know anyone. Acheron is just too big a scale to do that so I have taken my knowledge from that experience and I started asking on shows what they were doing with the DOT’s and Box and Balls (little film joke there), and eventually I think I annoyed Gunnar Hanson to the point he started wanting to know why and then he took pity on me and volunteered to help.
It has been great to work with DOP (Director of Photography) Amelie Douville because she’s a fan of the genre. This will be her second science fiction project and her enthusiasm and background has helped see the series at night. She’s really pushing for some winter background/scenes because snow at night with a back light will really give a look few have seen in a cyberpunk setting.
ND – Is there anything else you would like to tell us?
Brent – One of the things that I have noticed in the Cyberpunk genre is that any film or series that tries it comes out has focused on the visuals over the subject matter, the style over the substance. I fell in love with cyberpunk because of the questions it asked, the idea that the world can suffer not from a massive event but from it’s own moral decay. What happens to heroes in this world? Where do characters draw the line? One of the first Cyberpunk Campaigns I ran in College had a crew that had played D&D and tons of games as a group but one session in and they were out for themselves, cutting side deals and looking for the best angle for their character, that was a shock! But its part of the reason I like Cyberpunk and Shadowrun because for all the mood and atmosphere it’s the characters that make it interesting and that’s a world we, speaking for Lucien here I believe, want to explore.
You can learn more about Acheron Rising at their official website.
Or you can support Acheron Rising’s Kickstarter here.
Or you can contact them through e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org