Sam J. Miller’s Blackfish City Offers a Tale of Family and Revenge on Arctic Waters

Sam J. Miller loves cities. He lives in one, has a day job dedicated to making urban life more humane and fair, and has set his new novel, Blackfish City, in a teeming metropolis full of people who are grateful to be there.

Sam J. Miller (Photo: Sam J. Miller)

The fictional metropolis is Qaanaak, which floats in arctic waters like a massive 8-armed asterisk and serves as a refuge for those fleeing climate change, resource scarcity and war.

Like Miller’s hometown of New York City, the book is packed with diverse characters, including Fill, a privileged gay man suffering from a new horrifying disease; Kaev, a fighter who’s paid to lose fights; Ankit, chief of staff to a hack politician; and Soq, a gender-fluid messenger with ambitions of becoming a crime boss like the one he works for. They are strangers to each other until a mysterious woman, on a mission of rescue and revenge, rides into town on the back of a killer whale. This woman–an “orcamancer”–brings them close, revealing secret ties that had bound them together all along.

Miller uses his fiction to imagine solutions to problems he grapples with in his job as a community organizer and advocate for the homeless. “I wanted to imagine a city where many of the sort of problematic things that have been the prime directives of urban policy over the last 30 years in cities like New York were no longer true. Maybe you don’t need a racist police force in order to have a functional city; maybe you don’t need to make homeless people’s lives miserable as your prime mandate for how architecture and public space happen.”

Miller calls Blackfish City “a hopeful dystopia.”

“Yes, many of the things we love will be destroyed; yes, maybe there will be unspeakable horror in our future as a result of climate change or social injustice, but that doesn’t mean humanity is going to cease…. I wanted to imagine a dramatically transformed world that is still recognizably human and where things like love, and family and community and noodles can save us.”

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It’s Raining Men in Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male, a Near-Future Vision of China’s One-Child Policy

Maggie Shen King
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Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male (Harper Voyager, 2017) is a work of science fiction inspired by a real-world dystopia: a country with tens of millions of “extra” men will never find spouses.

The country is China, which in 1979 adopted its one-child policy in the hope of reducing its population of 940 million to around 700 million. The plan was intended to last only one generation, but it endured until 2015. The degree to which the policy has contributed to a drop in China’s fertility rate is an open question, since other factors (like rapid economic development) are also at play. But one consequence of the policy is clear: China now has millions more men than women.

An Excess Male made the James Tiptree Jr. Literary Award Honor List and was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. It also earned spots on a number of “best of” lists, including Barnes and Noble’s and the Washington Post’s lists of the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy novels of 2017.

King told me that the idea for An Excess Male came to her five years ago after she read a newspaper article about the gender imbalance. “The statistics say that by 2030, a quarter of the men over the age of 35 will not be able to find a wife,” King says. But the problem impacts more than marriage; it also affects social order. “When you have 30 million men at the prime of their lives, testosterone-fueled, you have a society that’s more prone to aggression and violence and crime, or, if you go to the other end, dissatisfaction or possibly depression. It’s a very, very volatile mix.”

In An Excess Male, the government solves the problem by allowing (and incentivizing) polyandry. “What if a woman could marry more than one husband? I thought that would be a really provocative way to talk about how China, in favoring their sons, actually achieved the opposite and a very devastating effect,” King says.

The story is told through the eyes of the members of the family of Wu May-Ling, a woman with two husbands, and their suitor, Lee Wei-Guo, who aspires to be her third. One might expect such a complicated courtship to collapse of its own weight, but Wei-Guo’s determination to find love allows him to develop genuine affection for all three potential mates. Whether these bonds are mutual, however, becomes the crucial question when two characters, for different reasons, become enemies of the state and Wei-Guo’s would-be spouses must risk their lives to help each other as only a family can.

In our conversation on New Books in Science Fiction, King discusses, among other things, the historical precedents for polyandry, China’s repressive policies toward homosexuality, and the role a writing group played in the shaping of her novel.

 

A Terrorist Comes of Age in El Akkad’s Poignant–and Chilling–American War

Omar El Akkad

Set 50-plus years in the future, Omar El Akkad‘s debut novel American War (Knopf, 2017) has been widely praised, becoming one of those rare books with science fiction themes to make numerous mainstream publications’ Best Books of the Year lists. It was, for example, among the 100 Most Notable Books in The New York Times, the Best Books of 2017 in GQ, and was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s top pick for Canadian fiction.

I was thrilled that El Akkad accepted my invitation to appear on New Books in Science Fiction. (Listen to the interview). It’s a wonderful book–lyrical, imaginative, and, as a terrorist’s coming-of-age story, acutely relevant to today.

El Akkad was born in Cairo, Egypt, grew up in Qatar, eventually moved to Canada, and now lives in Oregon. He has worked as a journalist, covering everything from the Arab Spring to the Black Lives Matter movement. He also spent two years covering the terrorism trials of the Toronto 18, which gave him insight into how young minds are radicalized and provided partial inspiration for his depiction of American War’s protagonist, Sarat Chestnut.

We meet Sarat when she’s an appealing, headstrong six-year-old and follow her, via El Akkad’s nuanced writing, as she grows up in a refugee camp, sees her family destroyed, and is groomed to commit acts of terror. Ultimately, she plays a pivotal role in the outcome of the Second American Civil War, and yet, in a reflection of the true-to-life nature of El Akkad’s storytelling, her motives aren’t the black-and-white of Hollywood, but remain murky.

Despite the book’s title, El Akkad told me that he doesn’t feel he’s writing about America. “To me if was never a book about America but about the universality of revenge… That any of us subjected to the injustice of being on the losing end of war, being on the losing end of violence, break down the same way and become damaged the same way and become wrathful the same way. The book is set in an allegorical America.”

Meg Elison explores power and gender in Book of the Unnamed Midwife

I spoke with this year’s winner of the Philip K. Dick Award, Meg Elison, for my 18th podcast on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy. She was easy breezy to talk to, with smart quick answers that, in my humble opinion, made for a great interview. Of course, it helps that her book tackles all kinds of rich subjects: gender inequality (exacerbated by an epidemic that kills far more women than men), reproductive rights, and a need for meaningful emotional and intellectual stimulation in a world sorely lacking both. Below is what I wrote to introduce the podcast.


Despite the odds, Meg Elison did it.

First, she finished the book she wanted to write. Second, she found a publisher–without an agent. Third, she won the Philip K. Dick Award for Distinguished Science Fiction, a stunning achievement for a first-time author with a small, independent press.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is set in the American West after an epidemic has killed all but a fraction of humanity. Among the survivors, men vastly outnumber women, setting in motion a desperate journey of survival for the eponymous midwife. To avoid the serial rape and enslavement that threatens all females in this male-dominated landscape, the midwife sheds her name and even her sexuality, presenting herself as a man and continuously changing her moniker to suit the circumstance.

Communication falls apart too quickly for anyone to even know the name or nature of the illness that’s destroyed civilization and made childbirth a fatal event for female survivors. The midwife’s focus is on giving the few women she meets the hard-won power to prevent pregnancy. “I think the thing I wanted to come across most strongly was to explode notions of gender… And to really think about what your options would be like if you, like your grandmother, had no control over when you had children or how or by whom,” Elison says in her New Books interview.

Elison was raised on stories about the apocalypse–the fire and brimstone kind. “I grew up in some pretty crazy evangelical churches, and they hammered on us about the end of days and the Book of Revelation, and it gave me nightmares, and it made always think about the fact that the end was nigh and that it was going to be bad, and I think that stuck with me my whole life even though I shed the ideological parts of it.”

For the midwife, the apocalypse poses threats both dramatic and mundane. When not searching for food and a safe place to spend the night, she must negotiate the frustrating reality of spending time with people she doesn’t like. “I started thinking about what it would be like if the only people you could find were people you couldn’t stand, if they just irritated in you every way,” Elison says. “There’s nothing wrong with them and they’re not unsafe, you just don’t like being there. So I wanted to make a character who had to make choices between feeling safe in a group of people and feeling pissed off all the time.”

Elison is grateful for the editors at Sybaritic Press, who published her unagented manuscript. “They’re very good editors and publishers,” she says. But inevitably, she’s had to do a lot of marketing herself. “It’s good because I’ve learned a lot about the business doing that and it’s not good because no one listens to a writer on her own.”

Fortunately, the Philip K. Dick Award has made finding readers a whole lot easier. The award “has opened a lot of doors,” she says.

Related links:

  • An article in the Los Angeles Review of Books explores the book’s treatment of “Gender and the Apocalypse.” [Note: the article has spoilers].
  • Meg Elison shares her thoughts on her blog.
  • You can follow New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy on Twitter and Facebook
  • and host Rob Wolf on Twitter

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Podcast No. 11: Alex London Discusses Pen Names, Gay Characters, and the ‘Dystopia’ Label

This week’s podcast was an experiment. Rather than record the conversation with author Alex London over Skype, I decided to take the subway to Brooklyn and meet with him face-to-face in a coffee shop. I found it liberating to be unchained from an Internet connection, which has been known to fail mid-conversation, but the price of having a barista nearby is boisterous background noise.


London’s novels about class conflict, debt, and rebellion are set in a dark future. A significant portion of Proxy takes place in a city where the poorest citizens dwell in a violent shantytown known as the Valve while the wealthy thrive in well-guarded neighborhoods of private speedways, luxury homes, and high-tech toys. The sequel, Guardian, is set in a crumbling Detroit exponentially more decrepit than the Motor City of today.

As London explains, the horrors of the Valve are his “futuristic re-imagining” of slums outside of Nairobi, which he witnessed while researching one of his non-fiction books, One Day the Soldiers Came, about children affected by armed conflict. “For a lot of children all over the world caught up in wars and poverty and natural disaster … dystopia is not some kind of fantasy but the day-to-day reality of how they are living,” he tells me.

Although the books portray a grim future, the publisher avoids the word “dystopia” in its marketing of Proxy and Guardian. “They call it a ‘futuristic thriller,’” London says. The marketing department also shies away from the science fiction tag, fearing it’s too narrow. But London says he embraces the label. “Science fiction for me implies … an awareness of possibility.”

London himself is brimming with possibility. For one thing, he writes under three names. Proxy and Guardian, which are aimed at young adults, bear the name Alex London. But as Charles London, he’s published adult non-fiction about war and the survival of beleaguered Jewish communities around the world. And as C. Alexander London, he continues to write for middle-grade readers about real-life war experiences and fantastical adventures involving squids and dragons.

Like any good science fiction writer, London seeks to push boundaries. Proxy explores what would happen if wealthy transgressors rigged a system of debt and credit to avoid punishment for their crimes and instead made the poor (known as proxies) receive the punishment instead. London also pushes cultural boundaries: Proxy and Guardian’s main character, Syd, is gay, which makes him unusual as the star of a science fiction series geared for young adults. As a result, London has received an outpouring of fan mail from young people seeking advice. “It’s been very touching to see kids who might not otherwise be drawn to explicitly queer books … find their way to Proxy,” he says. Because the books are primarily thrillers, some kids, especially those living in conservative communities, feel safer reading them than gay-themed books that focus on romance or coming out, he explains.

“I’ve been getting letters from a lot of actually straight boys writing about their friends and wondering how they can be better allies. Those are my favorite,” London says.

Related links:

Spoiler alerts:

  • From 18:45 to 22:16 we discuss some aspects of Syd’s love life that those who haven’t read Proxy and Guardian may prefer to skip.
  • From 33:12 to 34:00 we discuss the science behind a key plot point integral to the resolution of Proxy.