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.

 

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.