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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New York Today

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Every day, I see more and more people sprawled on the street. A scene like this is typical: life going on while a guy is flat on the ground. Often, the blankets, boxes and bedding around the figure suggest they are homeless. Less often, the person looks as if they’ve collapsed on the spot–I assume intoxicated with a substance, as appears to be the case with this man whom I saw a couple weeks ago at the corner of 9th Avenue and 43rd Street in Manhattan.

What’s unusual in this photo is that a police officer is on the scene, although the situation doesn’t necessarily call for police intervention. A representative from a social service agency would be ideal. I suppose in the old days (whenever they were), a stranger might have offered a helping hand.  Did such days really exist? Perhaps in a small town people were (and are) willing to lend a hand, when  requests for help come infrequently. But in Manhattan, where there are  people begging on every other street corner and bodies and blankets squeezed into doorways and along sidewalks across Midtown, stopping to help does not feel like a viable option.  The problem is too large for any one good Samaritan, and even stopping to give a quarter or a sandwich isn’t a solution (although perhaps it is a solution of the moment, for one person’s fleeting need).

Each person I see provokes a series of questions: Who are they? How did they get there? Are they in any way responsible for their current unfortunate situation or are they entirely victims (and why do I feel the need to assign blame anyway)? Aren’t there social services that can help them? Why are there so many street people? Why don’t they rise up and demand change? Why don’t they travel to a friendlier environment where they can sleep on soft ground and not cement? What was their life like 10 years ago? What will it be like 10 years from now?