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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Stop Being Fearful and Try to Help Everyone You Meet

It took me two days to read this note. On the first, I was carried along by the rush hour crowd, and anyone with sense never stops on subway stairs at such a moment. The crowd is unforgiving (because it’s composed of individuals like me who are very unforgiving when someone blocks the flow). The next day, however, I was ready with phone in hand. I waited for the surge of people to pass and then paused long enough to take a snapshot. Although I’m posting this under the date when I took the picture, I’m actually writing this several weeks later and can report that while graffiti often lingers in this city for months and years, this little bit of advice was was scrubbed away a couple weeks ago.

People Still Use Payphones to Communicate (Sort of)

Payphones are still part of the street flora in New York City although I never see anyone using them–at least not to make phone calls. They get more use these days as public bulletin boards, attracting flyers, graffiti, and stickers (and stickers with graffiti), like the one below.

The notion of “payphone” will one day pass into history, and with it the memory of a way of life when people weren’t connected to the world and everyone they knew via a touch screen in their pockets. 
These days I hate to carry change, and try to avoid it by always using a credit card, but in the 1980s and 1990s, pay phones made carrying coins a necessity. Once when I needed to make a call and didn’t have the 20 cents, I asked a passing couple if they could give me change for a dollar. Seeing that I needed to make a call, they handed me a quarter and said, “Keep it.” I was amazed and tried to press the dollar on them, but they refused it with a laugh. 
Twenty cents may seem insignificant but the act of giving wasn’t. I thanked them profusely, but I’ve realized since that it wasn’t just a quarter they gave me. They also gave me a conviction that people have the capacity to be kind and generous, and you might never know in advance when or how someone will come to your aid. The fact that I remember that brief interaction from 25 years ago speaks to the lasting impression it made.