Sunday, July 7, 2019

Sam J. Miller and Blackfish City

It was a pleasure to have Sam J. Miller on the show after I saw him at the Nebulas this year.

I asked him what the seed had been for his Nebula-nominated novel, Blackfish City. Sam said, "A woman showed up in my brain, with a killer whale, and demanded my attention." He told us that he had seen the documentary entitled "Blackfish," and cried. He wanted to spend time with orcas, but couldn't do it in real life "because they'd eat me," and this book allowed him to do that.

The floating city of Qanaaq appeared in an immigration parable story called "Calved" that appeared in Asimov's in 2015. Sam told us that a number of different pieces fell together for Blackfish City to happen. He takes things he loves, things he finds upsetting, and things he's mad about and puts them in a pot together.

Qanaaqis a floating Arctic city in a future 100-300 years in the future, after catastrophic climate change. It's a boom town, a giant floating oil rig housing a million people, which is shaped like an asterisk with arms 10 kilometers long. Some of the arms house rich people, and some house people of many different backgrounds.

Sam explained that he has a background as a community organizer working for police reform, and has experience learning what kind of people cities work for or against. This is a critical piece in the creation of Blackfish City. Sam imagined a mass exodus to the north as cities in the south burn. The First Nations, including the Inuit, have adapted to the environment of the north, and so they play a critical role and become global cultural leaders. People who are immigrating to the area take on much culture from where they arrive. In the book the First Nations influence is a backdrop. Sam said that he did a great deal of research on the practices of these peoples, but didn't feel he knew enough about the ramifications to go really deep and still do them justice.

He described the city as "very much New York City," inasmuch as there are many issues in the book that he has encountered in New York. Frustrated by talking to robots, he created a city where Artificial Intelligence makes most decisions. Sam told us he's done a lot of work on open data. Every city agency keeps information in different ways. The way the fire department views a region is very different from the way the city planning department views that same region, and the information they view as critical differs. Trying to bring the two together becomes very messy. In the book, the AIs are not friends or enemies, but they are supposed to make it difficult to solve problems.

We discussed the food people eat in Qanaaq. Sam described it as an assortment of cuisines adapted to circumstances. People eat a lot of vat-grown meat, and have farmed protein sources. Because the city floats on the ocean, there is aquaculture, so they have farmed fish and shrimp. Shrimp have been genetically modified to make the shells edible. Most people rely on a minimalist set of foods, but the rich have floating greenhouses.

Sam said he wanted a lot of inventiveness in the way that the people of Qanaaq solve food problems. He said he looked at Hong Kong and Kowloon's walled city to see how people solved food problems there, since both places are really densely populated. Sam described how Kowloon produced massive amounts of fish balls in small DIY spaces. He was also inspired by his 2015 trip to Thailand, where he saw how food was made, prepared, and sold. He was impressed by stalls that flash-fried noodles really quickly.

I asked Sam how he set up the way the different arms of the city worked. He said his technique was basically, "Let's try this and see how it works." He put the wealthy people on the south side because the weather conditions on the north side would be harsher due to Arctic weather patterns. The city is built over a geothermal vent with a pyramid structure to capture energy.

There are some utopian elements in the story as well as dystopian ones. A lot of energy problems can be solved. The city uses methane generators to produce light. They also don't need militarized police. Sam remarked how any place can have both utopian and dystopian elements depending on who you are. To the people who live in the Capital, the Hunger Games world is a utopia.

I asked if this book was strictly speaking science fiction or whether it had fantastical elements. He explained that it is a science fiction story, but that he uses nanites to do things that might seem magical. The nanites allow some humans to bond with animals. That bond could seem fantastical but it has technological underpinnings.

There are people called orcamancers. Sam explained that the origins of the orcamancers are  with illegal pharmaceutical testing that happened in the period between the present and the time period of the novel. Rival drugs were tested on people at different times. This accidentally led to a form of bonding with animals that Sam compared to the daemons in The Golden Compass. He explained that cultural practices regulate why you would bond with particular animals.

Sam told us that all of his work takes place in a shared universe that can be cross-referenced to itself. He described it as "a sort of general arc to the future that I'm imagining."

In Blackfish City, Sam makes the end of America a sort of background noise by featuring a news report that talks about the 17th American government falling.

Sam told us about a short story he wrote called "It was Saturday Night, I Guess That Makes it All Right," in which there was a fundamentalist government that had outlawed musicians (among other things). He said he often writes about things that he's pissed off about, or scared of. He says that given what he is seeing with migrant children right now, he tries not to be gleeful when he writes something about the people who are causing this atrocity becoming refugees. He likes to imagine that the scales will tip.

I asked Sam about the influence of Octavia Butler's fiction on him, because I'd seen him mentioned in an article about her influence.  Sam explained that he can't quantify her influence on him, but that she freed him to think about bringing together social justice and science fiction. He says his favorite of her books is Mind of my Mind, because he says if you did have telepathic superpowers, by and large it would be really rough for you to be surrounded by horrific suffering.

He likes to see old assumptions being shaken.

Sam says, "I love so many kinds of books." He told us he probably should write only one kind of book, but he doesn't stick to one genre. Right now he has a book called The Blade Between coming out from Echo Press. He speculated with us about writing an epic secondary world fantasy, or a sex thriller. He said he had zero interest in writing epic secondary world fantasy because he was turned off by the restrictive visions of many past books, but then he read Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy and thought to himself that maybe it would be possible. He says, "I'm all over the place." He's writing a hard science fiction short story and a horror story at the moment, trying to be a jack of all trades.

Paul asked Sam about his use of point of view in Blackfish City. He told us that he was fascinated by the main character as an agent of plot, but that her influence is mostly having an impact through other people. She only gets to narrate one chapter at the center of the book. Sam explained that the model for this was actually Faulkner's story "As I Lay Dying," which features one section at the center narrated by the dead person who is being transported. Sam said that he really likes to look at the low and high of how people live, so the four points of view in Blackfish City represent the spread of lifestyles in Qanaaq, and each has an equal role and agency in the plot. He acknowledged that managing the logistics of four points of view is tough, and takes both skill and a good editor.

I asked Sam to tell us a little about The Blade Between. He told us that it's set in his hometown of Hudson, New York, a town in the rust belt that grew and waned with industry, and now is being revitalized by wealthy people building second homes and antique shops... but that this gentrification is very difficult for people who live there. The Blade Between is a nightmare vision in which a gay artist who moved to the city and then returned to his hometown fights back against gentrification. He said the question behind the book's premise is "What if gentrification came to a town with a secret?" This town is haunted by the ghosts of whales, who died when whaling was a major industry in the town. The whale ghosts (mostly sperm whales, whose bones fill the harbor) are manipulating people to resist the gentrification. They have a sort of ghost hive mind, which Morgan suggested could be called a "pod mind."

Sam told us that on July 2, he has a book coming out called Destroy All Monsters, from Harper YA. He calls it a combination of gritty contemporary and fantasy YA.

Sam described his worldbuilding as saying a bunch of crazy stuff, putting it on a page, and hopefully it coheres into a world that works. He says he's a half-pantser, in that his characters fill in their own logic. When a character needs to get coffee, he then asks what coffee looks like. If he discovers he never worked out what gender equality looks like or how magic impacts sex work, he goes back and figures it out. He says any worldview is projection and an attempt to make sense of chaos.

It was a real pleasure having Sam on the show. Thank you so much, Sam!

Dive into Worldbuilding meets this week on Tuesday, July 9th at 4pm Pacific to talk with author Cadwell Turnbull about his new book, The Lesson. I hope you can join us!




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