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Interview: Sam J. Miller

Sam J. Miller is a writer and a community organizer. His debut novel, The Art of Starving (HarperTeen), was one of NPR’s Best Books of 2017, and will be followed by Blackfish City (Ecco) in April 2018. His stories have been nominated for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Andre Norton, and Theodore Sturgeon Awards, and have appeared in over a dozen “year’s best” anthologies. He’s a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Workshop, and a winner of the Shirley Jackson Award. He lives in New York City, and is reachable at samjmiller.com.

Blackfish City takes place in the floating grid city of Qaanaaq in the Artic Circle, where a mysterious woman on a mysterious mission, known as the orcamancer, brings four people together. These people are living at the margins of society. And together they stage acts of resistance. What was the inspiration for this novel?

It started with the orcamancer. She was originally much younger, but I knew she was a badass lady technologically bonded to a badass killer whale, arriving in an Arctic city on a mysterious mission.

She’s quite the badass! How did you come up with her character?

Her orca created her. I am obsessed with killer whales, with how smart and terrifying they are—kinda like human beings—and so I’m always trying to find ways to work them into my fiction. Them, and dinosaurs. I wrote a story called “Last Gods” about a post-climate-change future where killer whales are worshiped as gods, and after that, I was still thirsty for ways to work with them. And I love human-animal relationships, like Aang with Appa in Avatar: The Last Airbender or Ahab with Moby Dick, so I just had to find a way to write about a human being whose best friend was an orca.

You begin the book with a quote from Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, which clues us in that your novel is very much about a vibrant, bustling city, albeit one teetering on the brink of implosion. What meaning does the quote have for you?

I love that book so much, as a vision of a city and a world that’s gone out of control, in ways both good and bad. “There is nothing safe about this city,” for me, speaks to so much of what makes cities magnificent. That “safety” is often a code word for what we hide behind, what we cling to to make ourselves feel better, and that one person’s safety is another person’s misery (like when Giuliani decided to make NYC “safe” for tourism by making it unsafe for homeless people), that the edgy and rough and raw and dangerous are to be embraced, not shunned.

What’s the story behind naming the city Qaanaaq?

It’s an actual city in Greenland, and I love the sound and palindrome shape of it. And I liked the idea that as coastal cities sank under rising sea levels, we would try to keep them alive by naming new ones after them.

You wrote about Qaanaaq previously in your masterful short story “Calved,” published in Asimov’s in 2015. Did you always know you wanted to explore it further in a novel?

I didn’t! But once the orcamancer had popped into my mind as a potential character, I quickly realized there was no better place for her to wreck shop than in this handy city I had already designed. And I had had so much fun creating it that I had a great time digging deeper into the nuances of how it works . . . and doesn’t.

In “Calved,” a father who does grunt work on iceboats tragically tries his damnedest to impress his teenage son who lives in Qaanaaq. What did you want to explore with the characters in Blackfish City that you hadn’t explored with the characters in the short story?

As a New Yorker, I am fascinated by cities—by their craziness and excitement, the food and the culture and the sex and the pain and the oppression and the resistance that surround us. And I’m a community organizer, and I fight to change the local laws and policies that hurt people, so the blank canvas of Qaanaaq offered me an exciting opportunity to share some of my obsessions and fascinations about municipal governance. And hopefully make that very boring topic as exciting for others as it is for me.

Has your work as a community organizer at Picture the Homeless in New York City influenced the writing of Blackfish City in any way?

I could never have written this book without my work at Picture the Homeless. I’ve learned so much in my fourteen years here, about how cities work. Qaanaaq is me trying to imagine how we could fix some of our problems (like, what if we just didn’t have a violent, racist police infrastructure?) and how others could get worse.

You mentioned digging deeper into the nuances of how Qaanaaq works. One of the nuances is the city being run by software and artificial intelligence. How did you come up with this idea?

I actually believe that in the USA—and probably in most capitalist countries—cities are already governed by artificial intelligence. Money makes all the big decisions; developers and real estate interests will always act in the way that makes them the most money, and politicians will get in line behind them . . . unless and until The People force them to behave differently.

Tell us more about what you mean by money making big decisions, because there’s a line in the novel that says money “is a mind, the oldest artificial intelligence.”

Money wants to multiply. People with money and resources tend to behave in very predictable ways: The decisions they make are the ones that will make them the most money. And in New York City, as in most modern cities, the biggest contributors to political campaigns are real estate interests, which means that’s who elected officials listen to the most. That’s why displacement and gentrification are happening so hard and so fast and so similarly in so many different cities. Ted Chiang wrote recently (bzfd.it/2GSgipW) about how Silicon Valley and venture capitalist billionaires are freaking out about the destructive potential of artificial intelligence because they are conjuring it up in their image. Their own business practices are about maximizing destructive potential (the industry jargon obsession with “disruption”) to strip resources away from everyone else, so of course they think artificial intelligence would be just like them.

One feature of Qaanaaq that really stuck out to me is that protests are rare, a relic of the past “like horse-drawn carriages in twenty-first-century cities.” That’s because explicit human decision-making is minimal and the computer programs call the shots. Protests are more performative than anything, an excuse for photo-ops, and they’ve obviated the need of direct action for social change. As a community organizer, do you think the One Percent would really give the reins of control to machines, computer programs, and AI in the future to suppress social protest and stay on top?

Plenty of people today say that protests are relics of the past. They’re wrong, of course, but state power has spent centuries constructing ways to render popular protest powerless. (Foucault talked about how public executions ended because they riled populations up so much they became a threat to the monarchy; universities started redesigning their physical spaces in the 1970s to minimize the disruptive potential of student unrest; US law enforcement used the post-9/11 panic to normalize “free speech zones” that penned in protests to small spaces far removed from their targets.) So, in that respect, this is just looking at how that tendency will be carried into the future. It isn’t that the powerful would give the reins of control to machines and AI, rather that machines and AI will be one more set of tools of control, like prisons and racist police forces and victim-blaming media narratives are today. And it won’t work, just like it doesn’t work in Qaanaaq, because people are amazing, and they won’t stop fighting back, and they won’t stop winning.

An epidemic of “the breaks,” a disease spread through sexual contact, is spreading among Qaanaaq’s inhabitants. The afflicted experience flashes of memories from the person who gave it to them as well as those who gave to them before. How did you come up with this illness?

This was one of those stray story elements that bounces around in your brain for a year or ten before you find the right place for it. A fatal disease whose only symptoms are psychological. A sexually transmitted disease that the powers-that-be prefer to pretend does not exist. And, of course, as a Gay Man of a Certain Age, I learned a lot of lessons from the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. The disease devastated us, but it also transformed people into warriors who fought collectively to flip the system upside down. Which they did, in ways so huge we might not even be able to see them today. That’s a great reminder to me to look at how the things that threaten to destroy us carry the seeds of the superpowers that we’ll use to flip the script.

Is the memory side effect of the breaks a carry-over from another novel you talked about writing? You’d mentioned writing a novel about a girl who could take people’s memories by touching them.

Well, all my work takes place in a shared universe, so any common threads from story to story are completely intentional [nervous laughter]. And I tend to be working through the same small set of fascinations and fears across all my work, as most authors do, I imagine. The idea that our memories and emotions might matter outside of our own brains is something that definitely keeps popping up, and the supernatural elements of my work are often attempts to work through similar problems in slightly different ways. Attribute this to a lack of originality from story to story to novel to novel!

In a previous interview, you talked about the power of violence. The orcamancer metes out plenty of it out of revenge or retribution. You’ve explored violence as a form of revenge in other works, including the Shirley Jackson Award-winning “57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides” and your YA novel The Art of Starving. Tell us about why you brought back this theme in this novel.

I mean, I’m obsessed with violence. I’m terrified of it; I’m intrigued by it. How can you not be? Personally, I want to be nonviolent, but we’re human—we’re animals—and we’re violent products of a violent world. Humans can choose not to be violent, but it’s a really hard choice to make. I view nonviolence as a privilege. I’ve been a vegetarian for twenty-one years, but I understand that contemporary vegetarianism is dependent on an infrastructure of food abundance and alternatives, and that in some pre-modern or post-apocalyptic scenario, I would have to choose between starving to death and sticking to my moral convictions. In my life as an activist, I embrace nonviolence, but for communities who are the constant victim of violent attacks, I have a hard time telling them to turn the other cheek.

In the midst of the post-apocalyptic setting where the fallout of the climate wars has turned a huge part of the world’s population into climate refugees fleeing to Qaanaaq, you’ve put in a small population of people technologically bonded to animals via nanobots in their blood. The orcamancer is one of them. This is one of the most heartfelt and hopeful aspects of the novel. Why did you want to include it in the worldbuilding?

The nanobonded are the product of illegal and non-consensual human experimentation, which led to a lot of people dying and some people acquiring incredible power, which is one of those metaphors I mentioned earlier, and that I keep coming back to in my fiction—that oppression creates power. We go through shit, and the shit makes us amazing. That’s why I believe that being queer is a superpower. It would be wonderful if no one had to go through shit, but they do, and we should use the superpowers we acquired through that shit to make sure no one else has to go through shit.

The polar bear that accompanies the orcamancer is a big draw to the novel, too. I noticed you’ve posted several drawings of yours featuring polar bears on your Instagram account. You’re quite the illustrator! Is that another source of inspiration for the novel?

Awwww, thanks. You’re sweet to say so. And it’s the other way around, mostly. I draw my characters when I’m stuck, trying to figure them out, trying to visualize their posture and their facial expressions.

Another recurring theme I noticed is the importance of storytelling. It’s the main drive of City Without a Map, a kind of podcast the characters listen to, and the lore surrounding the orcamancer. The mysterious narrator of City Without a Map says, “Stories are how I survived, these long bound years. Now I can share them with you.” Does this stem from your work as a community organizer?

Yes? Also no. When we’re little kids, we crave stories. They’re how we come to understand the world—how it works, how we should behave in it. That never really goes away. The world will never stop being a confusing, terrifying, chaotic void of meaninglessness where our own existence doesn’t actually objectively matter; we’ll never stop craving narratives that let us believe that we have some degree of power and control in it. Where we matter. Where life has meaning. Where our suffering will be redeemed; where the monsters can be killed; where the brutal systems that exploit us will be broken down. Superhero movies are the bedtime stories of the masses. And a big part of our work as community organizers is about shattering the myths that people have accepted, that they’re to blame for their bad situations and that they have no power to change things. That’s why I don’t view books and movies and cartoons as escapism. Being able to escape into a universe where we can speak to dead loved ones, or control the elements, or fight our enemies with gnarly swords made of light, is how I handle the soul-crushing burden of reality. Stories like that very literally help keep people alive.

Blackfish City is your second novel. What’s the writing experience been like for you after having several short stories published, winning the Shirley Jackson Award, and being nominated for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Andre Norton, Crawford, and Theodore Sturgeon Awards?

The Art of Starving was my debut novel, but it was also my seventh novel . . . and those are just the ones I wrote as a grown-up. I recently discovered my second-grade report card, where my teacher wrote that I was hard at work on my own novel, so I guess I’ve been writing books for a while now. I love them both, and they’re both really hard. In both cases, I’m a terrible judge of my own work. Readers will often fall in love with something I think is weak and needs a lot of work, whereas people will find a ton of problems I completely missed in a story I was super confident about.

When The Art of Starving was published, you said in a Toronto Star interview, “There is an honesty that is acceptable in Young Adult that grown-up novels are often ‘too smart’ and ‘sophisticated’ to tell. You can tell the truth in a really powerful and unique way.” Did you feel this way when writing Blackfish City? Was that your experience writing this, your adult debut, compared to writing The Art of Starving?

Every marketing category has its own rules and expectations (and, honestly, I think all genres are just marketing categories), and they’re all fun to play with. I had a great time navigating the different landscape of grown-up science fiction in Blackfish City, but at the end of the day, I read a lot of YA and a lot of non-YA, and I couldn’t really say that great YA is substantially different from great non-YA. I just think teenagers are more honest and less tolerant of bullshit in all its forms. I was on a panel earlier this month at NoVa Teen Book Festival with Dhonielle Clayton, author of The Belles, and she pointed out that grown-ups have learned to survive and even thrive in a sick world, whereas young people have not. And that’s not a weakness, it’s a strength. It’s a reason to put our faith in the potential of younger folks to fix things. At an event recently, an adult asked me how I could write for teens—because teens are so irrational and inscrutable—and I realized that I never really stopped being a teenager. I’m still just as twisted and neurotic and irrational and sex-obsessed and phobic and confused and angry and happy as I was when I was fifteen. I like to think I make fewer terrible decisions than I did then, but I fear that’s mostly just because I am a lot lazier now, and get tired out really easily.

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Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.