If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it 1,000 times: novellas are where it is *AT* for groundbreaking science fiction and fantasy these days. And I’m not sorry to see it. They are a playground for fascinating ideas. Short enough for authors and publishers to take risks, long enough to develop a deep narrative.
I’m sure many of you were big fans of Lavie Tidhar’s award-winning mosaic novel Central Station from a few years ago. If so, In the Watchful City, the debut novella from S. Qiouyi Lu, will be your new obsession!
You have created quite a restricted world that your characters inhabit. Why did you want to explore the impact of restricted liberties?
In the city-state of Ora, there are strict requirements about entry and exit, and there is a strong network of surveillance over the actions and movements of the city’s inhabitants. But Ora isn’t necessarily a “restricted world” at all. It simply conceptualizes liberties differently.
In fact, in some ways, Ora has more freedom than our world, or at least the society I’m in (the USA). There’s a small line, for example, about suicides needing to have advance registration and vetting before they’re carried out. Ora, then, allows for the practice of voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide, perhaps one of the biggest autonomies one can have over one’s life: the choice over how it ends. It trusts the individual enough to empower that decision.
At the same time, Ora recognizes that suicide borne of impulse or despair reflects a failure of society and not a failure of the individual. The city-state strongly believes in providing a safety net that ensures the wellness of each citizen, therefore allowing the citizen more liberties by taking care of their basic needs. In a sense, it’s really our world that restricts liberties when our societies force us to work to live, thereby taking away many opportunities: when people have to struggle to meet their basic needs, they give up some of their biggest liberties, such as the freedom to pursue dreams, possibilities, and self-actualization.
The city of Ora runs on a complex network of surveillance, where the citizens are used to police each other. Why is surveillance such a common thread in science fiction and what did you hope to bring to the discussion?
I think surveillance is a common thread in science fiction because it’s a tangible manifestation of the tension between individual liberties and societal norms. Every society negotiates this status quo in its own way. Some may allow more individual liberties even if societal norms are broken; others place a higher value on societal norms, even if it means suppressing individual liberties. There is no universal solution for how to negotiate the balance between the individual and the whole. It’s a complex philosophical question that varies between contexts, but the rules set by a system of surveillance make that underlying philosophy more explicit.
In terms of science fiction, then, creators can bring their own perspectives, philosophies, and experiences to their depictions of surveillance. There are infinite ways to engage the topic. It’s ample fodder for the imagination, and the creation of a surveillance system is a powerful worldbuilding exercise, particularly when you take into consideration shifting contexts. When you’re able to create societal norms as you can with fiction, you’re then able to extrapolate what might change or be the same because of those different contexts. It’s a huge thought experiment that engages the fundamental process of speculative fiction: speculating.
As a Chinese American, I’ve experienced two very different sets of norms about privacy and how society should function. It’s not as simple as the individualist vs. collectivist dichotomy, either. But I’ve noticed that a lot of depictions of surveillance in US media treat surveillance as dystopic. When it comes to speculative fiction, one of my tools for generating ideas is to take a norm or assumption and imagine what the inverse would look like. Can there be such a thing as utopic surveillance or surveillance that is at least benevolently pragmatic?
In shaping the surveillance system of Ora, I had in the forefront of my mind all the people who’ve disappeared as a result of war, totalitarian regimes, and genocide. Ora is the result of a group of refugees who have first-hand experiences of such disappearances, whether enacted through active attempts to nullify power or through passive neglect. Surveillance for their society is a tool to ensure that such disappearance can’t happen. Wouldn’t that be a benevolent form of surveillance, one that ensures every person is accounted for and safe, so everyone can live their lives without fear?
Although I myself don’t necessarily see surveillance as utopic and find most modern manifestations of it to be invasive, as a thought exercise, I wanted to challenge the assumption of surveillance as dystopic and explore a different possibility. I hope that, in doing so, I can encourage people to dig deep and tinker with assumptions that they may take for granted.
In the Watchful City is a mosaic novella, comprised of numerous vignettes. Why did you choose this structure over a more linear, traditional narrative? What opportunities does this more fluid approach provide?
I’m a short story writer at heart, so the mosaic structure helped me cobble together a lengthier narrative, for one. Beyond that, though, I’ve always loved the structure of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Fundamentally, it’s a dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan that frames sequences of microfiction. Through Marco Polo’s vignettes, Kublai Khan learns more about the world and questions his own understanding of it. That structure creates a powerful sense of place in the narrative, even if there’s less of a “plot” or “story” in a more traditional sense. I wanted In the Watchful City to be a sampler of the secondary world I’m creating, so the exploratory structure came to mind as a great way to jump between locations while also having the space to delve deep into each one.
Your ‘cabinet of curiosities’ essentially shows characters experiences that are foreign to them, to open their eyes and help them reflect on the world around them that they take for granted. It reads much like a metaphor for general readers finding windows into experiences other than their own. What power do you think stories based in different cultures or secondary worlds have? Did you hope the reader would experience a similar revelatory experience to Anima?
I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to travel a lot ever since I was young. That’s mostly due to my mom’s philosophy that travel broadens one’s understanding of the world. It was always a priority to her that I see different places, experience different cultures, and be comfortable with being an outsider. Only then do you realize what your own values and identities are; when you’re so displaced from them that what’s invisible to you becomes obvious.
Even if you aren’t physically able to travel, reading is a way to travel with the mind. There’s nothing wrong with having a comfort genre or narrative, but there’s also nothing like the experience of your mind being blown when you read about people and places whose lives are so entirely unlike your own. “People do that? That’s a thing?” I think it’s so important to approach the world with a sense of curiosity, and window narratives are a great way to explore that.
There’s a line when Anima says, “My life? What could possibly be interesting about it?” It’s what Anima truly believes, but I wrote it as a very tongue-in-cheek line. Anima’s life is fundamentally interesting to the reader because it’s a whole different world the reader hasn’t experienced before. But the line reflects my own journey—when I was growing up, I thought my life in the suburbs was painfully boring. But, after reading about other people’s experiences, I realized that the very fact that I grew up in a multicultural, multilingual region is fascinating to people whose homes are more homogeneous. There’s really no “default” or “boring” life. As much as I want the reader to broaden their horizons about other people’s lives, I want them to also realize that their own story is unique and worth claiming.
Pitch us In the Watchful City! Why should our readers buy your book?
The elevator pitch: 1,001 Nights meets Minority Report in In the Watchful City, a biocyberpunk story about stories.
The longer pitch: In the Watchful City truly has something for everyone: a slow-build narrative of transformational wonder and awe; a weird Western involving necromancy; an upbeat sports story; an epistolary tale of political intrigue; a dark story about hunting mermaids and the horror of dehumanization. In the Watchful City centers queer characters and explores themes of power, identity, and diaspora. There’s lots of worldbuilding to immerse yourself in. Enjoy!
S. Qiouyi Lu writes and translates between two coasts of the Pacific. Ær work, including fiction, poetry, and essays, has appeared in several award-winning venues. You can find out more about S. at ær website s.qiouyi.lu or on Twitter @sqiouyilu.