An underwater city! Explorations of shared consciousness and identity! Finding the beauty within a desolate post-apocalyptic world! Sounds great, doesn’t it? We thought so too!
We are pleased to welcome debut author Elly Bangs to the blog today to discuss her novel Unity (out next week from Tachyon).
On our podcast, we have often wondered if there is an obligation for minority voices – women, people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community – to represent themselves in fiction… because if they don’t, who will? As a trans person writing about gender fluidity, do you think there is such an obligation? Do you feel at all limited by this perceived limit on what you can/cannot write about?
These are very multifaceted questions, but in short: I think fiction’s obligation is to tell the truth in the biggest way it can, and good representation is part of that. How best to achieve that in practice can be very complex. I’m honestly not very interested in trying to convey what being a trans woman is like in my own narrow time and place. I’m much more interested in characters who break the concept itself of gender as a simple, binary, or biologically essential thing, because the brokenness of these assumptions (and the power and joy of transcending them) gets closer to the more important and more universal aspects of my own experiences, and it’s something I always love to see explored and talked and thought about.
Why did you want to create an underwater city and what logistical elements of worldbuilding such an environment were the most fun to imagine?
It was the metaphor and atmosphere that made me first really want to write an underwater city. I wanted the weight of the ocean, the darkness, the tight spaces – and also the climate anxiety, given how many cities may be underwater in the near future. So I called up an old acquaintance who’s a master scuba diver, and she gave me some really invaluable insights about pressure as a function of depth, oxygen toxicity, the bends, etc. – which made me quickly realize my underwater city was hopelessly unsound, engineering-wise. I thought of abandoning the concept. Instead, I decided to lean even harder into the complexity and strangeness of how human bodies have to adapt to that kind of pressure, and what an alien environment the ocean is, even a mere hundred-odd feet down. It covers most of the planet and yet in many ways it’s more extreme and alien than the vacuum of space. That’s always fun to think about.
A common theme in scifi is a loss of a sense of belonging. What makes this such a rich theme for science fiction narratives? Why did you want to explore this from the perspective of someone coming from a collective?
There’s a feeling that technology has badly distanced us from each other (even as it’s brought us closer together in other ways), and that that distance is going to keep widening. I also tend to think of scifi and fantasy as the art of studying mundane reality through an extreme lens. The shared consciousness my main character comes from shows us a really extreme vision of belonging. When she’s cut off from it – and worse, when she meets it again and learns how much they’ve both changed – that’s an extreme vision of the opposite. I’ve actually learned a lot about the belonging and estrangement in my own life in the process of telling this story.
As your characters escape their situation, they travel across a post-apocalyptic setting, one in which you manage to find beauty within. Finding beauty in desolation is not a common approach – why did you want to take this kind of approach to such a setting?
I’ve always found really harsh environments beautiful, and I’m not sure I can even explain why. I’ve spent most of my life in the green and temperate Pacific Northwest of the USA, so whenever I travel to other biomes I get a new dose of awe at how vast this planet is, and how all its different environments bring out different adaptations and ways of life in the creatures and people who thrive there. Desolate environments always feel full of stories to me. There’s nothing to soften the vastness and strangeness of the universe, out in the desert.
Pitch us the novel! Why should we read Unity?
Unity is a mix of opposites. It has fear and dread, but also hope and love. It’s serious and gritty, but peppered with irreverence and weirdness. It has explosions and laser gun fights, but also some deep thoughts about memory, selfhood, and the human condition. My dearest hope is that it may offer solace and fortitude to all of us who, like its characters, are hanging on to life in a dangerous world and trying to become the people that world needs — and my second-dearest hope is that it’s fun. The people who’ve read it so far, including some of my own favorite authors, tell me my hopes have not been in vain.
Elly Bangs is a queer trans woman who was raised in a new-age cult, had six wisdom teeth, and once rode her bicycle alone from Seattle to the Panama Canal. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Escape Pod, Fireside Quarterly, and elsewhere – and her debut apocalyptic cyberpunk novel, Unity, is out now from Tachyon. She’s a SFWA member and a 2017 graduate of Clarion West.