Lives Colliding in the Future Arctic: Sam J. Miller on “Blackfish City”

Sam Miller author photo_ Courtesy of Kalyaní-Aindrí Sánchez

Blackfish City, Sam J. Miller‘s new novel, boasts one of the most intriguing science fictional settings I’ve run across in a long time: Qaanaaq, a floating city in the Arctic in which new societal orders are formed, old grudges burn brightly, and a host of mysteries await their solutions. Miller’s novel centers around a series of ostensibly unconnected characters, until their plotlines begin to converge in unexpected ways; the result is a powerful and unique glimpse of the near future. I talked with Miller about the novel’s genesis and its connection to present-day politics.

There are a host of disparate elements combining in Blackfish City, from the floating city where it’s set to the idea of humans neurally linked to animals to a decades-long grudge hearkening back to the fall of New York City. Was there one piece of the book from which all of the others emerged?

The orcamancer came first. She showed up on the doorstep of my brain and demanded my attention, and I was too afraid of her to say No! At first she was a teenager, but as the story evolved I realized that wasn’t right for the mission that she was on – she was actually older, wiser, more formidable, a grandmother on a mission of love but also copious bloodshed. In my short story “Calved,” I had previously visited Qaanaaq – a gritty rambunctious future post-climate-change floating city in the Arctic Circle – and that felt like the perfect place for the orcamancer to run wild in. Also all of my stuff takes place in a shared universe, so whenever I start to explore a world in fiction there’s often places and characters and speculative conceits that crop up repeatedly.

Reading your novel, I found myself thinking of experiments in artificial islands, from Sealand onwards. Did you have any particular real-world inspirations for Qaanaaq?

I was really imagining Qaanaaq as a giant oil rig where a million people lived, and I did a lot of research into the various types of anchoring technology that facilitate human habitation and labor in the deep ocean. And I was inspired by the ways that places like Iceland have been able to maintain a level of energy independence through use of geothermal energy, and the technological innovations being developed in places projected to be hit the hardest and soonest by rising seas. The main urban inspirations for Qaanaaq were more fictional than actual – Neo-Tokyo in Akira, Republic City in The Legend of Korra – but there’s also a lot of previous incarnations of my beloved New York City – the early twentieth century, or the raw dangerous unsanitized 1980’s version.

Blackfish City toggles among a number of characters. Was there one in particular that you particularly enjoyed writing?

The orcamancer was the most fun, because who doesn’t enjoy a bad-ass warrior killing evildoers on a mission of love and rescue and revenge? And I have a soft spot in my heart for Kaev, as I do for all the damaged beautiful soft-hearted brutes that populate my fiction. And of course I always enjoy writing irresponsible oversexed gay boys who might learn their lessons too late, so Fill was fun.

In Blackfish City, you’re addressing a number of contemporary concerns, from climate change to income inequality within cities. Did you have to do any research for these aspects of the book, or were you working from instinct?

A lot of it was instinct. I have a bad habit of putting too much of my research on the page, so I try not to go too deep down a rabbit hole, lest the word count skyrocket with infodumps interesting only to me. And it’s a general science fiction rule of thumb for me that trying to predict the future, especially really specific things, is folly, so I didn’t do too much attempting to extrapolate specific technologies or social situations. But mostly, the concerns being explored in Blackfish City are the ones I obsess over all day every day, especially in my day job as a community organizer. Landlords really do keep apartments empty to maximize profits while people are freezing to death on the sidewalk outside. I’m against the death penalty, but those motherfuckers should be shot.

As the novel progresses, seemingly disparate characters turn out to have a fair amount of shared history. Did you have a lot of this established before starting work on the book, or did that develop as you continued work on it?

I had a broad framework for who was related, and how, but I always like to leave my characters room to surprise me, and rewrite the rules, or fill in the blanks in ways I hadn’t foreseen. So I knew it was a story about a genocide survivor trying to punish her oppressors and rescue her beloved, and I knew that it was a story about a boy who benefited from oppression being made to suffer for it even though he had no direct hand in it, and that there were a bunch of people with ties of blood and suffering, but my outline was pretty minimal, and changed along the way. Soq was someone who kept striking off on their own, doing shit I couldn’t figure out until it suddenly served a brilliant and unexpected function in the finale.

Do you feel as though you’ve said your piece with Qaanaaq, or do you think you’ll return to the setting for future works?

I do love this place, and I do tend to repeat myself revisit stuff across multiple stories – as I said, all my stuff takes place in a shared universe, so I could see it flickering on the horizon of another story. Right now, for example, I’m working on a short story set in a Greenland work camp where climate refugees work on massive construction projects, including floating cities like the one that will become Qaanaaq. The place just fulfills too many functions for talking about my favorite obsessions – like street food, and slumlords, and the fall of America – so I imagine I will trot it out again from time to time.


Photo: Kalyaní-Aindrí Sánchez

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