Sam J. Miller on Blackfish City and Society’s Self-Destruction


Cover detail from Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller, courtesy of HarperCollins

Sam J. Miller has been nominated for the Nebula Award and World Fantasy Award for his short stories and his first YA novel, The Art of Starving, a semi-autobiographical work about a gay teen with an eating disorder, was named one of NPR’s best books of the year. His latest work is Blackfish City, which is set in a future where climate change has led people from around the world to take refuge in the floating city of Qaanaaq. He talked to Unbound Worlds about his inspirations and the power of science fiction to explore social and political issues.

Unbound Worlds: Your first novel was very personal. Were there any aspects of yourself you felt you put into Blackfish City?

Sam J. Miller: Even though they’re all really different and come from dramatically different walks of life and have really different gender expressions and sexual identities and experience with dystopian apocalyptic drama, I feel like there’s definitely pieces of me in all these characters. It’s fun after Art of Starving, which was a pretty deep dive into one particular set of problems that I have to sort of explore lots of other problems that I have from a distance that let me have some perspective on it.

UW: There are a few issues in this book like a deadly STD and the evil of the real estate market that you’ve explored before in your short stories. How much of your short stories did you feel like you were pulling into this novel?

SJM: I’m often revisiting the same set of fascinations and frustrations and obsessions. I’ve written a lot of short stories that are very explicitly about the AIDS crisis and the impact that HIV/AIDS had on lots of folks including queer and POC communities so I feel like that’s an area that I’m fascinated by and shows how the world works and how oppression works and how resistance works. That was definitely something that I wanted to explore in the future in a different place and a different way. I’m a community organizer in New York City and I work on homeless issues and it’s pretty rough. At the end of the day when you talk about homelessness it’s really about the high cost of housing. I see high rents and real estate interest as this prime evil of how cities function. Homelessness is not an aberration. It’s how the system is supposed to work. I have a lot of deep feelings about this and Blackfish City was an opportunity to take a couple of those and really meditate on them at length.

UW: What made you decide to write about life in a post-apocalyptic city?

SJM: I’m obsessed with cities. I love cities. I love New York and it’s craziness, the things that are wonderful, the things that are horrible, it’s beauty and it’s grime. I’ve traveled to a lot of cities around the world. I’m really fascinated by the energy and excitement of cities. I wanted to imagine what a city would look like in a very different world. You look at climate change and the projections for rising sea levels and so many of the major metropolitan areas are going to be impacted. I wanted to imagine a frontier town of the future.

UW: Did you have a particular inspiration for Qaanaaq?

SJM: I really love the actual city of Bangkok and I really like the way Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl explores how Bangkok would be different after sea level change and that was a big inspiration. Also Republic City from The Legend of Korra, which is this fascinating frontier town and a town where technology is changing and evolving with the changed world.

UW: Between climate change, water shortages, fundamentalists and the collapse of government there are a lot problems presented in this book. Which one are you most afraid of?

SJM: I wrote this book before the U.S. election in 2016. This book is imagining a future that many folks saw already on the horizon and maybe see looming a lot closer now where the U.S. has ultimately faded into complete irrelevance and where really bad decisions by increasingly xenophobic and conservative and anti-woman administrations has brought about our downfall to the point where we fragmented into smaller groups of folks trying to kill each other and then collapsed all together. From my perspective we’re constantly now seeing steps along the way that are going to lead us to the beginning of Blackfish City like trade wars or environmental protections that are being overturned or scaled back. To me right now what’s on my mind the most is watching the march towards really extreme self-destructive behavior.

UW: You have so many characters that are intersecting with each other. Were there any tools you used to keep track of what each person is doing at a given time?

SJM: I’m not going to lie, I made a lot of mistakes. I was fortunate to have beta readers and my agent and my editor who could say, “You’re describing this thing, but that doesn’t happen for 100 more pages.” I was moving chapters around and reshuffling things. I did have an outline, I did have a rough sense of who the characters were and what their journeys were but then they started bumping into each other and things got messy. I really hope that there are no egregious mistakes still lurking in the text. It was a lot of fun. Often when I’m writing the characters will really surprise me. As I write them they start to take on more richness and complexity than I had imagined and take the story in different ways. That I kind of lean into and roll with it. Even if it makes and mess and it’s more difficult to clean up, it’s often where you have the most fun.

UW: How was writing your first adult novel different writing young adult novels and short stories.

SJM: The Art of Starving was my first published novel but it was actually my seventh novel. I’ve been writing novels all along, it’s just that nobody wanted them and for good reason. Honestly I don’t see a ton of difference between the different modalities. I actually am a teenager. I’m extremely immature. All the neurosis and anxieties that I had as a teenager are still in full force. I think it all comes from the same kind of messed up place. If anything I think there might be a little more sex on the page in my YA novel than there is in my novel for regular adults. The one real difference is in an adult novel you can go into greater length and talk a lot more about politics and world building and real issues, whereas in a YA novel the forward momentum of the narrative is so important that it’s more difficult to do those sort of asides.

UW: What are you working on now?

SJM: I’m working on my second YA novel, which is currently called Destroy All Monsters, which is a dual story of a teenager girl whose best friend is a gay boy named Solomon who has some kind of severe mental illness and she’s trying to prevent him from losing his mind, but it also follows Solomon him in an alternate timeline where he’s in a magical city with dinosaurs and monsters. I’m really excited about it.

UW: Have you faced any challenges because your novels have a very strong LGBTQ focus or do you think that’s been a good thing for you?

SJM: For me, I think it’s been a great thing. The novels I failed to sell there was either no queer content or it was very minimal. I was trying very hard to write something that would be commercial and I thought  that would be antithetical to telling the sort of raw honest story I needed to tell. It didn’t work. The art feels more real and alive to me and I’m at my best when I’m addressing those issues. When I’m at my best I hope that it works for the readers the most. While there’s always going to be people who won’t read it because it’s gay or about a woman or about somebody who’s dramatically different from them I think there will be a lot more folks who will see that and get excited by it and validating and empowered by that. I do think that the market is getting better for traditionally marginalized voices, but certainly publishing has a long way to go still.