Tordotcom is known to push conventions of genre and has been supporting more diverse authors, but this book is quite a strong push even for them. More of a shove, really, into the realms of the more highly speculative: S. Qiouyi Lu’s In The Watchful City blends SF and fantasy, refusing to locate itself in past or present. It is a book about Now, and it tells that story in a fragmentary way. Stories within stories, told in prose and verse, dapple the framing narrative and refuse to resolve into any easy answers. Lu is asking hard questions about selfhood and statehood, after all, and they shouldn’t have easy answers.
Ora is a city state “in exile,” its deadly past the justification for its present levels of surveillance and obsession with safety. It seems a progressive city, one with high literacy and health for all its citizens. It achieves this wellbeing, however, by employing far less utopian tactics—both to keep its citizens hale and to keep them at all. Few are allowed to leave Ora, and few are allowed to enter. It is a highly contained mega-organism, a city made into a kind of single entity by the employment of constant, mutual monitoring. This panopticon is less about observation from on high, though, and more about a city whose eyes are all aimed inward, ceaselessly observing by means of the Gleaming.
The Gleaming is a fusion of magic, technology, and qi, or life force energy, that suffuses the city, making it possible for agents like Anima to spread ær consciousness and will across broad topics or locations. It is like a collective consciousness for a whole city—one that, in order to encompass and navigate, Anima must be embedded with special biological implants. Because of ær modifications, Anima is able to tap into the city’s datastream and process huge amounts of information, or focus ær attention on very specific things, even taking over smaller consciousnesses like rats and pigeons and acting from inside of them.
Into this seemingly closed loop comes Vessel, an enigmatic artist who arrives by means unknown and for reasons se keeps to serself. Se offers Anima access to ser qijitang—a case that unfolds to display precious and enigmatic objects. Each one has a story to tell, a glimpse into another’s life during a pivotal period. These tales run the gamut from magic-infused Western to an epistolary tragedy played out on the scale of empires.
In less skilled hands, these wildly different stories would seem disjointed, aimless. But Lu infuses all of them so deeply with intimacy that they can’t help but resonate with one another. Moments of connection, developed over long years or in crucibles of tension, form the verses that In the Watchful City is working with. But it’s the refrain that always brings them back: the fact that all these memories are willingly shared, not just observed. Anima’s omnipresent eyes cannot pierce the human heart. Trite, perhaps, if all æ were missing was a big, vague concept like “love” or “wonder.” But as Anima’s own eyes are opened, æ begins to remember ær own losses, long ignored. Æ begins to examine sorrow, suffering, and pain not as faults to be fixed, but essential experiences. Or even forms of rebellion.
We hear a lot these days about self-care and positivity, about wringing our fearful, tragic days of racial violence and pandemic until they yield some kind of positive spin. Which is not to say that finding joy is bad. Demanding joy, though, is a problem that In the Watchful City wants to tackle, especially when anger or tears are not only warranted but even useful. Anima, like all of us, seeks pleasure and relief. We’re privy to ær acts of self-pleasure, including a remarkably romantic passage about masturbation, but ær pain is locked away, a source of hesitation if not outright shame. The qijitang allows ær to experience vicarious negativity as a way of coming to grips with ær own.
All the stories accomplish this, but one in particular struck me: “This Form I Hold Now.” In it, Lu uses foot binding as not only a positive, gender-affirming form of body modification, but also as an anti-colonialist form of rebellion. Flipping the script on foot binding was, I admit, very shocking, and Lu used that shock to enhance a story about the furious anger of the oppressed—and the furious joy of the defiant. Bad feelings, Lu declares, are still powerful ones. It’s with the courage of this and other stories that Anima reveals scraps of ær own past, finding strength in hard memories, finding hope not in positivity and productivity, but in rejecting such paltry consolations.
“This Form I Now Hold” also meditates deeply on change, what it means to change the body as a literal and metaphorical way of changing the world. It certainly causes Anima to wonder about ær true role in the collective, and whether change is possible. Change is, in fact, the point of The Watchful City. Anima wanted change when æ became a node, but æ has since stagnated, ær very mutability predictable, ær uniqueness isolating, ær help unwelcome or insufficient. Æ is unable to save a desperate young woman from taking her own life, and is compelled by the laws of the land to pursue a fugitive whose only crime is loving outside the borders of Ora. Æ struggles with these events, but it is only in the context of narrative—ær own and others’—that æ can see the links between cause and effect, law and consequence. Before, it was only points of data to ær. The narrative framing gives individuality back to those who are otherwise reduced to statistics.
What we see of the individuals represented in the qijitang is diverse, sprawling. All we really see of Ora’s citizens is their attempts to escape, either by running or by committing suicide. Anima gives us the sense that these are aberrations, but are they? The stated goal of the city is not oppression (it never is, of course), but protection and support. To a large extent, it even seems to deliver on that promise! And it’s easy to enjoy those things, to fall into complacency. But for In the Watchful City, complacency and safety are dangerous. There is no avatar of the system to hate, no jackbooted menace to defeat. But that very facelessness is intentional, that concealment of violence and tragedy a very careful façade. A system is harder to defeat than a person. A system that makes you happy is harder to fight than a dystopian nightmare. But what can a person do?
Tell stories, responds Vessel, and responds Lu. Lu is a keen observer, and shows us what æ sees with great emotional care and scenic clarity. Every story within the story is a little jewel, remarkably faceted and enhancing to the crowning achievement of the overall plot. The book is wise, not just smart, all of its philosophy enhanced by the skillful, dreamlike prose. Just take care when you read to be ready to feel: these are the kinds of dreams that have teeth.