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In the wake of three recent features on the theme of Future Cities, the Strange Horizons Articles Department brings to you an interview with Aliya Whiteley, which focuses on the relationship between SF and non-urban spaces.
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Aliya Whiteley's two recent novellas, The Beauty and The Arrival of Missives, were published in the UK by Unsung Stories and have been shortlisted between them for a Shirley Jackson Award, the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Both novellas will be published in the US by Titan in 2018. She can be found on Twitter as @AliyaWhiteley. More details are available on her website.
This interview was conducted via a collaborative Google Document in December 2017.
Gautam Bhatia: Over the last year and a half, we’ve been exploring the place of cities in speculative fiction, through interviews and conversations with SF writers and scholars. The conversations have been diverse, but one theme has stood out: a sense that cities—or urban spaces—are the primary sites of future-oriented SF writing. The graphic-novelist Krish Raghav said, for instance, that “I see cities as the only grounds for imagining futures, because they necessitate change and adjustment.” The SC academic Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay remarked that “SF is the genre of the city.” In his conversation with P.D. Smith, Darren Anderson observed that “the future world will not be a global village but a global city.”
As someone whose work reflects a different sensibility, I’d like to begin by asking you what you make of these (rather strong) claims about the centrality of cities and urban spaces to SF, and to imagining the future. To me, they seem driven by a belief that with further technological and mechanical advances, the physical and social growth of the urban form is inevitable—and thereby, its importance in our writings is inevitable as well. What do you make of that?
Aliya Whiteley: I’m interested in how we often discuss the city in a way that is removed from the consideration of the land upon which it sits. SF in particular can simply choose to assume that the problems that cities of the future would face in terms of sustaining life in such an environment will be solved, or write them off entirely. So something like the Strugatsky Brothers’ The Doomed City, say, can get away with being an encapsulated, philosophical adventure in a walled place with desert on one side and swamp on the other. The land itself, and how much land would be needed to sustain it, is irrelevant. Or, in more modern terms, Sam Thompson’s Communion Town presents a city in ten stories, highlighting different areas such as a slaughterhouse district that homes a serial killer, or monsters that pop up in the back streets and shadows of a financial district. The city is the device that loosely links these concepts, suggesting that its personality is complex (as are all personalities!). But it’s a great way to walk through alienation and loneliness and fragmentation of self.
I can’t see how the encapsulated and complete city as an entity/personality in this way can ever be more than only one viable literary vision of the future. If literature can decide to simply bypass issues of sustainability to explore some avenues of thought, it also can choose to engage with it, and I wonder if one fruitful approach to that could lie in not seeing the city as the opposite of a more rural existence. Personally, I’ve never felt that a city somehow escapes the necessity of the land and water around it. Travelling to a city has never held a crystallized moment of realisation that the country has been left behind. Where is the boundary?
I’m reminded of an abandoned military base that I once lived near, within a large town. It couldn’t have been closed for more than five years, but every day I would walk past its barbed wire fences, and see the land being reclaimed by plants and animals within. Tall weeds and wild flowers sprang up between cracks in the concrete. One morning I saw a stag stroll between two office buildings. I don’t think of this is a romantic image so much as a reminder that all cities can very quickly become rural, or wild, spaces once more. Science fiction can have the luxury of ignoring that if it chooses. But I find it fascinating to engage with that.
GB: However, if you frame the issue as one of sustainability of urban spaces, doesn’t that framing itself relegate non-urban spaces to the background—that is, as spaces that exist only to ensure the sustainability of (future) cities? So even while you acknowledge the necessity of the rural (as Krish Raghav did when he observed that Singapore, an archetypical “future city”, “gets much of its drinking water piped in from the Malaysian countryside”), articulating it in the language of sustainability seems to limit non-urban spaces in terms of their utility to cities.
AW: That makes me wonder if one of the problems with discussing cities is that they suck up the imagination just as, in real life, they suck up land and resources! I think perhaps we can also view it as just one way of interacting with the land: a collection of buildings that happen to be a way of many people living in close proximity, pooling all-important natural resources for large populations. But these resources are not under our command. At least, not as much as we would like.
The fact that we have never been in total mastery of our domain in any environment, not even in those stand-alone cities, is often at the heart of the kind of science fiction I like to read and write. Humanity trying to dominate its environment and paying a price: The Day of the Triffids is my classic example. It was one of the first science fiction books I read and loved. In that story, the city very quickly becomes the last place you’d want to be. Your only chance lies in a rural environment, which can be hostile. Although it’s not humanity’s enemy, exactly, is it? It’s a much more complex relationship than that. There are skills we have to relearn, a sense of respect that needs to be re-established—and still we’re talking about it in terms of our relationship to it. Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is so similar to Triffids, to me. Urban territory has to be abandoned, nature reasserts itself, and the plants and animals are not what we thought they were. It all changes faster than us, and is inexplicable, and unsolvable. Are questions of urban sustainability easier to address than questions of our relationship to natural environments because we have lost, or never really had, the ability to recognise what true wilderness looks like?
GB: It’s interesting that you mention The Day of the Triffids—a work that we’d probably agree is an exemplar of the post-apocalyptic novel. It brings me to a question I wanted to ask about your own work. I don’t know if you’d agree with this characterisation, but like The Day of the Triffids, in your novel The Beauty, nature comes back into the picture (so to say) after, and because of, a large-scale, hugely disruptive event. We have other novels where agrarian or rural communities are formed as a result of apocalyptic events that lay waste organised, urban way of life (I’m thinking of The Parable of the Sower, for example). Doesn’t that feed into the narrative that the rural, as a site for and of futuristic SF imagination, is getting relegated to post-apocalyptic situations? It is almost as if the only way to imagine an alternate future that places the rural at its centre is to first imagine the apocalypse.
AW: I’ve been thinking about that very point since we started this conversation, and it’s certainly a very strong thread of SF fiction writing, although I’m not sure that it’s a relegation or a promotion when we most often imagine returning to the rural when everything else goes wrong! It suggests, to me, the supreme importance of the land.
Perhaps it’s very difficult for us to conceive of science fiction futures that create rural spaces without getting rid of a lot of the human population to start with, tying into the idea of the urban being in direct opposition to the land again. Or perhaps what’s being destroyed in these post-apocalyptic tales is the ability to prioritise human constructions above the natural world? There are also those stories that take place on other planets, where humans come along and destroy a habitat (such as Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, or in filmic terms James Cameron’s Avatar, say) because they don’t understand it, or prioritise material wealth over the environment. Either way, we’re often bad news for nature, even in the vastness of space.
I would add that in The Beauty, the rural commune in which the characters live was established before the apocalyptic incident (the death of all women, in this case) took place, and I think it’s not a book that’s about learning to survive, or leaving the urban lifestyle behind. The same is true with my novella The Arrival of Missives, which is set in a farming community in England in 1920 where the characters are much more aware of the environment and how they need to interact with it to survive. In both cases (and also with my 2016 novella Brushwork, which focuses on the disruption and desperation caused by climate change) I think the main characters have a different perspective on events that could be seen as traditional post-apocalyptic territory because they have specific relationships with the land, with plant growth, and therefore with the seasons and with time. How they understand momentous events relates to how they understand humanity’s relationship to the rural.
GB: I’d like to link that last bit—“humanity’s relationship to the rural”—with something you mentioned above—that the device of the city is “a great way to walk through alienation and loneliness and fragmentation of self.” Now, we should, of course, be wary about essentialisations, and of falling into the trap of uncritically viewing the rural as a source of wholesomeness or sustainability, but even taking that into account, do you see the “relationship to the rural” as something fundamentally different from the alienation, loneliness, and fragmentation of the self that characterises urban life? And even if that is true, aren’t there two sides to it? For instance, our votaries of the city (in our previous interviews) view urban fragmentation as a good thing—as something that allows for the dissolution of identities and (drawing upon the old Walter Benjamin/Charles Baudelaire tradition) for encounters of the kind that you may not have in a more homogenous rural setting.
AW: To say that the city evokes feelings of alienation and the countryside evokes idyllic feelings certainly sounds too straightforward to me. I suspect viewing them in that light lies under the umbrella of pathetic fallacy (the rain-drenched skyscrapers vs the dappled sunlight in the glade, at its most obvious?) so surely the entire spectrum of human emotion could be represented by either rural or urban setting, even if we have connections that are more comfortable to us as readers through more regular usage?
Weird literature might provide an interesting counterpoint; in particular I’m reminded of an essay that author and editor Gary Budden wrote for Unsung Stories on the subject of Landscape Weird. He talks of how rural places such as Area X, or Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, relate to “impossible geometry and indescribable monsters”—places so complex, so unknowable, that humanity is made insignificant by them, reduced to inconsequentiality. I wonder if that might be similar, in effect, to the alienation we find described in future megacities, caused by the same overwhelming sense of inexplicable mechanism/organism? So loneliness/disintegration of self can be urban or rural, particularly when it comes to science fiction of the future, I’d like to think. I wonder if there’ll be a place where the megacity and the wilderness meet in terms of both literary constructions making our characters feel incapable of understanding them on an individualistic level? Or, alternatively, being a part of either a vast ecosystem or a thriving metropolis could bring similar rewards in terms of a sense of belonging?
GB: While alienation is one persistent theme of urban life, another is another is—perhaps paradoxically—the fear of being forced into conformity under a regime of constant, authoritarian surveillance. Krish Raghav described it as the compulsion of “being made legible” (to authority). And that’s certainly much easier to do in urban spaces. I remember that, growing up (in an urban metropolis, as it turns out), one of SF work that made a powerful impression on me was E.M. Forster’s novella The Machine Stops, where an “escape” into the natural world is presented as an escape from the numbing effects of a technology-dominated life. (Much) later, I read Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, where the City is all patterns, regimens, controls, surveillance … and the “outside world” is a (kind of) sanctuary.
To what extent do you think that this is a question of nostalgia—a desire to escape a world where—quoting Proudhon—“to be governed is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded…”—and to find that escape outside the boundaries of urban spaces?
AW: I love those dystopian stories in which humankind returns to the wilderness to evade controlled life (or imminent death!) in the oppressive cities. One of my favourites is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, in which the hero escapes to the countryside in search of a group of readers living a rural life, memorising their favourite books, using an oral tradition of storytelling. I have to say that I can see how that could be couched in terms of nostalgia, but I’ve always felt it has more to do with that process of establishing an opposition to the concepts embodied by the city in such stories, as I’ve mentioned earlier. It provides a really satisfying ending because it deals with how narratives affect our understanding of large events and organisations—what we’re reading is actually a way of changing a story of an end point in human existence (the city representing the culmination of total corruption?) to an origin story. From the end to a fresh beginning, which is not about a yearning for the past but the desire to find a point from which we can embark afresh.
Thinking about it, it’s not always such a hopeful return to walk out into a non-urban setting from a dystopian city, and there’s not a hint of nostalgia available to see you through the tough times in places such as the Cursed Earth outside of Mega City One (Judge Dredd). Nothing grows in that irradiated land, so it’s not urban or rural, but the death of all possibility, and when judges retire, they leave behind the city to take the long walk out into the Cursed Earth, which is a perfect way of really ending a story of a Judge’s life, I think—that society deals in such absolutes.
Another antidote to thinking of a more rural way of life as nostalgic lies, for me, in Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor, in which the collapse of an urban way of life is shown as a generational progression. Youth begins to desert the city while the older people stay behind, committed to a way of life that they’ve become used to even though it no longer offers the benefits it once did: power, water, safety in numbers. But the societies that the gangs of teenagers form are in no way romanticised as exemplifying a new type of freedom. They roam the countryside in a nomadic existence, and often don’t manage to cultivate food or exert any measure of control over the land. Eventually they resort to cannibalism.
Memoirs of a Survivor is another story of an ending that becomes an origin story, finding its turning point in urban/rural opposition, but it goes to show that a return to the land doesn’t have to be about invoking a rural way of life in a purely positive or uncomplicated light. The systems that create both the city and the land are so complex. Exploring them in the realm of futuristic SF offers many opportunities to turn existing assumptions on their heads and create surprising new associations. For me, that’s what the most interesting fiction does.
GB: Some of what you’re saying reminds me of James Scott’s latest book, Against the Grain, which I’ve just been reading. It’s an account the evolution of the State-form (which, of course, began with sedentary living in concentrated urban centres), and turns many assumptions about the evolution of urban life on its head.
One theme that crops up repeatedly (it’s there peripherally in Scott’s book as well, at least in what I’ve read so far)—is that gendered and hierarchical division of labour was invented along with the invention of the State-form. I wonder what you think of how this divide between urban and rural-centric SF maps on to issues of gender, and whether you think the choice of centering the urban or the rural in your SF is relevant to how you can interrogate gender hierarchies through your writing.
AW: I haven’t read James Scott’s book but it sounds fascinating; I’ll definitely give that a read.
In terms of my own writing, I don’t think of the urban or rural reflecting divisions specifically in the context of gender because, to me, the rural often represents the possibility of accepting change in many forms, and being fluid with gender is just one small part of that. I will admit that I write much more about the rural than the urban, so it’s particularly the rural and its relationship to gender in my novellas that I’ll explore here for a few paragraphs:
The Beauty shows a situation in which it would seem the human race is at an end because there are no more women. Creating progeny is not possible. But then a new form of life erupts from the land, emerges from the forest, and offers change that views humanity only as an opportunity for creation/continuation. This new life fills a gap that’s been made; it adapts to the situation to create something that looks “feminine”. (Fungi often proliferate from mass extinction events, apparently, so that was definitely in my mind at the time of writing!). This facility to use the gender expectations of the men left behind to enact change and ensure survival—just as a survival tactic not unlike camouflage, say, or mimicry—is key to exploring how humanity interacts with nature. The rural is not “feminine” or “nurturing”—to think that would be to look at it from a purely anthropocentric angle. Only change as the constant force in enabling life in all forms to continue matters.
The Arrival of Missives, with its historical setting, seems to be more traditionally gender-hierarchical, but again it’s about the importance of change in survival—the farmer’s daughter recognises that having a static vision of the future involving only one gender, one group, one set of characteristics, is not desirable or sustainable. It excludes her on the basis of her gender, but it’s also a contradiction of the way she sees the landscape around her. She sees change everywhere in the seasons, the fields, the flowers. A set vision that offers no adaptability, no diversity, does not make sense to her.
Looking at it in those terms, gender as a human construct has little to do with the natural world as I view it in those novellas. I think if I was to write about the themes of change and survival within the urban landscape that may well get a different result—so I might have to do that at some point …!
GB: I’d like to conclude with a more material question, so to say. Do you think that the dominance of urban imagination in contemporary SF is because it is simply easier for writers located in urban centres to access the publishing industry? We write best about what we know, and if our experiences are shaped by the city, then our writing too will reflect an urban bias. And if that’s true, what needs to change for rural SF? Should we, perhaps, be taking diversity in terms of the urban/rural divide as seriously as we’re now trying to take issues of racial and gender diversity in SF?
AW: I see your point about an urban existence leading to urban SF (coming from a more rural existence myself probably explains why I write stories that centre on that, after all) but I don’t think that necessarily means the disappearance of the rural from science fiction so much as when the rural is depicted, it might be with a greater sense of dislocation from it, or from the perspective of imagining otherness, which will be really interesting in its own way too, if the megacity does become ubiquitous.
I find it really difficult to say anything more useful than that because I try hard not to think of the possible popularity or commerciality of stories, having found that unhelpful to my own sense of freedom and exploration when I write. I really hope writers everywhere will be able to write whatever futures they envisage and thereby reflect their own realities, and communicate it to others to strengthen our understanding of each other. Perhaps the way to ensure diverse voices can relate their experiences lies in trying to have an equally diverse set of publishers and approaches? I think a lot of great SF that addresses the landscape has come from small presses in the last few years: for instance, just as one example, Naomi Booth’s Sealed (depicting the experience of moving from the city to the mountains, for instance, to escape a deadly virus) really moved me this year, and made me reflect on the safety nets that we perceive to exist in the urban environment, and the perils we think we face in the rural environment, and how quickly that can be turned on its head. I’m so glad it found a home with a small press and reflected a different view of those living experiences. Here’s to many more, through many sources of publication, in the future.