While some short story collections have a theme or framing device that loosely ties them together — see Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man — S. Qiouyi Lu’s new novella, In The Watchful City (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), goes one step further by having all of the stories be part of a larger narrative. Or, to put it another way, In The Watchful City isn’t a short story collection at all; it’s a mosaic story. In the following email interview, S. discusses what inspired and influenced this collective scifantasy tale.
I find it best to begin with a plot summary. So, what is In The Watchful City about, and when and where does it take place?
In The Watchful City contains many stories. The frame story is about Anima, an extrasensory human tasked with overseeing the activity and security of the tightly regulated city-state Ora. Anima is content with the position — until an outsider named Vessel manages to enter the city and offers Anima a chance to look at the various artefacts within a magical cabinet of curiosities. Each artefact is tied to its own story; the stories are all stand-alone short stories, but they link to each other and take place in the same secondary world, albeit in different places and times.
Where did you get the idea for In The Watchful City, what inspired it?
The ideas for In The Watchful City came from a number of places. Some have been percolating for a decade; others came together pretty quickly. The biocyberpunk portion stemmed from a trip I made to Hangzhou in 2017 with Western and Chinese science fiction writers. There, we got to see some emerging technology that integrated facial recognition with, for example, a digital wallet. The differing attitudes toward the technology led me to question some of my own assumptions about surveillance and explore a narrative that was unlike the ones I’d seen in the Western literary tradition.
It kind of sounds like In The Watchful City is a mash-up of science fiction and magical realism. Do you agree with this assessment, or do you think there are there other genres that either describe it better or are at work in this story as well?
I wouldn’t describe In The Watchful City as a magical realist story, as it’s not working within that tradition, nor is it all that realist. The closest descriptor would probably be “scifantasy.” Most of the story draws from fantasy tropes, but there’s a strong science fictional element to the frame story. I use the term “biocyberpunk” as well: I explore a very technologically oriented society (Ora), but base that technology on natural phenomena like plants and fungus rather than on artificial technology like computers.
In The Watchful City is a mosaic story. For people unfamiliar with that term, what does it mean? You mentioned it being made up of stories a moment ago…
Like a tile mosaic made up of many different pieces, In The Watchful City is comprised of a number of short stories integrated into a larger frame narrative, similar to 1,001 Nights. However, although the short stories stand alone, In The Watchful City isn’t a collection. The form is part of the storytelling. The book can’t be portioned out without losing part of its core.
What was it about this story that made you think it needed to be told as a mosaic story? Or was it more that you wanted to write a mosaic story and this is the story you came up with?
The form and story fed into each other. I wanted to tie together a couple pieces I’d written, and I had a couple ideas for other stories. Instead of just having the frame story be a conceit for contextualizing the embedded stories, like Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, I wanted the individual stories themselves to ripple out into the frame story. They influence the main character, Anima, and change how Anima sees the world and ær position in it.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on In The Watchful City, but not on anything else you’ve written?
In The Watchful City draws significantly from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Although Calvino’s piece reads more like historical fiction than scifantasy, the structure and the dialogue between the characters influenced In The Watchful City heavily. Both books feature two characters who, over the course of their dialogue with one another, come to have greater insight into the world and themselves, an insight that they develop through sharing stories of distant places.
What about your poetry? How do you think writing poetry — and, I assume, reading poetry — has influenced your fiction, and in particular In The Watchful City?
I’ve always written both fiction and poetry. Poetry requires me to be concise and rely more on the juxtaposition of images and emotions to create resonance, rather than to expound on things more clearly through prose. Those techniques transfer over into my prose in the way I write descriptions — I like to surprise myself with the atmospheres I can create by mashing together dissimilar things. Additionally, part of In The Watchful City is written in verse, partly as a way to show Anima’s fragmented existence. I think there’s a lot of room for long-form narrative verse in speculative fiction. After all, the oldest classics like The Odyssey and Beowulf originated as verse. I’d love to see more people explore narrative poetry.
Now, scifantasy novellas are sometimes stand-alone stories, and sometimes they’re part of larger sagas. What is In The Watchful City?
In The Watchful City is a stand-alone novella. However, it serves as a sampler for the secondary world I’m creating, Aurei. I wanted a way to explore different locales quickly, without needing to write an entire novel for each location. I’m hoping to build out this secondary world to be a rich, multicultural world in which I can set multiple stories in the future, though they’ll probably still be unrelated stories. We’ll see.
Along with In The Watchful City, you also have a story called “Where There Are Cities, These Dissolve Too” in a recent anthology called Speculative Los Angeles. People can check out the interview I did with that collection’s editor, Denise Hamilton, but for people who hate to click, what is that anthology about?
Speculative Los Angeles collects stories about Los Angeles by a number of authors based in and around Los Angeles. The anthology leans heavily toward science fiction. Los Angeles is diverse in history and geography, with many overlapping populations; it’s a rich location to explore via speculative fiction.
What was it about this idea that made you want to be a part of this anthology?
I was born and raised near Los Angeles. I thought it would be cool to add my experience from the more eastern edge of Los Angeles County to the mix, as I find that the San Gabriel Valley can often be overlooked when people think of Los Angeles.
So what is your story about, and when and where in Los Angeles does it take place?
My story is about, basically, giant robot battles. It takes place in a world where the Chinese Exclusion Act has been reinstated. Because the U.S. can no longer ship its trash and e-waste out to China to recycle, the U.S. has had to come up with its own technology to deal with the garbage, namely “chompers” that digest waste and extract useful material from it. A vibrant underground community of people who modify and battle chompers arises out of that. “Where There Are Cities, These Dissolve Too” is, at its core, a love story between two mecha pilots. It’s set in La Puente, home to one of the biggest dumps in the U.S. that served all of L.A. County before it closed. But you’d never know it exists, as it’s been integrated into the natural landscape and is now a nature reserve. I thought that was so fascinating — I grew up right next to it, yet never knew it was there. So I wanted to write a story about it.
I assume not, but are there any connections between In the Watchful City and “Where There Are Cities, These Dissolve Too”? Or, for that matter, any of your short stories?
No, my stories tend to be stand-alone. However, I find that I often write my stories in thematic pairs. “Where There Are Cities, These Dissolve Too” is a brutal sapphic story, one that displays femininity with an edge. It’s the spiritual opposite of my story “Your Luminous Heart, Bound In Red,” which appears in the September/October 2021 issue of Asimov’s. That story, which is a Chinese take on Little Red Riding Hood involving werewolves, is about toxic masculinity and how it constrains expressions of vulnerability. “Cities” is unrestrained and vicious, while “Luminous” is restrained and quiet; both deal with PTSD and other emotional baggage.
Going back to In The Watchful City, Hollywood likes turning novellas and short stories into movies and TV shows. Has there been any interest in turning In The Watchful City into a movie or show?
I believe the rights to the story are listed as available in databases, but there’s been no interest yet in adapting it to another medium. I think it would work particularly well as a Netflix miniseries, though, especially an animated one like Love, Death & Robots. The short stories would adapt well to the length of an episode, and the structure of the book works well with the episodic nature of TV.
Finally, if someone enjoys In The Watchful City, what book of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that?
I would say to read the original that inspired it, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. It’s got a similar fever-dream quality to it and also features lyrical prose.