In the novels that comprise his City-States series, writer Seb Doubinsky has portrayed life in a dystopian world that, more often than we might like to admit, isn’t that far off from our own. In the following email interview, Doubinsky discusses the inspiration for and influences on the newest installment of the City-States series, The Invisible (paperback, Kindle).
For people who are unfamiliar with your City-States series, what is that series about and what kind of world is it set in?
City-States is a collection of novels that all take place in a dystopian and not-so-parallel universe where the states we know in our world are replaced by “city-states” structures as we knew in ancient civilizations, from Babylon to Rome. Each novel takes place in one of these cities or another, and are loosely connected, either by some common events or a few characters, but can all be read separately, somewhat like William S. Burroughs last trilogy, with Cities Of The Red Night, The Place Of Dead Roads, and The Western Lands.
And then what is The Invisible about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the previous installment, Missing Signal?
The Invisible has the form and the plot of a rather classical “noir” novel. Its main character, a cop named Georg Ratner, has accepted the position of City Commissioner and must face the political chores that come with the job, while discreetly investigating the murder of his ex-partner and the growing influence of a new drug called Synth. Add a presidential campaign in full gear in the background, and you have a disaster in waiting. It follows Missing Signal chronologically, as one crucial character from this novel makes a cameo appearance in The Invisible. But you can read the two novels independently, too.
When in the process of writing the City-States books did you come up with the idea for The Invisible, and how did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
I always think of the next book while working on a novel. Missing Signal was a stripped down lo-fi sci-fi story and I wanted something “heavier” afterwards, and somewhat more conventional in the narrative. I never want to stick to one form or style,I want to challenge my readers and myself — I like to “keep ’em guessing” as Burroughs put it wonderfully well. The first idea was to connect this new cycle, which I call the “Vita Cycle,” within the two others: The “City-States Cycle” and the “SynthCycle,” which began with The Song Of Synth. That’s how I got the idea of going back to New Babylon and reactivating Georg Ratner for a new investigation. Trump’s election and the rise of populism everywhere in the world added to the political flavor.And it all morphed into The Invisible from there.
Your City-States novels have been called dystopian noir stories. Is that how you’d describe The Invisible as well?
Well, I guess the problem with labels is that they are, precisely, labels and many writers are uncomfortable with that.Stanislaw Lem, for instance, denied writing science-fiction books, because he considered it a minor genre. There are, actually, always many genres in my novels. You have to remember that I am French, European and that I grew up in the USA. I guess I could be called a “Eumerican writer.” So I have all these influences and, for instance, I think The Invisible could also be regarded as a Nouvelle Vague-inspired story (think Godard and “Alphaville”) or a German expressionist-inspired piece — you see, I don’t think literature is only about literature. That’s why there always are a lot of references to art, film and music in my novels.
So are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on The Invisible but not on any of the previous City-States books? Because your books have been described as Orwellian…
It’s a very difficult question, because I would link The Invisible with other influences than literature. I would say, for example, that Alice Coltrane’s free jazz was very influential during the writing, and that my friend, the painter Manu Rich’s recent abstract works helped me a lot for the background texture I wanted to create with my prose. But I have no problem being called Orwellian, Huxleyan, or Dickian of course, as they are influences I have always mentioned, along with Burroughs, Brautigan, and Zamyatin.
What about non-literary influences; was The Invisible influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games?
This question actually links up with the one above, and I will expand on that. I am a paradoxical writer as I am enormously influenced by the visual, but I almost never watch television or go to the movies. Yet, every time I watch something that catches my eye and challenges me, I always wonder how I could put that into my words. The last movie that had this effect on me was Dennis Hopper’s 1971 pseudo-documentary film American Dreamer, and it greatly influenced the writing of my next novel, Paperclip.
As for The Invisible, I would say that the old French “Commissaire Maigret” series, mixed with some German expressionist or realist films of the ’20s and ’30s helped me create that peculiar melancholic atmosphere I wanted to share.
I also play a lot of video games, but strangely enough, I don’t feel like they influence me at all, at least consciously. But I can feel close to their message or their vision — I can totally relate to The Witcher 3‘s excellent tragic and sarcastic view of human nature…
Yes, writing poetry has definitely had a major impact on my prose writing. And two writers especially, that were both poets and novelists: Richard Brautigan and Jack Kerouac, plus the Albert Camus of The Stranger. This is the trio that really helped me manage the junction between the poetic images and the constraints of prose. I think it is quite obvious in The Invisible, as there are even real poems inserted at the beginning of each chapter, in the form of an adapted description of the major arcane of the Tarot.
As we’ve been discussing, The Invisible is the seventh book in your City-States cycle. But while there are some recurring characters, all of those novels in this series are stand-alone stories. Given that, do you think The Invisible is a good place for someone to start reading this series?
Well, if one likes the “noir” genre with a twist of the weird and poetic, The Invisible is for you. If you are the kind of reader who wants a “logical” progression with a universe, then maybe you should start with The Babylonian Trilogy or The Song OfSynth. But there are also, within the cycle, some novels which aren’t really “attached” to anything, like Absinth, Omega Gray, or Suan Ming that could work too. But, to me, The Invisible is as good an entry as any other.
On the flipside of that, what do you think people who’ve read the other books in order will get from The Invisible that newcomers will not?
Well, those who have read The Babylonian Trilogy, The Song Of Synth, or Missing Signal will be familiar with some of the characters, the political particularities of the city-states and the effects of the drug Synth. I think they will feel very much at home.
Earlier I asked if The Invisible had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in adapting The Invisible into a movie, show, or game?
Right now, I have had no contacts about The Invisible from either producers or directors. I think it could either be a long and slow avant-garde atmospheric film, or a Netflix series because, in my eyes, it’s a very open-form novel. In the early reviews I read of the novel, I could see that every reader shaped it into a different form — and I liked that very much. For me, a writer doesn’t own his or her novel anymore once it’s published. It becomes a “shared object,” and that’s why, should I work with a film director, the first thing I would tell her or him is: “It’s your movie. Do what you want.”
And if some director was going to do what they wanted to The Invisible, but they asked you for casting suggestions, who would you suggest?
Very tough question, as I seldom watch TV shows or new movies. I think that either Keanu Reeves [John Wick], Idris Elba [Hobbes & Shaw], or Daniel Craig [Knives Out] could make decent Ratners and maybe Ryan Reynolds [Deadpool] could beJesse Valentino. For Laura, Grace Park [Battlestar Galactica], Halle Berry [John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum], or Naomi Watts [the Divergent series].
If we were doing it with classics, aging Paul Newman [Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid], Sidney Poitier [Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner], or Michael Caine [Hannah And Her Sisters] for Ratner, and Pam Grier [Foxy Brown] or Jane Fonda [Barbarella] for Laura.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Invisible, what similarly dystopian noir sci-fi story of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that?
I would suggest Jordan Krall’s fabulous Beyond The Great, Bloody, Bruised, And Silent Veil of This World, which is, in my eyes, one of the true masterpieces of twenty-first century avant-lit sci-fi. Or, if you want a more traditional classic, Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man should definitely be up your alley.