Can we ever truly know someone? Truly? Or will it have to wait until we all meld our consciousnesses into a single hive mind? To hear writer Elly Bangs talk about it — as she did in the following email interview about her peri-apocalyptic cyberpunk sci-fi thriller Unity (paperback, Kindle) — even that might not help.
To start, what is Unity about, and when and where is it set?
Here’s my technically-one-sentence summary: The last surviving fragment of a collective consciousness whose other bodies have been killed hires a remorse-stricken master assassin to help her and her lover escape from an underwater city and guide them across the post-collapse American Southwest under the looming specter of apocalyptic war — pursued by a bloodthirsty aquatic warlord and an obsessed cybernetic bodysnatcher.
It’s set in California-Nevada-Arizona, in a future that’s advanced technologically but decayed societally and environmentally; the USA hasn’t existed for a few generations, but nothing else has taken its place yet.
Where did you get the original idea for Unity, and how, if at all, did that idea change as you wrote it?
I never know how embarrassed I should be to admit this, but I started writing the first version of Unity almost 20 years ago, sometime in high school. (I swear I will never, ever take that long to write one book again.) I got into a philosophical conversation with a dear friend who asked me if I thought it was possible for two people to truly understand each other, and it really stuck with me because insofar as we can’t, that inability shapes the whole human condition, and if we could, it might change everything about us. So the idea of shared consciousness utterly captured my imagination. But, at the same time, I was frustrated by how shallowly I felt the concept was explored in the stories I was reading and watching at the time. (e.g. Star Trek spent so much energy developing the Borg as cybernetic zombies, and so little on imagining what true collective consciousness would be like, what it would mean, what it could do for us, how it could go wrong or right.) That idea is still at the heart of this story, but since then I’ve become less interested in the communication aspects and more interested in what it would mean for memory, identity, and trauma.
And is there a reason you set it in an underwater enclave as opposed to an underground one? Y’know, besides wanting to do something different than what Hugh Howey did in his Silo series, of course.
Honestly, subterranean cities are a lot more plausible than submarine ones. It’s hard to build a town where your neighbors three stories down have to be pressurized to an entire atmosphere higher than you just to keep the walls from imploding on them — but I think the feeling and symbolism of that pressure makes it worth the suspension of disbelief. An underwater city isn’t just a dark place with limited exits; it’s a place where the whole world outside wants to crush you, and where your adaptation to that pressure is itself a fairly serious medical condition back on the surface. Traumatic situations can be the same way: it’s hard to get out of them, and then it’s hard to get them out of you.
Plus, it’s looking like more and more cities may be at least slightly underwater in the future, so…
Unity has been described as being a post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller. Do you agree?
There’s a lot of cyberpunk in the mix as well. The post-apocalyptic tag is accurate, though I kind of want to call it peri-apocalyptic instead. I’ve been way into post-apocalyptic stories all my life, but a lot of the genre’s classics and tropes were established at a time when everyone expected the world to end only once, and quickly. In the 2020s we’re essentially living through the apocalypse in real time, and it’s not like that. Mostly, it’s decades- or centuries-long processes stacked on top of each other, all grinding along slowly. So Unity is about people (and their memories, and the things that made them who they are) surviving not just after, but between and during, a few concurrent ends of the world.
Unity is your first novel, but you’ve had stories published in such outlets as Clarkesworld and Escape Pod. Are there any writers who had a big influence on Unity but not on anything else you’ve written?
If this doesn’t sound like an odd flavor combination, I want to say Unity has more of my long-time problematic fave Philip K. Dick in it, and also more of Octavia Butler in it, than anything else I’ve ever written. On the P.K.D. side, it comes complete with big doomsday energy, thoughts on empathy and technological dehumanization, and a character having a breakdown after a questionable encounter with the divine. On the Butler side, it owes a lot to the quintessentially post-American apocalypse of Parable Of The Sower, and even more to the telepathic sex and profound post-nuclear meditations on human nature in Lilith’s Brood.
What about non-literary influences; was Unity influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
There are a lot of those. Unity‘s ancestry surely includes some Mad Max, some Star Trek, some Hackers, some of The Abyss, some Ghost In The Shell, some of the original Deus Ex. Alexei’s character was originally born out of the dissonance I felt when I first started playing first person shooters — which I enjoy, to be sure, but often the expectation in these games is that you leave hundreds or thousands of dead bodies in your wake. When I started writing this novel around 2000, I was the weird kid who played through Deus Ex using exclusively non-lethal weapons, spending hours carrying unconscious enemies out of the way of explosions so they wouldn’t get hurt. It started to feel like the most jarring break from reality we tolerate or outright expect in our pop culture: you can’t swing a cat in games, film, or TV without hitting a hero with a comically horrific body count and no especially complicated feelings about it, no lasting scars. Most real humans don’t work that way.
Now, as we discussed, Unity is a peri-apocalyptic cyberpunk sci-fi thriller. Some sci-fi novels are stand-alone stories, while others are part of larger sagas, and the same is also true of thrillers. What is Unity?
Unity is meant to stand as a self-contained novel. At the same time, the ending opens a lot of possibilities, and I’ve developed tentative plans for sequels. If it turns out they’re in the cards, however, I might want to see how the world changes in the next few years — since these are very interesting times to be alive, and that context will affect how the story ought to be told. (Though I may or may not have already started work on a Kat-centered novella on the side. Kat is fun to write.)
Earlier we discussed the movies, TV shows, and games that influenced Unity. But do you think Unity could work as a movie, TV show, or game?
I have plenty of self-indulgent fantasies about show or movie adaptations of my work. I think TV is having a golden age right now, and doing generally more interesting and original things than film in terms of style and plot and character development, so that would be my first choice.
Though I think Unity would make a very awkward video game. The world might make for an interesting tabletop RPG, though.
If someone did want to make a Unity TV show, who would you want them to cast as Danea and the other main characters and why them and not Danai Gurira? Are you worried people might accidentally call her Danai and Danea? Because most actors are very professional…
No, you’re right, I have absolutely daydreamed about Danai Gurira playing Danae. She can summon the intensity of a woman with twelve thousand years of life experience. The only thing I’d rather see would be an out queer and / or nonbinary actor in that role, since Danae is essentially pansexual and pangender; someone close to those identities would be able to do really interesting and complex things with her character.
Beyond that, all I ask is to be cast as an extra; preferably a gruff wastelander with a spectacular death.
Finally, if someone enjoys Unity, what post-apocalyptic cyberpunk sci-fi thriller of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
It’s not strictly post-apocalyptic, but I think someone who liked Unity might really enjoy This Alien Shore by Celia S. Friedman, if you want more epic cyberpunk exploring selfhood and identity. One of my favorite novels ever. Everyone already knows they need to read N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and Charlie Jane Anders All the Birds In The Sky if they haven’t already, but both are amazing, and both hit a lot of the peri-apocalyptic notes I was craving the whole time I was writing Unity.
To read an excerpt from Elly Bangs’ Unity, please click here.