A blend of fantasy and science fiction animates S. Qiouyi Lu’s In the Watchful City: there’s magical and mythical elements, but also surveillance, data wrangling, and what looks like a spiritually-tinged version of the internet. Bringing together a host of ideas—including neopronouns, disparate cultural sources, and the limits of state supervision—it’s an interesting, challenging, and at points rather a dark story, if one that feels a bit scattershot.
The novella is told from the viewpoint of Anima, a “node” in the city-state of Ora. Physically connected to the giant tree at the heart of the city, nodes are people who have been modified to act kind of like magical AI bureaucrats: sifting through data, surveilling the city and its inhabitants and, when needed, taking control of animals and artificial constructs to intervene in crises.
Anima is having a crisis of ær own, struggling with the city’s deficiencies; when a mysterious stranger appears in ær chamber, carrying a collection of stories from the larger world, Anima finds ær dissatisfaction sharpening. The visitor, Vessel, shows Anima a cabinet of curiosities, each object imbued with a story. In return for the promise of an addition to the cabinet, Vessel shares these stories with Anima, giving glimpses of the larger world outside Ora: a man seeking magic to resurrect a dead sibling, a champion athlete in a curious sport, the record of a royal rebellion, and an unwilling mermaid-hunter.
In the Watchful City feels like a traditional fix-up: a fairly slender frame that ties together a collection of unrelated short stories. The selections differ markedly in tone and style, including an epistolary section, and Anima’s poetic contribution. Combined with Anima’s viewpoint chapters—which flit between ær body and various animals around the city—this structure imparts a heavily fragmented, snapshot nature to the narrative.
Vessel’s cabinet is an interesting method of gesturing at the breadth and diversity of this world, but, given In the Watchful City’s combination of brevity and complexity, I found it hard to actually get a sense of the setting. The speculative novella, as a form, is in a new heyday, but this one feels like it’s struggling between lengths: too long to carry the day purely on atmosphere and ideas, too short for the “collected fragments” approach to assemble a coherent mosaic.
Anima’s character and motivations are particularly hard to figure out, given how tied up they are in a complex situation we’ve only caught glimpses of. These stories are shot through with rich, fascinating ideas that aren’t, unfortunately, fleshed out enough, and they pose some large follow-up questions that often go unanswered. Anima’s frustration seems to stem from failures as a protector and defender of the city, for instance, but S. Qiouyi Lu never gives any suggestions why anyone is surprised that the random wild animals Anima and the other nodes control are poor emergency responders.
That said, it is in places a vivid and memorable bundle of images and story. Anima’s sections have a kind of bio-cyberpunk feel to them, and ær jaunts into animals around Ora are enlivened with creature-specific sensory detail. One of the sections has a kind of gritty realism that’s almost body-horror adjacent in its description of mermaid transformations, while other stories stay at more of an emotional distance while still tossing up fantastic scenes: a naga’s tail beneath a skirt, a lover’s escape to a floating city.
One reason In the Watchful City is so striking is the way it dives into challenging themes. A critical element in Anima’s disillusion is ær failure to prevent the suicide of a citizen; other stories from the cabinet include some disturbing violence, self-harm, and dangerous relationships. Perhaps the most interesting story for me, by virtue of how it challenged my cultural preconceptions, is “This Form I Hold Now”, which draws on Dorothy Ko’s Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding to connect the practice, positively, with gender identity and autonomy.
Like Vessel’s cabinet of curiosities, In the Watchful City is full of stories that are obviously charged with meaning, and surrounded on all sides by drawers with more things to see—but the glimpses we get are so brief that it’s hard to feel their reality or understand their connections. I don’t doubt that these stories will resonate with some readers, and I wonder what other stories in this world are yet to be told.
In the Watchful City
S. Qiouyi Lu
Published August 31st, 2021
Appalachian in the big city. Bookseller, specialty coffee pro, SF scholar.