Panopticon Blues: Review of In the Watchful City by S. Qiouyi Lu
In the Watchful City. By S. Qiouyi Lu. Tordotcom, August 31, 2021.
There is no setting I love more than a weird city, and there’s no kind of weird city I love more than one in the tradition of the New Weird: unbound by standard genres, dark, a weird built environment inhabited by weird people doing weird things. Ora, the titular setting of S. Quoyi Lu’s In the Watchful City, is just such a city, a vibrant metropolis born of collective trauma, voluntarily cut off from the outside world, governed by an otherworldly panopticon devoted to maintaining order and the status quo of comfort and reliability. Anima, the novella’s protagonist, is an inner node of the city, a nonbinary (æ/ær pronouns) human vegetally linked to the Gleaming, the bio-cyberpunk network/force animating everything, able to possess the animals of the city to observe and maintain order in the urban jungle. When Anima encounters an intruder to the city bearing a cabinet of curiosities, reminders of the outside world and other ways of living, æ begins to question ær place in the city and role in the panopticon. This is a beautiful, sumptuous novella that ably tackles issues of surveillance, agency, and transformation, but packs so much interesting material in such a short frame that I was left wishing S. Qiouyi Lu had given ær work a bit more room to breathe.
Anima’s interactions with Vessel (se/ser), the psychopomp outsider, form the frame of the novella’s mosaic structure. The latter’s “qíjìtáng” (a Mandarin neologism invented by S. Qiouyi Lu as an equivalent of the German “wunderkammer”), full of soul-bound everyday objects, provides four distinct interior stories: an immigrant seeking the return of his dead brother; a trans woman competing in a sport called “combat skycups;” the epistolary recitation of the collapse of an imperial dynasty; and a woman fighting against the inhumane factory fishing of mermaids. All of these stories take place outside of Ora, although the middle two provide important context for the founding of the city in the shadow of the empire of the Skylanders, and all inform Anima’s interior journey under Vessel’s guidance. Anima recites ær own life story to Vessel as well, presented in verse that felt somewhat self-consciously avant-garde to me, but you should take any opinions I might have about poetry with several grains of salt.
All of these stories are wonderfully contextualized, with S. Qiouyi Lu applying ær background in sociolinguistics to create not just a mosaic novella but a mosaic world that really comes alive, with all of its various cultures and landscapes informing the individual lives preserved in the qíjìtáng. Most of the cultures are Asian-inflected, with one interlude drawing on US/Mexico border culture as well, and none appear to be heteronormative, with queer relationships, trans and nonbinary people, and neopronouns all accepted and respected at face value (although misogyny still exists even as transmisogyny does not, a detail I thought would have benefited from more unpacking). S. Qiouyi Lu has a real gift for sensory descriptions, which is only appropriate for a work based so emphatically around watching and observing. The sumptuous detail æ evokes draws on all five senses as Anima bounces from animal to animal, and the novella draws on both fantastical and sfnal tropes, Asian and American influences, as when Anima “lets ærself simply plunge through the Gleaming, all gold and light, data and sortilege, physics and thaumaturgy: the place where the world simply is. æ lets ærself drift into the body of a gecko, if only to curl ær tail around ærself and sulk.”
This passage comes after Anima has unsuccessfully pursued a citizen headed for a forbidden romantic rendezvous with an outsider, so the reader immediately knows that the strictures governing the city are draconian and unfair. This robs the interior stories, which draw Anima through a series of revelations to the point where æ is ready to leave the city and ær life behind, of some of their power. The journey would have been more powerful if the reader started from a similar vantage point as Anima and was similarly led to question Ora’s governing ideology through the influence of Vessel and ser stories. As se eventually realizes, “[p]erhaps I am meant to kill only one thing: the ego. Only then am I free from the idea that any life is singular. Free to see experience as collective, lives as interlinked… That makes taking any one life, especially your own, that much more difficult.” This idea of individual agency in the context of a collective, central to the novella, also expresses itself through motifs of self-harm and self-expression through body modification that percolate throughout. Anima’s failure to prevent a citizen’s suicide is the lynchpoint of ær story, and Vessel’s transformation into a psychopomp is revealed to be punishment for a failed suicide attempt. More positive examples include the trans woman who expresses herself by binding her feet, a human who carves mermaid scales into her own flesh, and Anima’s ultimate choice to physically untether ærself from the city.
You might think this is a lot to pack into a novella that’s under 200 pages long, and you’d be right. For all its strengths, I think this would have bloomed as a longer work, and I very rarely feel that way, usually pushing for authors and works to cut out bloat and unnecessary length. There’s just so much here, though, and so much of it is so fascinating, and so beautifully depicted, that I wanted it to have more time to stretch out and unfold. Most crucially, Anima’s own story (and, by extension, Vessel’s) needed more development, more evidence of ær current inertia before the stories led ær to question the necessity of Ora’s panopticon and self-isolation (both ær own and the city’s at large). This lack of breathing room leads to the occasional didacticism, proclamations like “[i]f anything, combat skycups is a venue to express nationalism” being issued in a way that feels inorganic.
All told, In the Watchful City is a very strong work, a beautifully diverse piece of science fantasy from a non-Eurocentric and non-heteronormative perspective, well-crafted and interesting throughout. Ora is a fascinating weird city—it’s too bad the reader wasn’t given a lengthier opportunity to observe it.
This review was commissioned by editor Jake Casella Brookins in June 2021 from a hard pitch; the author and editor had previously worked together for Ancillary. A review copy was arranged from Tor.