A Sci-Fi Dragon Dystopia à la Jane Austen

Chandler Klang Smith talks to Adrian Van Young about the influence of Jane Austen’s dystopias on her world-building novel

I met Chandler Klang Smith in my first workshop in Columbia University’s MFA Program in fiction. The class, taught by Nicholas Christopher, was not Chandler’s first (she was a full year ahead of me in the program) yet I distinctly remember her welcoming me and my oddball fiction into her orbit with a wry, bright-eyed exuberance. That was before I knew we shared an aesthetic of darkly inflected fiction of the fantastic; the intention isn’t so much to write literary genre fiction but, as Chandler calls it, to consciously “do genre.” We commenced being friends, have continued to be; old kinships die hard, it seems.

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Chandler and I published our first novels (Goldenland Past Dark and Shadows in Summerland, respectively) with Canadian indie genre press ChiZine Publications. Over the years we’ve continued to reconnect in various, telling ways: I solicited Chandler for her dino-horror story “Peaceable Kingdom” in Gigantic Magazine’s “Mini-Monster Issue”; in our literary social lives, we’re two of only a few people I know who attend both mainstream writing conventions like AWP and smaller, quirkier ones like Readercon. So, imagine my delight when I found out that Chandler would be publishing her dystopian dragon-opus, The Sky Is Yours, with Hogarth/Crown early this year. The novel is a marvel: a smart, ribald and relentlessly imaginative tale about three troubled teens making their way through a fallen world of psychotropic chewing tobacco-dealers, monster cults and, yup, you guessed it, big-ass dragons. Recently, Chandler and I connected over email to discuss Jane Austen’s dystopia, maximalist world-building, and “adult sexuality, neurosis and intoxicants” in high fantasy.

VAN YOUNG: Although The Sky is Yours could be easily categorized as dystopian or post-apocalyptic, in many ways it also has the feel of a 19th-century novel. It’s leisurely — even digressive, at times — and seems to take a deep delight in the elasticity of the sentence, recalling Edith Wharton or the Brontës, perhaps. At the same time, however, it’s intensely cinematic, both in terms of theme and vision. (I privately like to think of it as a soupcon of the movies Reign of Fire and Brazil, and the novels Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.) In this way, it’s like 19th-century novel with 21st-century privilege of hindsight. Was this a conscious move on your part? How did you conceive of the novel when you were writing it?

KLANG SMITH: Brazil is probably my favorite movie and was absolutely a conscious influence. And House of Mirth and Jane Eyre were both books I returned to when working on my character Swanny’s arc. So you’re totally on my wavelength here.

One of my goals in writing this novel was to actually do genre — not just to reference different kinds of stories in a surface-level way, but to deliver on some of their pleasures by employing mechanisms and strategies that make them work. You could imagine this as a sort of “combining mecha” image. Each genre piece needs to function independently, but all those different pieces come together and (ideally, anyway) merge into a single kickass robot that is the novel as a whole.

The Sub-Leaser

Still, I think this does mean the book feels digressive, because the different parts of the story have wildly different stakes, paces, and tones. For instance, the first third of the novel prominently features a marriage plot. I love Jane Austen, and my goal here was to actually do a marriage plot, using some elements that fascinate me about the “Austenian” genre, so speak: witty banter (and cutting remarks), meddling relatives, the uncomfortable intrusion of real estate and financial concerns, not to mention sexuality, and a weird focus on ancestry, family reputation, and heirs. I think that Austen’s novels are among the most dystopian I’ve ever read, in terms of showing characters (especially women) chewed up by a human-made system that slots them into narrow roles. So I wanted to make that part of the dystopia I was creating, too.

I think that Austen’s novels are among the most dystopian I’ve ever read.

VY: I love the idea of Austen as dystopian, and the idea of consciously writing into genre rather than only riffing on it with the sly meta-awareness to which we’ve become accustomed in so-called “genre-bending” literary fiction. I think there’s something incredibly romantic and lively in that notion, and your novel embodies it. Because you’re right, of course — after the marriage plot concludes, The Sky shifts into something much more akin to a grotesque, picaresque adventure of sorts. A taut one! Yet even as the novel barrels forward, it never privileges plot over continuing to build its meticulously constructed fictional universe. Where do you stand on “world-building technique” in fiction — specifically genre fiction? You seem to me somewhat of a maximalist.

KS: For me, world-building ultimately serves to answer one question: what options do the characters have? Because even in the most boundlessly imaginative universe, limitations and obstacles are necessary to force characters into conflict or compromise, thus creating tension and propelling the action forward.

When we read contemporary realistic fiction, we approach it with certain assumptions from our own experience about what’s possible. For instance, we understand that a character can’t travel from New York to Paris in an hour, or throw a lavish party for free. We can often figure out subtler stuff, too, like what’s likely considered socially acceptable in the person’s subculture versus what presents a serious risk to their status quo. In other words, we go in with a strong grasp on what the character’s options are, and thus the choices they make tell us something meaningful, either about who they are or what they’re up against.

More Thoughts about Worldbuilding and Food

But when we read speculative fiction, especially speculative fiction that’s set in an entirely imagined world, the author has to explicitly establish what’s possible for the characters, usually by focusing on two sub-questions: where can people go and what can they do? This is why fantasy novels often have maps in the front — because we haven’t gone from the Shire to Mordor ourselves, the map shows us what it means to commit to that journey.

This is all way of saying — yes, with this book, I was totally a maximalist! Because I really wanted to give readers enough context to draw conclusions about what the characters’ decisions meant. Pretty early on in the writing, when I was working on the sections about Swanny’s upbringing, I realized I had my work cut out for me in this department. I wanted to establish that the Dahlbergs were aristocratic but living beyond their means, financially tied to the sinking ship of their manor estate and desperately looking for a way out…which lead to a lot of embroidering in of detail about the setting of that house in particular and Wonland County in general. Here’s hoping readers find it interesting!

VY: That’s a nice, practical breakdown of world-building, which can sometimes seem superfluous even in the best speculative fiction — though not in this book, where everything seems carefully selected and essential. The early Swanny scenes you mention were so evocative to me. Indeed, Swanny endlessly teething away in her decrepit ancestral manor put me strongly in mind of the vampire queen from Angela Carter’s “The Lady of the House of Love” (which is itself allusive to Sleeping Beauty). While Duncan’s Uncle Osmond seemed a sure match for Uncle Julian in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle; Sharkey, at times, reminded me of any one of the gangsters from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. You may well be playing with archetypes here, but I found many aspects of this novel to be heavily allusive to others in this very playful, animated way. Can you talk about your book in that capacity? As a kind of allusive treasure hunt for the observant literary reader?

KS: No question, I wanted readers to discover unexpected resonances with books they already knew and loved here. It’s funny, though, because the works I used as reference points aren’t necessarily the first or only ones that get evoked. I’ve never read the Graham Greene novel you mentioned, for example; with Sharkey, I thought more about characters like Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist and Bill the Butcher from Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. But I don’t think that makes the comparison invalid — texts are constantly in conversation with one another, and lines of influence aren’t always direct.

Throughout Sky, libraries keep popping up as important settings — there are private libraries in the Dahlberg and Ripple mansions, the first place the teenagers visit when they enter the city is the public library, and Sharkey has hoarded most of the books in Torchtown for his personal collection. It wasn’t something I thought about consciously while writing, but as I edited, I realized how appropriate it was, since the book itself is a kind of library, a space formed out of other stories’ spines.

The book itself is a kind of library, a space formed out of other stories’ spines.

VY: And this applies to film, as well. The Sky is Yours is deeply cinematic, part of what makes it so accessible. What are some films (besides Brazil) that influenced how you conceived of the novel? How has the ubiquity of film — and the language of film — in our daily lives influenced the way we tell stories on the page, in your personal experience and more generally?

KS: As you know, parts of this novel literally appear in screenplay format, and the character Duncan Ripple’s imagination is heavily shaped by ads, porn, reality programming, video games, and other types of on-screen entertainment. I wanted to show how powerful, how seductive, those types of visual storytelling are. Ripple’s fantasies exist in a cinematic vocabulary; to show them any other way would be a distancing translation. When you write from the POV of a character, you have to perform their interiority on its own terms.

Ripple is drawn to a lot of shallow stuff, so in that sense I meant it as a critique. But personally, I also love movies, and they massively influence how I engage with the world. My most vivid memories unreel like films, and when I’m working on fiction, I make movies of the action in my head. I could endlessly list filmmakers who are important to me, but in addition to Terry Gilliam, the essential one is Stanley Kubrick. His obsession with detail, and his ability to go hard in the direction of whatever genre/aesthetic he was pursuing, has been inspiring me since I first saw Dr. Strangelove as a kid. I know I’ll be watching those movies for the rest of my life.

What Jane Austen Looked Like According to Forensic Science

That said, my experimentation with form is less motivated by seeking to emulate movies and more driven by a desire to do something movies can never do: to draw attention to the appearance of different types of text on the printed page. There’s sometimes an idea that, for writing to be cinematic, the prose has to melt away, make itself invisible. But I’m trying to make it hyper-visible — to tell the reader, “OK, I’m asking you to imagine this part as a movie,” and invite questions about what that means.

I love taking advantage of something that’s unique to the medium of writing, and one way to do that is to use typography and formatting deliberately, to evoke associations and response. I think that as writers, we’re competing with a million other forms of entertainment and we need to make an argument for why our narratives need to exist in a medium that requires so much active engagement and investment from readers.

VY: The Sky is Yours, like a lot of the best dystopian fiction, puts a character (Ripple) on a path of desensitization vis-à-vis porn, reality shows, and the rest. Ripple — not to mention Abby, marooned on her trash-island, or Sharkey, exploiting the disenfranchised — becomes a kind of living cautionary tale for what can happen when someone comes into full, unregulated contact with a morally decrepit culture. A debauched, overgrown test-tube baby of sorts. As you were generating the novel’s satirical DNA, were you drawing from anything in particular in our own day and age?

KS: Well, as Margaret Atwood herself has famously said, dystopian fiction is really about what’s happening now, and that’s absolutely true for The Sky Is Yours. Some of the parallels with our world are pretty obvious: income inequality, gentrification, mass incarceration, pollution, genetic engineering, and more all get referenced in highly visible ways throughout the book. I was basically performing thought experiments, asking myself, what would this tendency in our culture look like taken to an even farther extreme?

The one almost eerie, ripped-from-the-headlines connection between the book’s universe and ours is the similarity between the Ripples and the Trumps. They’re both would-be aristocratic families that have leveraged their wealth into personal branding and reality show fame; they’re both characterized by tacky decadence and despicable sexual politics. What’s weird is that I started writing this novel long before the 2016 election. I only knew Trump from The Apprentice, and as a business mogul/media impresario. But the idea he (and others like him) represented for me — that money can buy a license to manufacture your own reality, which can then be packaged and sold to others — grossed me out so much, it seemed to merit excavation in my fiction.

As Margaret Atwood herself has famously said, dystopian fiction is really about what’s happening now, and that’s absolutely true for THE SKY IS YOURS.

VY: I can certainly see the crossover between the Trumps and Ripples; I’d wondered that myself. The Ripple family — Duncan specifically — not only forms part of the novel’s satirical backbone, but also feeds into its extremely bawdy sense of humor, which I loved. It’s worth noting, however, that this isn’t always something you see in “hard” fantasy. It can either be overly chaste, on the one hand, or laughably self-serious on the other. Can you speak to the raunchy, offbeat sensibility of The Sky is Yours? Were you consciously pushing against the norms of “hard” fantasy in going that route?

KS: I do parody some fantasy tropes in this book. I’ve watched a ton of animated shows like Futurama, Rick and Morty, Apollo Gauntlet, and other Adult Swim programming that lovingly send up classic speculative premises. So that anarchic vibe has seeped deep into my brain. And I love Lev Grossman’s The Magicians series, which critiques children’s fantasy literature like Narnia and Harry Potter by injecting similar worlds with a large doses of adult sexuality, neurosis, and intoxicants.

I wonder, though: is humor really less common in fantasy than in other genres? I’m not sure if they count as “hard” fantasy, but writers like Michael Swanwick, Jeffrey Ford, and Jonathan Carroll are all irreverently hilarious. And Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke — which is one of my desert-island reads, and absolutely a book that’s concerned with exploring the consequences of magic in a realistically depicted world — is peopled with grotesque, Dickensian characters that frequently crack me up. So I don’t necessarily consider humor and the fantasy genre at odds. Honestly, I think humor is just a marked choice in contemporary fiction generally. There are certainly funny “literary” authors, but across the board, going comedic comes with a risk of not being taken seriously.

I don’t consider humor and the fantasy genre at odds.

VY: Point taken! I probably just haven’t read enough quality fantasy. I’d like to break with discussing your wonderful novel a moment to touch on your trajectory as a writer. You’ve been steeped in the NYC publishing industry, and published with an indie genre imprint. Has having one foot in the world of mainstream literary fiction and one in the world of indie genre fiction affected your writing and/or identification as a writer in any recognizable way?

KLANG SMITH: I’ve actually thought about writing an essay on this very topic, but I’ll try my best not do that here.

For readers not super familiar with my trajectory: before The Sky Is Yours, I published a shorter novel with an independent Canadian press, ChiZine Publications. (The reason Sky is billed as a debut is because it’s my first book from an American publisher.) My connection with CZP brought me into more contact with the speculative fiction community here in NYC: I became close with a couple of excellent NYC-based writers they’d published — Karen Heuler and Nicholas Kaufmann — and I started regularly going to the Fantastic Fiction and NYRSF reading series. Since then, I’ve been a guest on Jim Freund’s Hour of the Wolf radio show, a panelist at Readercon, and a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards…so I consider myself 100% a member of the SF community at this point. And I think that feeling’s mutual. I feel really supported and valued by people I’ve met through that scene.

But — you know that expression, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Wherever I go… I’m a weirdo. When I was in college, I took a course called “The Personal Canon” with the author Lucy Grealy. For the class, you could read basically whatever interested you, and then report back your findings to the group. We read eclectically, ahistorically, omnivorously, trying to dowse out the weird sources of our own pleasure. Maybe I learned her lesson too well, because that’s still the way I read. I’m never interested in a book just because it has time travel, or robots, or faeries; I’m also never interested in a book just because it’s set in suburbia or against the backdrop of the Civil War. I’m always dowsing for that underground energy, for that special vibration signaling that the book offers a really unique take on whatever it’s tackling. And I think that can make me an outlier, because a lot of readers — on both sides of the “literary/SF” divide — have much clearer preferences for certain kinds of literal content.

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