A Writerly Retrospective

Below the divider lies the new afterword to the fifth anniversary edition of Schrödinger’s City. It was interesting for me to return to this and make some final edits this past weekend. According to my computer’s file history, I wrote this in mid-March, back when The Other’s release was still a month and a half away, and when home isolation had only just started. At the time, I believed I would be maintaining that state for maybe a month or two at most.

This afterword also noticeably predates my recent glut of first drafts, including Intersection Thirteen, The Five Kingdoms of Daniel Worthy, one Voyage Redux story, and six Chronicles of Ytria stories, which is why they get no mention. Four months later, though, it is still a relevant retrospective of my writing efforts to date, even if it now seems as though my next project is never quite what I think it will be.

The new edition of Schrödinger’s City launches this Saturday, August 1. Owners of the Kindle ebook will be auto-updated with the new cover and the below afterword.

The publication of this edition of Schrödinger’s City marks the novel’s fifth anniversary. When I commissioned Zhivko Zhelev to design new covers for all my published works, I noticed that this anniversary was imminent, and so I decided to kick off the new series with this novel. A new afterword was decidedly in order, but I struggled for some time with what I would write about.

The previous edition’s afterword was short, not even reaching two pages in length. In it, I noted that I had wanted to write a novel about uncertainty, shared some other feedback contributing to the novel’s development, and left it more or less at that.

It has now been roughly two years since I wrote that afterword. There is decidedly not much more to say about the novel itself and my development of it—I wanted to write a novel about uncertainty with the Schrödinger’s cat metaphor manifesting itself as a shape-shifting city; I doubled down on multiple character perspectives not just as a way of making a point about perception, but also in response to good feedback on my first three novels and as a way of sticking it to the members of a toxic former writing group.

However, the past two years have revealed more than this. Schrödinger’s City remains the novel I send people to first, and the novel that I think will continue to represent me best for many years to come. To understand why, I will need to explain where my writing has been and where it is headed.

The Early Novels

In 2012, a number of events accumulated that set me to writing the novel I had always wanted to write. I had started to ditch the impostor syndrome that characterized my first few years as a software engineer. I was gradually giving over less and less of my free time to teaching myself programming languages and software engineering principles. I had also begun reading voraciously after moving to Seattle. I had happened upon Un Lun Dun in 2011, which not only turned me on to China Miéville’s writing, but also got me “catching up” on speculative fiction more generally.

The novel I had always wanted to write was about a boy traveling between parallel-Earth versions of Chicago, but not in our present, rather a couple of centuries into the future. Our culture, I imagined, after barely escaping the “climate cataclysm,” had managed to achieve the liberal utopia. But, my main character was not able to participate. Unable to live on Earth due to a genetic quirk, his parents had relocated him to a parallel world in order to survive.

I expanded my idea from a single novel into five. I titled the series Voyage, named the five volumes Embarkation, Windbound, Adrift, Wake, and Tempest, and constructed detailed outlines for all five novels. I spent a good chunk of 2012 writing Embarkation and all of 2013 proofreading it and running it through the aforementioned toxic writing group.

By mid-2013, I had been able to get to work on Windbound, but that novel’s development did not go as smoothly. Although more confident in my writing ability, I made the mistake of modeling the protagonist’s first romantic relationship upon a particularly toxic ordeal that I myself had endured. I found myself stuck. It was impossible to erase and undo the setup, because it had already been published in the form of Embarkation. There was nothing to do but push through, an act that grew more and more emotionally draining as I proceeded through the chapters.

Finally, while writing a scene halfway through Windbound that involved Kal and his boyfriend screaming at one another in public, I set Windbound aside and began drafting something new. That something became my second novel Insomnium, its themes—atoning for mistakes, standing up to societal injustice, and coping with a lost love that was probably better off lost—were all a product of that genesis.

I had Insomnium drafted, revised, and published much more quickly than Embarkation. It was ready by Spring of 2014.

I kept myself busy in early 2014 not just finishing my draft of Windbound, which I found myself able to endure once Insomnium was complete, but also drafting a third novel. In this one, I wanted to touch on a growing trend I noticed within society: partisanship. It seemed to be seeping out of politics into everything. I wanted to construct a narrative that showed a society healing a pointless and unnecessary ideological divide, specifically the schism between religion and science, one I have always found amusing. I published Alterra in the Summer of 2014.

I spent the rest of 2014 learning some very difficult but ultimately beneficial lessons about the state of business in my country and the world more generally—I started a small publishing company and then watched my society relentlessly crush it into oblivion. It was due to this that I got no further writing done in 2014. I spent the remainder of that year getting myself back into the software industry and re-establishing myself there. I also had to oversee the vast reduction of the scope of my publishing activities. I cannot understate the sheer volume of that wasted effort. There was no time for writing.

Uncertainty Sets In

2015 arrived. My position as a software engineer grew secure once more, the toxic writing group was then long behind me, and I grew compelled to write again. However, I had only the husk of a publishing company left. My ability to imagine a bright, liberal future on the far side of catastrophe was waning; I’d been reduced to merely dealing with the fallout.

Hence, City.

The characters of Schrödinger’s City do not reach the other side of their dilemma. They are not awaiting the eventual denouement that will send them home (ala Embarkation’s Kal). They are trapped. They must do the best they can with what they have. They must avoid being ensnared by toxic social groups, and every time enough healthy social organization develops, City whisks away so many people that the fragile cradle of civilization is destroyed.

Beyond all of that is a world of ideals (or perhaps just orange blossoms), which transcends such practical dilemmas. It is a world that a few of the characters are able to reach, but at what cost, I left intentionally unclear.

The Middle Phase

Schrödinger’s City wasn’t my only published work during this period. I wrote and published numerous short stories throughout 2015 and 2016, which I collected into Lore & Logos and Transmutations of Fire and Void. The best of those two volumes I later rearranged into a single collection called Transmutations.

I also wrote a handful of stories set in the fantasy world of Palípoli. I would sit on the majority of these for three years, before eventually adding “Rite of Courage” to the group in 2019 and publishing them as the collection The Shipwright and Other Stories later that year.

In October 2016, I decided to riff once again on science and religion and produced the novella Our Algorithm Who Art Perfection. As with all other writing in this transitional period, the tone is somber and the wounds of the past are never fully healed. If there is hope, it is because good people manage to grasp power for a period, however briefly.

The Gap

In the middle of editing Our Algorithm, the unthinkable happened. At the very least, it was unthinkable then—the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.

Voyage had already been impossible to finish before this event. But mounting on top of the fact that Kal’s boyfriend had torn open a festering wound, one that I remain to this day hesitant to share publicly, there was now the fact that I could no longer envision the bright, liberal future, even if only on the other side of catastrophe.

The catastrophe is so much worse than that. I can imagine us fixing climate change. I cannot imagine us fixing the sheer ineptitude and blistering lack of emotional and analytical intelligence amongst the electorate that have led to the forty-fifth president of the United States. The whole point of giving power to an electorate was to check corruptions of power. But if the electorate itself becomes a corruption of power, then what hope is there?

During this period, I gave myself over to reading not just more science fiction, but also ancient Classical works. Aristotle’s Politics taught me that I should not have been surprised by any of the political insanity happening around me, that these same problems have been with humanity for as long as there has been such a thing as political organization.

I also began reading more on what thinkers had been saying about liberalism, both economic and social, over the last century or so. I traced a path from Dwight Macdonald and Daniel Bell through Alan Bloom and finally to Patrick Deneen, Helena Rosenblatt, Rob Rieman, Roberto Calasso, and Thomas Piketty. Most of these I found through The Hedgehog Review, a culture journal my husband had discovered for me in 2014.

A picture emerged through all these lenses. My conclusion: liberalism, through its proper functioning, erodes the very foundation on which it depends. This is true both economically and socially. Daniel Bell identified the economic pressures as early as the 1960’s. The most astute analysis of the social forces I give to Deneen, but Macdonald presents a haphazard and scattered portrait of those same forces in the mid-century as well.

The New Phase

Once the election had happened, I sat down at once to describe, in fiction, what was happening to us.

My first attempt began in 2017. The idea for the novel was called A Year in a Day, and I barely got through the third scene before ditching the whole concept.

I spent the rest of the year writing the draft of a novel I called Commencement Day. This one got much further along. I wrote nearly 30,000 words of it. However, I had made numerous mistakes in setting up the world and the characters. Most notably, I had set it in the same world as Voyage, even further on that future timeline. The more I read from Macdonald, Bloom, and Deneen, the more it became clear that Commencement Day itself did not have any foundation to stand upon.

Finally, I began The Other, which I wrote throughout 2019 and is nearing publication at the time of this writing. It is an overtly political novel with a senior politician as its central protagonist. Although the characters eventually solve their problems, I crafted an epilogue designed to call into question whether or not the changes they brought about will be stable over the long term. Contrast this with Alterra, where the epilogue merely ties a bow on the resolution of the ideological conflict.

The novel I am working on now, Land of the Free, is, as should be clear from the title, also overtly political. In another planned novel, The Ghost King, I want to explore the long history of liberalism through the lens of a fantasy world, one in which “the will of the people” and “the free market” are instead a kind of magical demiurge, one conjured into existence in order to take the place of a failing monarchy. However, the conjuration lives far beyond its usefulness in solving transient problems and ends up usurping more and more power for itself, until at last it is powerful enough to reshape society so as to value everything in terms of mana generation.

A Brief Moment of Magic

Schrödinger’s City is not just important because it’s about uncertainty. Or because it collects up multiple viewpoints to feed its central theme. Or because I was responding to a good reader, or to bad readers, or for any of the other reasons I have fumbled through relating in the past.

Schrödinger’s City is important because it occupied a brief space in my development as a writer. I was mature enough to have given up on the simple ideologies and lack of complexity that mar my first three novels to varying degrees. It is also the last novel-length work that pre-dates the Trump presidency, and the dark, hateful world that I now recognize I inhabit.

This novel contains shreds of hope of an ideal world, however fantastically its characters must struggle in order to achieve it. At the same time, it is realistic about the effect that toxic people can have on the best laid plans that good people put into action. It is the first time, apart from the unpublished Voyage Windbound, that a naive character learns his lesson through loss (and, thankfully, with far fewer histrionics along the way).

I now have enough perspective to see that, within the timeline of my bibliography, Schrödinger’s City vacillates between categories—youthful enough to be optimistic; mature enough to have humility. The seeds of my future political phase are there, but the elements of ideology, social change, and progress—all part of my early phase—are present as well. I cannot pin it down to either category, for once I spot it in one, I find elements of the other.

To this day, when we’re out and about Seattle, if it’s particularly foggy, my husband remarks that I should watch out for Amaranthines. And if I misremember directions or some street name, he suggests that perhaps the streets have changed. Erwin Schrödinger invented a cat in a box in order to describe the initially unintuitive idea that reality might not be quite what our perceptions and even our scientific measurements tell us that it is. That’s why all these metaphors, including my derivative ones, seem to stick with people. Deep down, I think, we hope to discover that our dark reality is not quite what it seems.

I hope to produce something excellent in my new phase of writing, or perhaps in a later phase yet to commence, but if Schrödinger’s City remains the best of all my novels, that will be good enough for me.