The city of Ora is a place of beauty grown (quite literally) from unbearable trauma. Its luxuriant tangles of vines, structurally integral trees, and streets named for flowers and painted with their namesake floral motifs to visually distinguish them from one another both melt into and clash against the equally integral constant surveillance its citizens live under. The lives of the people of Ora are guided, guarded, and in many ways imprisoned by the body-hopping “nodes”—once-ordinary people who have been physiologically altered in order to interface with the city’s energy and information network—who observe everything that happens in the city. This is a beautiful and terrible book, delicate and intricate in its inventive biopunk storytelling, heavy and hard-hitting in its lingering impact.
In the Watchful City shows, through its structure of nested stories, how endless are the ways in which individuals and societies react to trauma and the aftermath of terrible events. Its queerness—as integral to its narrative as the trees and nodes are to the titular city—and its Chinese and Asian-diaspora cultural influences resist capitulating to the expectations of straight, Western readings, resulting in a narrative that does not feel much like anything I’ve read before.
The complexity of this novella is such that I doubt most readers—certainly not myself—are likely to absorb everything it has to offer in a single reading. Luckily, the brief novella format makes multiple readings easy, and S. Qiouyi Lu’s sensuous, poetic prose is absorbing enough to get lost in even after one knows how all the stories end. In the Watchful City is not only easy but rewarding to read more than once, and I think that readers who do so will continue to find new facets to this well-polished gem of a book.
I would recommend this novella to readers in search of innovative speculative work that will make them both think and feel (and I would also recommend that potential readers pay close attention to the author’s content warnings).
I received a free digital advance copy of this book from Tordotcom Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for my review.