What if your city was under constant attack by dragons? That’s the premise of The Sky Is Yours, the brilliantly colorful new novel by Chandler Klang Smith.
“It’s set in a futuristic city called Empire Island, and it centers on three young people who are coming of age there,” Smith says in Episode 301 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “These dragons have been attacking the city for the last 50 years, so the recent history and culture of the city have been entirely shaped by these constant fires.”
The Sky Is Yours recalls the surreal weirdness of Jeff VanderMeer‘s City of Saints and Madmen or China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, but the oddball intensity of its kaleidoscopic plot gives the novel a distinctive flavor all its own.
“I was really interested in having the book be joining together these different modules of genre,” Smith says, “so there’s a fantasy element with the dragons, there’s a near-future dystopia element with some of the reality TV stuff and technology, there’s a gothic romance in what ends up unfolding in Swanny’s story. The first third of the novel is a marriage plot, and I thought a lot about people like Jane Austen. So I definitely wanted to join together these disparate fictive universes and see what resulted from that.”
In a nod to modern anxieties about the gap between rich and poor, Empire Island is a hallucinatory landscape populated either by the very poor, who have no means of escape, or the very rich, who can’t bear to abandon their ancestral estates. “This was the first project where I’ve really had to do this level of world-building,” Smith says, “and so that was something that really took me a while to figure out, because the immediate question is, if dragons are attacking your city, why would you stay?”
The Sky Is Yours is also a very funny book, mostly due to the character Duncan Ripple IV, a vacuous YouTube star who’s the sole heir to a Trump-style family business. The character was originally intended as a bitter satire of toxic “bro” culture, but Smith says that he developed complexities that actually made him much funnier than she expected.
“I think it’s funnier when a character is not just stupid, but they are actually intellectually lazy,” she says. “Because there can be moments where that knowledge gets in, and they do have some degree of embarrassment or trying to cover for themselves that is funnier than just being completely oblivious.”
Listen to the complete interview with Chandler Klang Smith in Episode 301 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Chandler Klang Smith on societal inheritance:
“We have to sort of live in the wreckage that others of our kind have created, and that’s true environmentally, definitely, and in terms of social structures—I try to evoke income inequality and mass incarceration and the sort of dysfunctional gender relations of this world. But then it’s true on a really personal level that we come into the world with the baggage of the relationships that we’ve witnessed in our families, and the culture that we consume shapes our dreams and the language with which we speak about our own emotions and desires, and what we think is possible. So I really wanted to look at that from every angle in the lives of these characters, that as much as they’re trying to define themselves and come of age, a lot of those paths have already been trod before them, that it’s not just a completely blank slate.”
Chandler Klang Smith on influences:
“I’m a huge fan of Thomas Pynchon. His work, especially something like Gravity’s Rainbow—although I’m certainly not as experimental in this novel as he was in that—the idea of having this huge cast of characters who intersect around a central image—in that book the V-2 rocket, in my book the dragons—I sort of realized it was possible to do in fiction from his book. I also really love House of Leaves, and that was something with using different kinds of text—as I do in this book, where I use screenplays, letters, diary entries, a videogame script—House of Leaves was a book where it made me realize that yeah, you can tell a story that kind of manipulates text on the page in these ways that pay off, in my opinion.”
Chandler Klang Smith on metafiction:
“I really love that metafictional thing of having worlds within worlds—nested stories—and I feel like it’s reflective of, if you’re doing world-building, thinking, what are the fantasies that the people here have? I think that that often can do a lot of that world-building work for you. … I love the Terry Gilliam movie Brazil, and one of the things that I think is so interesting is that it’s this completely alternate-universe sort of semi-futuristic, semi-Orwellian place, but they’re watching these old movies on their monitors at work, and they’re old movies from our world, so you’re sort of like, well, when did our histories diverge? Or did they? Or are some things present in both universes? And that question is never totally resolved. So I feel like there’s something about the shock of familiarity in the midst of the strange that can almost make it seem stranger.”
Chandler Klang Smith on expectations:
“When I first started writing this book, post-grad school, I had had this novel that I had worked on for a while that I was having a lot of trouble finding a home for, and I was working in publishing, and having these editorial jobs that were not really what I felt I wanted to do, and not really things that I felt super proud of, or that I felt like were really challenging, and so I was kind of in this place where I was like, my parents had invested so much in trying to help me find my way doing these creative things that I’m passionate about and I’m completely letting them down, and I’m letting myself down, and so I think that more than coming out of a place of rebellion, it came out of a place of feeling insecure, and that I was sort of like, maybe I can explore some of these feelings in this book.”