Recently, Angry Robot announced something I’ve known about for quite a while now: I’m writing a book called Company Town, set apart from the Machine Dynasty series. It’s about an escorts’ escort named Hwa, who takes a job bodyguarding the young heir to a family-run corporate energy empire, just as that empire colonizes Hwa’s hometown: a floating city of Slocum towers built around an oil rig 500 km northeast of St. John’s, Newfoundland. Taking the job means quitting her gig with the United Sex Workers of Canada (Local 314), going back to high school (after dropping out three years ago), and trying to figure out if the death threats sent to her client are really coming from another timeline.
And then the murders start.
I’ve actually had this character, Go Jung-hwa, for a while now. She’s been with me for years. Literally. Waiting. I just didn’t know where to put her. For a while, I thought this story would take place in outer space. Then I remembered that I fucking hate outer space, and that the yearning to go there is something I’ve never felt or identified with, ever, because the idea of living in a tin can constantly pounded by radiation as Alzheimer’s and osteoporosis set in really freaks me out. So, it had to be somewhere else, that I would actually get excited about spending my mental time. And because I hadn’t completely scratched the “manufactured landscapes” itch I had while writing iD, I started imagining a city built around a dying industry. There are a lot of stories about boomtowns, about what happens when sudden wealth changes a community: The Pearl, Oil!, Deadwood, and so on. And those stories are all a lot better than mine are. Plus, boomtowns have their own little urban hype cycle, and it’s (sadly) predictable. So I decided to tell a story about a community poised on the brink of destruction: innovate, or perish. Like Detroit, or Pruitt-Igoe. But on the ocean.
Hwa came to me thanks to this video:
At that time, I was eating Korean food regularly at this little barbecue place before workshop meetings. Long before we were together, Dave and I would eat at this place every week. It wasn’t anything fancy, but I started noticing that if I went a week without it, I’d really miss the food. (It’s the food, I told myself. It’s not him. It’s not him that you miss.) So eventually I wanted to learn how to replicate these flavours on my own, and I started watching Maangchi’s videos regularly. (This was before I knew that I they were probably triggering my ASMR.) When I saw this video, I wondered if mean kids in Korea ever called other kids “Hwa-jeon.” And thus Hwa was born. But I had no idea what to do with her.
Around the same time, I met Lisa Drummond, an urban studies prof at York who specializes in the semiotics of public spaces in East Asia, and who turned me on to Korean dramas after watching them syndicated in Vietnam. Immediately, I had to watch Coffee Prince and You’re Beautiful, and followed it up with Boys Over Flowers and a couple of others. Of these, Coffee Prince remains my favourite: it’s a story about a plucky young woman in poverty who makes some tough decisions about how to make money and change her circumstances. She doesn’t want to keep peeling garlic or hulling walnuts or sewing eyes on toys to support her mother and sister, so she decides to “man up” and dress as a boy to get a better job. In the States, that same story would be about somebody, I don’t know, cooking meth.
I told Margaret Atwood about this book after our panel at the Kingston Writersfest, and she asked me if I had read Germinal, by Emile Zola. I said yes, because indeed I had — in middle school, at the behest of the person to whom this novel is dedicated. But other things besides depressing ninteenth-century novels and Korean soap operas have contributed to this book, namely The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude by Andrew Nikiforuk, and From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, and an urge to write about growing up with the spectre of The Green River Killer haunting the broadcasts of my childhood. (Canadians, I highly recommend you read Stacy May Fowler’s account of a similar but far more harrowing experience, regarding Paul Bernardo.) I’m one of those people who watches movies about emotionally-distanced female detectives catching serial killers. (Netflix has a whole category for this, which is how I watched The Fall, with Gillian Anderson. It finally learned what I liked after I watched The Killing and Top of the Lake.) When I’m feeling sad or weak or just plain down, I watch The Silence of the Lambs or Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (I sort of wish he’d make more of those, but with completely different plotlines from the other Millennium novels. Then again, maybe Fincher could make them compelling.) So that influence is in there, too.
But really, this is a novel about being ugly. Or rather, feeling ugly. It’s a novel about not having access to the things that other people do that make them feel valid and desirable, like body modifications and augments and abilities and the money that makes all those things possible. It’s a novel about never feeling good enough, about always feeling like you have to apologize just for existing, as though every stitch of clothing is really just a public service. Here’s a taste:
“Wait! Stop! Is this gonna hurt?”
Hwa’s fist stopped an inch from Erik’s* nose. For a moment she saw him as the kid she remembered from grade three, the one who gave her sorry eyes when the other kids made fun of her face and her name and her English. He’d been cute then, too. He’d been born cute. Over eighteen years he’d grown into his good looks in a very pretty way: bright blue eyes, blonde hair in a persistent state of bed-head, broad shoulders with solid definition, a body like an inverted triangle on two strong swimmer’s legs. He had good clear skin that tanned just right and he got dimples when he smiled. Back when she actually went to school, all the other girls had crushes on him, even the girls who didn’t like the same guys that all the other girls liked.
Now he was asking her to break his nose.
The money would be nice. Not good, but nice. Nice to have. Erik always seemed to have some. It was why he was starting the day with chilaquiles at The Aviation, eating five-dollar avocados with truffle salt and not starting a shift. Not that she could blame him for lingering. The view from the bar was everything that life out here was supposed to be: all sea and sky and soft blue horizon stretching all the way to wherever it was that the Atlantic had overtaken, lately. The kind of view that made you forget that you were perched on top of a tower of flame and poison, on a roughneck rig, on a dead ocean.
“What’s the procedure?” she had asked, after he slid her a coffee down the bar.
“My abs.” He had pulled up his shirt and showed her. “See that line down the middle? That’s good, but the doc says he can get me real definition on the sides. The tendinous inscription, it’s called. And down here,” he gestured at the line where his torso ended and his thigh began, “that’s the inguinal ligament. He’s going to define that, too. Just make it pop, visually. So I can wear my jeans lower.”
Hwa had considered showing him her own stomach, which had some good cuts, but then he’d have to see the stain and nobody wanted to see the stain. Besides, she doubted he wanted to try her diet.
“Bio or nano?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” Erik said. “He asked for a fat sample, ‘cause it’s a custom job. That’s why it costs so much.”
Behind the bar, the barback ran a towel inside a glass and squinted at the two of them. Clearing his throat, he jangled his wrist and waved his watch at something beneath the bar. A song started playing. “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues.” The morning barback used to work at the Crow’s Nest on Tower 1, and Hwa recognized the song from the Crow’s Nest morning mix: Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. The barback lifted his eyebrows at Hwa. Trouble? No. She shook her head minutely, and the barback turned around to watch them in the mirror as the glass squeaked dryly in his hand.
“And you get a discount if there’s something else to fix?”
“Three jobs.” Erik reached inside his mouth and plucked out a tooth. “See? I need another one. A better fit. They printed this one when I was, like, eleven.”
Hwa nodded. “Why the abs?”
Erik pinked. It started at his ears and marched across his face, as though his blush were on a quest to embarrass him. “I want to get off the rig,” he said.
“Well, yeah, but…” His lips pursed. “I want to go to university.”
Hwa winced. “Sounds expensive.”
“Exactly. There’s no way my parents will help pay for it. I already asked. They flat-out told me no. They think it’s a waste, when there’s money to be made right here. So I have to get a job. And I can, I just have to get some work done first.” The pink had become magenta. “I got an offer to do some modelling,” he said. “Online.”
Hwa willed her eyebrows to remain in a neutral, non-judgmental position. “Do your folks know?”
He shrugged his shoulders and looked down. “You have to spend money to make money, I guess,” he said.
Well, he had that right, at least. He was probably getting naked for some perv, but if it paid to get the hell off this floating asylum, that wouldn’t be so bad. Besides, he’d look like a hard case once the doc was finished. Nobody would ever hit him again, after today.
“Okay,” Hwa said.
“Great!” Erik hopped off the barstool and dabbed at the corners of his mouth with a napkin. He rolled his shoulders, bounced on his toes, and clapped his hands. “Let’s do this.”
Hwa pulled her right arm back. She pivoted her hips to give her maximum follow-through on the strike. One pop, and it would be done. She twisted forward, and Erik’s hands flew up. And that was how her fist got to be there, hovering in front of his glistening mouth, tension climbing up her arm as she held it in place.
Then again, maybe it had started even earlier. Erik had never been very bright. He was a very cute boy, yes, but none too clever. Which explained why he’d bought into this dumbshit modelling scheme anyway. Maybe if his mom had taken the right tests, or the right drugs. Maybe if his folks had just fucking read to him once in a while, had a conversation with him, treated him like somebody who’d have to face the world with more than just a pretty face and a positive attitude. Maybe then she wouldn’t have to answer such a stupid question.
“Yes. It’s going to hurt. Of course it’s going to fucking hurt.”
He frowned. “There’s no need to be mean about it. God. Why do you have to be such a bitch about this?”
Her fist connected with his face. It was a short, sharp strike. Erik fell to his knees immediately. He dragged the placemat with him, and his plate landed face-down on his back, streaking his shirt in beans and hot sauce. He knelt on the floor, hissing and rocking. He reached for his wallet. Behind the bar, the barback gave her a sour look and switched the tune to “Lonesome, Ornery, and Mean.”
“Keep your money,” Hwa said. “I’d’ve done it for free.”
*I swear this isn’t me Tuckerizing Erik Mohr. I actually named this character after somebody I knew in high school. Then later I looked at the description and the spelling and facepalmed. Erik is way nicer than this dude, I swear. And gets his abs the old-fashioned way — MARATHONING.