May 24, 2023
A New Novel Captures the Precarious State of Cities
Our cities are decaying, minute by minute, day by day. We live in an era where coastal cities around the world, home to billions of human beings, are endangered by their proximity to the very water that, throughout history, has been the source of their prosperity in the first place. As author Ashely Dawson argues in his book Extreme Cities, which chronicles the rising tides that threaten people’s lives all around the globe, “Extreme cities concentrate large numbers of people and remarkably fragile infrastructure in overtaxed ecosystems that are under increasing stress.” Water, so vital to life and its flourishing, is today often the source of our undoing, as we fail to heed the many warnings we’ve been given about climate collapse.
Given the increasingly dire picture of our relationship to water and rising sea levels, it’s no surprise that out-of-control moisture can take on its own dreadful imagination. In The Marigold, a new science fiction novel from Canadian author Andrew F. Sullivan, that rising anxiety manifests as “The Wet,” a force rotting the city of Toronto out from below. Fueled by real estate interests who have planted the seeds of the city’s demise for years, The Marigold offers a bleak portrait of a near-future Toronto, undone by the forces that have made it an increasingly unlivable and expensive city in recent decades. Further inspired by Google’s ill-fated Sidewalk Labs endeavor, which sought to transform derelict waterfront property into “the first neighborhood built from the internet up,” Sullivan conjures a terrifyingly recognizable portrait of a city on the brink of collapse as its foundation gives way.
Metropolis recently chatted with Sullivan about his relationship to Canada’s largest city, how Google’s Sidewalk Labs project materialized in the book, the real estate forces that have reshaped the city’s housing market, and how his novel was shaped by the rising tides swallowing cities everywhere.
A Dystopic Toronto of the Near-Future
Annie Howard: What’s your relationship with Toronto like?
Andrew F. Sullivan: I lived in Toronto for over a decade, but I live in Hamilton now, which is about 45 minutes outside of the city, because I couldn’t afford a place in Toronto. But I grew up always under its spell: I grew up in Oshawa, which is the very east end of the GO commuter train, and you could see the CN Tower from the lakeshore there. Toronto is this larger entity that always exists on the periphery for me, and I lived there for over a decade and a lot of different neighborhoods, from Bathurst and Finch to Cabbage Town, which are a bit far apart. It’s definitely been a place that’s shaped my whole life because if you live in Southern Ontario, the joke in Canada is that Toronto is the center of the universe, and that just gets exacerbated when you live in this province.
Reflecting an Urban Landscape Changed by Technology
AH: One key point of inspiration for the book was Sidewalk Labs, Google’s attempt to build a new neighborhood with significant surveillance and data collection on former industrial land. Rendered in the book as Threshold, the project becomes real and significantly reshapes how the city functions. Why was it important to show that possibility, and what did you learn in showing it in that way?
AFS: [Sidewalk Labs] always felt like a pipe dream. It didn’t feel like it was connected to how people actually live in the city, or what they do. It felt like a locked garden in some ways, or a garden that required admission, and even if the admission was free, it was your data or how you moved through space that was the cost. We do this with social media platforms as well, but turning human experience and human behavior into a resource that could be abstracted from a place, which is not something I’m into.
For the book, I said, ‘Okay, let’s just accelerate this,’ and at the same time, show that it’s not all-powerful either. I think sometimes people fall into surrendering to the idea of tech as something that is totally inevitable or totally evil to overwhelm us, when the reality is that even with AI learning, as we’re seeing right now, there are limitations. It is made by people, it can be broken, it can be resisted. The people in charge are not necessarily smart: They maybe have more resources, or more opportunity, but they’re not necessarily people we should trust with our future, our experiences.
Decaying Luxury Apartments and Rising Seas
AH: You write a lot about Threshold, but there’s also the Marigold itself, a half-filled, crumbling luxury building that represents a different model of corporate urban development. What were you channeling in writing about that?
AFS: The book is a clash between two business models: the old way, and a newer, more corporate view that’s decentralized and can move in this methodical, almost algorithmic way without being buffeted by individual personalities. Part of The Marigold was based on the Trump Tower that was in downtown Toronto. Now it’s something else, but that got built, the amount of scams and money that went into it—it’s insane that it got built at all, but it did. If enough people have money on the line, and they don’t want to lose everything, like they’re willing to compromise over and over, and that’s where things get complicated. So much money can end up in a thing that no one wants to build, and then what happens when you run out of money? What compromises are you willing to make to see thing out to the end? That’s part of where The Marigold came from just watching how many rounds of financing they had to put together to finish this Trump Tower, which isn’t even the Trump Tower anymore, then watching pieces fall off of the building as I was writing the book.
AH: ‘The Wet’ is a key theme of the book, an amorphous, bubbling-up force that’s slowly undoing the foundations of the city itself. Where did the idea come from?
If you’ve ever stayed in a basement apartment, there’s always something rotting, growing, living down there. There is a dampness to Toronto: Downtown is built on a lake, over creeks and riverbeds. For me, The Wet was a third state: Fungus isn’t an animal, nor a vegetable, it’s alien and unknowable, something that thrives in the strangest conditions.
It’s also operating on a level of an over-the-top metaphor for urban isolation and alienation. The Wet picks off people who are lonely, who can’t trust their surroundings. It’s a predatory substance, but it prefers that people join it willingly, which I see as creating some solidarity, as the city’s immune response to the hyper-individualism of people like Stanley Marigold. There’s a rising tide of bodies beneath the city that eventually can’t be held back any longer, whether they’re released by climate change or their own rage. I started with something that was real and living and then trying to make it stranger and desperate to sort of connect with humanity, but not really understanding what that meant. It’s why a hyper-individualist like Stanley Marigold decides to kill himself, rather than join this thing. He recognizes that he loses everything he is if he joins it. The individual versus the collective and where we find ourselves and where we stand was definitely on my mind, and the Wet might be the furthest edge of on one end, and Stanley on the other end.
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