Reading Pandemics

Pandemics and Trumpian Echoes in Miller’s 'Blackfish City'

When we can't turn to the federal government for the truth, sometimes we need to turn to fiction. Sam J. Miller's Blackfish City maps a pandemic in a post-United States future.

Blackfish City
Sam J. Miller

Ecco / HarperCollins

April 2018


Given the state of America in 2020, some days feel like we are stuck in the middle of a dystopian storyline. The economy is in free-fall, most people are sheltering in place to avoid the highly contagious COVID-19 virus, and our government is fumbling its response to effectively handle this crisis.

In these times, literature echoes "reality" in uncanny ways. More specifically, Trump's defense of his pandemic performance is analogous to the fictional justifications found in Sam J. Miller's gripping science-fiction novel Blackfish City (2018).

In Miller's novel, much of the Earth has been swallowed by the oceans as a result of climate change. One pocket of "civilization" that survives is Qaanaaq—an Arctic city where refugees from around the world have come, having escaped their flooded homelands. The city was created by a wealthy elite who had the means to establish this new society in the Arctic.

Winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, Blackfish City focuses on the disparity between the rich and the poor and the role businesses and institutions play in manipulating systematic power for profit.

Prior to writing Blackfish City, Miller spent 15 years as a community organizer at Picture the Homeless. His day-job as an activist informs his creative work in profound ways. Like modern-day New York, where Miller worked as an advocate for the city's homeless, Qaanaq is similarly determined by an economic elite who hoard the city's goods and services.

Among the many challenges plaguing the inhabitants of this floating city is a terrible psychiatric pandemic referred to as "the breaks", which is a contagious disease that infects the mind, causing debilitating visions that lead to insanity. In the opening chapters, many theories are floated about the virus's origins. One such theory, promulgated by the city's elite, is that the virus, spread primarily through sexual transmission, is caused by and only infects "criminals and perverts".

In this sense, Blackfish City is a clear allegory for HIV/AIDS in Reagan's America. This dominant narrative reads the pandemic as "evidence" that non-normative practices are a sin against nature and God. This narrative, of course, is animated by homophobia and makes explicit —a theme running throughout this Reading Pandemics series—that pandemics are political events. Pandemics mandate a political response, and moreover, become interpreted through political filters.

In contrast to this dominant narrative, an emerging theory is pieced together that this virus is actually caused by corporate exploitation. There's a strong correlation between the breaks and people who were known as "nanobonded": "a whole community of people who were either deliberately or accidentally exposed to experimental wireless nanomachines" (Miller 73). The networking-experiment-gone-wrong is discussed in an excerpt from a Qaanaaq broadcast entitled "City Without a Map". The broadcast quotes a scientist, Wilhelm Ruhr, who recalls a corporate-sponsored experiment that was widely misunderstood because of mass-media representations:

"It didn't go well. Everybody knows that by now. Personally I think a lot of what got reported was exaggerated, or that the atrocities were due to other causes. Either way, talking about it isn't going to make much difference."

Still, Wilhelm Ruhr doesn't feel guilty about what happened.

"We were trying to do something good. It if had worked, think of what we'd been able to accomplish..." (Miller 72).

This experiment, called the "Hive Project", is sponsored and supported by Big Pharma. The project's purpose is to network the emotions and knowledge between humans for the ostensible purpose of economic benefit for all. While the experiment was successful in mice-trials, the implementation with humans goes wrong. It's important to note that the choice to experiment on humans before knowing more about the process of nanobonding is financially motivated. The scientist admits: "We probably should have done monkey trials, but the way things were going in America it was much more cost-effective to just get a waiver signed and try it out on people" (Miller 74).

As alluded to in the novel, there was a Deregulation Period in the US where the FDA was an impotent institution that allowed dangerous experimentation to take place either with or without the complete understanding of its citizens. Big Pharma used this regulation to prey upon the at-risk communities.

As a result of these corporate miscalculations, a virus developed and multiple generations of people suffered and died. The virus evolved into a pandemic that's decimating cities like Qaanaaq, a city largely populated by poor, precarious refugees.

What's particularly striking about the passage quoted above is how it echoes what we hear in our current crisis of COVID-19. Taken out of context, the same quotations from the scientist cited above, Wilhelm Ruhr, could be a transcript from the White House Coronavirus Task Force presentation. Notice the similarities in content and tone between the corrupt fictional character in Blackfish City, Wilhelm Ruhr, and President Trump:

Wilhelm Ruhr: "It didn't go well. Everybody knows that by now. Personally I think a lot of what got reported was exaggerated, or that the atrocities were due to other causes. Either way, talking about it isn't going to make much difference."

Donald Trump (4 May 2020): "It's a terrible thing. A terrible thing that happened to our country. It came from China. It should've been stopped. It could've been stopped on the spot. They chose not to do it, or something happened. Either there was incompetence or they didn't do it for some reason, and we're going to have to find out what that reason was".

Wilhelm Ruhr: "[I do] not feel guilty about what happened."

Donald Trump (13 Mar 2020): "I don't take responsibility at all."

Wilhelm Ruhr: "We were trying to do something good. It if had worked, think of what we'd been able to accomplish…"

Donald Trump (30 Mar 2020): "And so, if we can hold that down, as we're saying, to 100,000 — that's a horrible number — maybe even less, but to 100,000; so we have between 100- and 200,000 — we all, together, have done a very good job. But 2.2, up to 2.2 million deaths and maybe even beyond that. I'm feeling very good about what we did last week."

The similarities between these two sets of statements—one from a fictional dystopia and the other from our present-day pandemic—stem from an abdication of responsibility. Just as Ruhr refuses to confront his complicity in the experiment's disaster, so too does our president refuse to acknowledge his blame for his administration's dysfunction in addressing a global pandemic in America. Just like Ruhr, the current US president wages a continuous battle with the media due to his displeasure with their reporting; he refuses to admit mistakes were made and opportunities were blundered; he reframes failures as successes; and he continually revises history.

However, there is a key difference between the two figures. Whereas Rhur is a clear villain in Blackfish City, Tump is a symbol of the nation-state and "the people". Whereas Rhur's corporate narrative is critiqued and countered by other broadcasts, Trump continues to steer mass and digital media, and hence, steers national narratives.

But sometimes the tables are turned, and fiction can reveal a truth overlooked by the dominant culture. In Blackfish City, during another broadcast of "City Without a Map: The Breaks", the script reads, "Epidemics do not have medical causes; they have social ones" (Miller 192). In the novel, the social causes of the breaks stem from corporate greed and a systemic cover-up. Likewise, the brutality of COVID-19 highlights the significant human flaws of our country. The broken US leadership, beginning at the federal level, has exacerbated the pandemic. Scientific warnings were ignored and the voices of scientists are still muffled. When we can't turn to the federal government for the truth, sometimes we need to turn to fiction.

* * *

Works Cited

Miller, Sam J. Blackfish City. Ecco, 2018.

Trump, Donald. "Remarks by President Trump in a Fox News Virtual Town Hall". The White House, The United States Government. 4 May 2020.

Trump, Donald. "Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force in Press Conference." The White House. The United States Government, 13 March 2020.

Trump, Donald. "Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force in Press Briefing." The White House. The United States Government, 30 March 2020.






Zadie Smith's 'Intimations' Essays Pandemic With Erudite Wit and Compassion

Zadie Smith's Intimations is an essay collection of gleaming, wry, and crisp prose that wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both everyday and lofty matters.


Phil Elverum Sings His Memoir on 'Microphones in 2020'

On his first studio album under the Microphones moniker since 2003, Phil Elverum shows he has been recording the same song since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s. Microphones in 2020 might be his apex as a songwriter.


Washed Out's 'Purple Noon' Supplies Reassurance and Comfort

Washed Out's Purple Noon makes an argument against cynicism simply by existing and sounding as good as it does.


'Eight Gates' Is Jason Molina's Stark, Haunting, Posthumous Artistic Statement

The ten songs on Eight Gates from the late Jason Molina are fascinating, despite – or perhaps because of – their raw, unfinished feel.


Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".


12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.


Blues Legend Bobby Rush Reinvigorates the Classic "Dust My Broom" (premiere)

Still going strong at 86, blues legend Bobby Rush presents "Dust My Broom" from an upcoming salute to Mississippi blues history, Rawer Than Raw, rendered in his inimitable style.


Folk Rock's the Brevet Give a Glimmer of Hope With "Blue Coast" (premiere)

Dreamy bits of sunshine find their way through the clouds of dreams dashed and lives on the brink of despair on "Blue Coast" from soulful rockers the Brevet.


Michael McArthur's "How to Fall in Love" Isn't a Roadmap (premiere)

In tune with classic 1970s folk, Michael McArthur weaves a spellbinding tale of personal growth and hope for the future with "How to Fall in Love".


Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.


The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.


Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.


Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.


Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.


The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.


Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.


Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.


Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.