Escaping The Habitats of Our Own Making: an interview with Simon Roy

Simon Roy’s new comic, Habitat, is, in the best way, horrifying. It connects the greatest taboo among most human cultures — cannibalism — with the sort of quotidian oppression that humans have lived with throughout most of our existence.

The imagination in this imagery makes me so happy. But razzle dazzle cammo makes me even happier.
The imagination in this imagery makes me so happy. But razzle dazzle cammo makes me even happier.

It’s a gorgeous graphic novel. His designs have a Mœbius-like weight to them, but his drawing style is loose and kinetic, like you’re seeing these huge machines, these carefully designed uniforms and hairstyles, all in motion all the time. Expressions are vivid without being caricature and somehow, it manages to be funny without being crass.

Science fiction often follows the model of scientific journals, with creators developing the ideas of their philosophical ancestors. Roy’s Habitat uses several well-loved science fictional elements about colony ships (though it’s not all that clear that it’s a colony ship; maybe it’s a space station?), from the hierarchicalization and clan segregation of the society by specialty to its ancient technologies, barely understood by the residents who are subject to the technologies mastered by their ancestors.

Simon Roys giant stone head lives in Vancouver, BC, where he vomits guns and bellows about the evils of the penis.
Simon Roy lives in Vancouver, BC, where he vomits guns and bellows about the evils of the penis.

But Roy’s take is different from, say, Paradises Lost because he manages to lock several shocks into a tightly woven brocade. They’re in an impossibly-well-functioning artificial environment. There has been some sort of posthuman revolution. 3D printers crank out goods. Every piece of it works together gorgeously, if often to gruesome effect.

Simon and I got together on Twitter last week to talk about the book. Below is our conversation, edited for punctuation and crosspost.

Joshua A.C. Newman: Habitat coverI’ve just reread Habitat and am probably going to go around at least one more time. I haven’t had the joy of doing a close reading a comic in a long time, and it’s been really worth it. The Habitat is a really rich setting and situation, not just in terms of the divergent cultures, but also in their once-shared implied utopian objectives. What utopian experiments were you drawing on as you developed the dying bones of the Euhumanists?

Simon Roy: Ah nice question! and a tough one. I think the most important utopias i was thinking of for “habitat” were the Federation (of Star Trek) and the Soviet Union (or the lofty goals they were ostensibly servicing).

J: Yeah, I can see that. The giant Mesoamerican Socialist Realist relief murals sort of imply the latter, and you have “phasers” and “redshirts”, though it seems like those are the characters making a historical literary reference, rather than any specific connection.

S: Exactly – plus places like ‘Biosphere 2‘ come to mind

Biosphere 2 ran from 1991 to 1993. It was supposed to operate as a completely self-contained ecosystem. It didn't.
Biosphere 2 ran from 1991 to 1993 and for six months in 1994. It was supposed to operate indefinitely as a completely self-contained ecosystem. It didn’t.

J: Oh, right! Yeah!

S: The experimental closed environment in the arizona desert that completely went off the rails.

Both attempts, though heavily publicized, ran into problems including low amounts of food and oxygen, die-offs of many animal and plant species, squabbling among the resident scientists and management issues.”

J: There was some sort of issue with the concrete absorbing CO2, if I recall.

So no one’s brain knew when to breathe. Defy your medulla at your own risk.

S: hahah

J: The USSR and the Federation have some philosophical overlap, but the Federation definitely didn’t want to go the way the USSR did, what with it being an American Cold War show. Are you cynical about utopian projects in general?

One of the "Robo-Nuns", who are the guardians of non-Crew Civvies.
One of the “Robo-Nuns”, who are the guardians of non-Crew Civvies.

S: Yeah overall I think utopian thinking can blind people to its repercussions. Or rather, the repercussions of letting utopian thinking lead your decision making.

J: Where’s the line for you between “utopianism” and “trying to run a society that encourages decent humanity?”
…assuming decency is your utopian objective and not, like, flying away on a comet.

S: Well utopia doesn’t leave a lot of room for unintended consequences, and you can do a lot more brutal unilateral things in service of a perfected world.

Utopia doesn’t leave a lot of room for unintended consequences.

J: Yeah, maybe utopia is to sociology what conlangs are to natural languages.

S: Now we’re stuck with a kind of soft consumerist techno-utopia, where we’re all interconnected, and sharing our goods with each other, and enriching the tech elite by using their mediums of communication.
grumble grumble “gig economy” grumble

J: Well, maybe not for long. Bur I’ll take the bougie bullshit over the machetes and tyrants.

S: True! at least this is an orderly version of the future, with e-transactions instead of beheadings.

And really, the fact we’re so far in our development is amazing: to be sitting here, typing to a stranger elsewhere in the country, watching thousands of fast-moving machines fly past me window and kill relatively few people.

It’s a dang miracle

It’s also haphazard and dangerous and ridiculous, but it’s the way we figured out how to do things.

J: Right? But it seems like there might be something constitutionally imbued in humanity that we fight with or make peace with or submit to, and it’s this force that makes us take those things for granted and wish for the machetes again.
…which I bring up because your machete design is beautiful.

S: hahah thanks

J: Little bit tomahawk, little bit kukri, little bit machete.

S: Informed a lot by the knife I based the prophet knife off of: an 80s spetsnaz knife.

What a great example of something to never get hit by!
Easily on my top ten list of Things To Not Get Hit By.

But yeah, humans learn a way to do a thing, then do it largely that way until that way is no longer operable.

Then we change.

But not before!

Not before it’s absolutely necessary.

J: The Habitat certainly seems to have been sewn with the seeds of its own decay. The hierarchies, the technocracy, the infinite supply of weapons. Whatever the Euhumanists were trying to do, it seems like they couldn’t avoid taking advice from that particular bit of human nature.

S: Well, the unspoken backstory of the “Euhumanists” is that they’re basically human supremacists, who don’t like genetically engineered or uploaded people.

J: Sure. I get the idea that the rest of humanity has embraced posthumanity, and the Euhumanists are fundamentally conservative.

S: Exactly – they still benefit from cornucopia devices, and were able to run a largely utopian society — until they picked a fight with the wrong posthumans and had all their toys taken away. But I kind of liked the idea of developing a permanent regime from a moment of societal emergency.

Some Habsec bros from the Developmental Sketches chapter at the back of the book. I live for this stuff.
Some Habsec bros from the Developmental Sketches chapter at the back of the book. I live for this stuff.

J: Mm, yeah, Vernor Vinge has a society in Deepness in the Sky called, appropriately, The Emergency. It’s all about Emergency Powers that have been in place for several generations by the time we meet up with them.

S: Exactly like in Habitat!

J: I assumed it was homage!

S: And most revolutionary governments are formed in war, like our aforementioned communist friends

J: Yeah. Which turns out to have very different requirements from peacetime.

S: That revolutionary foundation keeps you at a permanent state of war, ready to commit atrocities at the drop of a hat.

J: So do you feel like humanity has a “Singularity or bust” destiny?

S: I’m pretty negative about the prospects of Singularity — it feels very hubristic to think that we’ll escape death while leaping from the ruins of earth into the stars. It feels much more likely we will leave a big grimy layer in the rock, like the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. But things will slowly recover after a hundred million years. And something new will grow on earth

J: I’m pretty much with you. I think if we get such a thing, humanity will be the last interest served.

I note that your aesthetics come from some pretty brutal parts of humanity, from the Spetznaz machete to the Aztec sacrificial temples to the Catholic church. It seems like your bet is on “bust”.

S: hahah Yes, it very much is, though we’re too tough to flame out too quick.

J: Yeah, whenever humans collapse, we segregate, diversify, and try again. We’re like rats.

Hank Cho makes his first catch.

S: Exactly. In an ideal future, we’ll just live in a big, crowded, sweaty ruined planet, eating weird vat-grown food with no animals but rats and roaches left, but generally alright. That feels like our best bet for me, though I hope for better and smarter: A squalid, but still liveable, future, not that different from much of human history already.

J: A Very Paolo Bacigalupi Future.

S: Nice! Thanks! I’m always on the lookout for new reading suggestions.

J: On the other hand, our current era wouldn’t exist without the Chinese Empire, which wouldn’t exist without the Assyrians, and so forth. If we look a couple millennia in the future to the next time we pull our pants up, we might finally get to go to the stars and become maximally diverse.
For a little while there, I had some hope that we might pull it off during this cycle.

S: That’s true, though still, it’ll probably be a future without elephants or whales.

J: Maybe without even fish.

Hank Cho and his new buddies in Habsec.
Hank Cho and his new buddies in Habsec.

S: Yeah, exactly! A future of jellyfish and algae being half of everyone’s diet

AND HUMAN FLESH THE REST!

…and rice and other plants

J: I hear we’re pretty tasty.

S: Yeah, a little porky. Or at least that’s the word on the street.

J: Delicious long pigs, every one of us. Well-marbled, I am.

S: Yeah long pig is just too great a term!

J: Which brings up a relevant question: Ursula K. Le Guin’s broad criticism of science fiction is that it often looks at one aspect of humanity and then magnifies it until it’s a cancer on the ideas. Kim Stanley Robinson recently charged the lot of us with showing some vision for actually pulling stuff off. He calls it utopian, but it seems like any sorts of vision in which we survive Capitalism qualifies as a utopia at this point. I’m seeing some of that, often calling itself “solarpunk”, and I’m wondering if there’s a needle to thread between utopia and dystopia.

Like, how might a world look when it has the history that led to the Euhumanists, but somehow we stopped shoveling corpses into the engine of entropy?

S: hmmm Yeah, that’s a good thought.

I think part of that is the kind of ‘funhouse mirror’ we get with sci-fi makes the more horrifying, or exciting, etc, version of the future more interesting to explore. Like, I think that the Euhumanists could have had a good utopian run! Maybe they stood up to strange arcane exploitation of humanity by the posthuman superrich, and carved out a few centuries of good fair living.

J: I inferred something like that. Soleri is an enormous, improbable, nine-nines machine that’s been running for four generations.

S: But there’s a reason we dont see a huge amount of Star Trek stories set on earth.

J: Yeah, Roddenberry wanted it to be a distant thing where we never got back to it in substance, which is pretty much true.

S: Yeah which is kind of wonderful — you’re inferring a lot of advancements, but leaving it untouchable.

J: But that’s because Star Trek’s not willing to embrace the post-Singularity world that it must be. If you look at their capabilities, their society would be NOTHING like Space America. It would be more like Iain M. Banks’ Culture, with weird sex, replicating yourself, living in simulations, warping around the galaxy for fun…

S: But the point for me, I guess, is that the most interesting stories happen in times of tumult when things are going badly. To a reasonable level, stakes are more compelling when higher (though that gets abused a lot)

J: Sure. And I think that’s because, for most of our history, the adjective best used to describe humans was “delicious”. So we’re used to existential threats. We have the inbuilt structure to recognize them.

A Great Builder maintains the Habitat, despite generations of neglect and outright hostility.
A Great Builder maintains the Habitat, despite generations of neglect and outright hostility.

S: But yeah there’s something to be said for trying to tackle these imagined futures on their own terms, like the reputation economy of ‘down and out in the magic kingdom’, which is utopian in a ton of implied ways, but seen through the struggles of the immortal hunger-free inhabitants instead of through our mortal, hungry eyes.

J: Yes. Precisely.

Speaking of hungry eyes, I understand you’re working on a book with Nemo Ramjet. Without revealing more about the project than you want to, how are you dividing that labor?

S: Well, I visited him in turkey recently, and we’re not exactly working on it. Back in 2009, we got in touch because we were both doing speculative biology projects thinking about post-cretaceous intelligent dinosaurs and their culture, contrasting the nice weird bipedal lizard-man dinosauroid of the 80s with something hot-blooded and feathered.

A latter-day, sapient dinosaur by Nemo Ramjet
A latter-day, sapient dinosaur by Nemo Ramjet

J: Ah, right, yeah. I loved his take on that. Almost no assumptions of anthropoidity.

S: Exactly.

But we ended up doing collaborative paintings where I would do a more realistic depiction of something, and he’d use a bunch of weird wonderful techniques to make a cave-art depiction of it, in the dinosauroid style. So we did a lot of world-building together, and exchanged a ton of emails of development, but then got busy with life and left the project on our hard drives.

J: So many hard drives, full of so much art.

S: Yeah, too many!

But our plan is to resurrect at least a part of it in the next couple years.

J: That’s great news!

little-brothers
A future where eventually humans live as the tool-species of intelligent crows. Different crow groups use different predators depending on location, manipulating dog packs, or eagles, etc. But humans are their favourite.” From a 2010 project of Simon’s, related to my own Corvosapiens project.

S: We tried to do something more narrative, but it was a little too ambitious for our capabilities at the time — like an illustrated but text-heavy kids adventure book. But probably weird and full of dino-gore too. To go back to it, trying to tell the story from inside the world, as a participant, on the world’s terms.

J: It might be neat to check in on that society every thousand years or so.

S: Yeah. Have you seen Nemo’s old “all of human history’ project, “All tomorrows”?

J: Yeah! I love it. He sent me a bunch several years ago.

S: I believe it was very Stapledon-inspired. It’s great stuff. I tried to do some stories like that for the Prophet ‘Strikefiles’, our encyclopedia issues.

J: Holy shit. I just went searching for All Tomorrows and found an email from Nemo talking specifically about Stapledon.

S: hahahah YES

J: The future is so fucking weird.

S: Oh, it is. Super weird and oddly intimate, turns out.

J: Yeah! That’s my favorite part! Who’d have figured that the preferred hobby of the people of the 21st century was MAKING FRIENDS.

A nice little neighborhood.
A nice little neighborhood.

S: hahah

It reminds me of William Gibson thing I heard, where he talked about how it’s better to think that everyone you see on their phones are talking to distant friends instead of bemoaning their antisociality, or something like that.

J: “I’m not isolated with my phone. I’m talking to my friends all over the world.”

S: Heh!

J: Simon, thanks a ton. I’ve really enjoyed this chat. Let’s do it again!

S: Yeah, Joshua good chatting!

Habitat is available at your local comic shop or from Image Comics.

I love doing interviews like this, and I hope to do a few more in the coming month. Please help me make more reviews, more interviews, more art, and more stories by backing my Patreon!

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