When I began “On the Contrary, Yes,” my submission to Solarpunk Winters, I knew that I wanted to set the story in a floating ocean city, and to explore life there. Not an American city, but something in my experience. After casting around the mid-Atlantic, I chose the west coast of France. Now, I’ve lived in France, as a student and as a teacher. I’ve lived in Paris, and was lucky enough to study the city’s history on-site.
A word about Paris: it is a city that is well aware of its glamorous reputation, and is happy to trade on it. French as can be, with global connections and loquacious expats. Of old, Paris was the people’s city. When the kings lived in Orleans, Paris grew rich off of trade on the river Seine, and their motto honors the river, and the city’s resilience: fluctuat, nec mergitur. Tossed by the waves, she does not sink.
I had no wish to create a second Paris. I chose the name Ys.
Ys comes from the folklore of the peninsula of Bretagne, or Brittany in English. The story goes that Ys was a coastal city protected by angels until the people grew wicked. In punishment, the city sank below the waves, with only its king escaping to tell the tale. They say that on a clear day near St. Malo, you can still hear Ys’ churchbells sounding below the sea. They also say that when Paris sinks, Ys will rise again.
So I asked myself, would the French people actually name a city after a fairytale?
… Yes, I decided, if it would bring in the tourists.
So Ys began to take shape. The ocean would be a foundation (the streets, of necessity, became canals), nurturer (tidal generators power the city), and enemy. Fog and cold, every day—so Yssians would bundle up in neon-bright colors. I built a vertical farm, the Conch Shell skyscraper for commerce, and a Christmas market.
But still, the spirit of Ys was missing. What are the rituals that Yssians practice, that really make it home for them? I want this high-concept city to feel homey, even loved.
An English winter tradition from The Folklore of Discworld (Pratchett and Simpson, p. 2008) gave me an idea. To “wassail” the apple trees, people would toast the trees with cider and shout and sing. They would thank the trees and wake them up, get sap flowing, get ready for spring. This ritual, loud and drunken as it is, acknowledges the duty that humans bear to trees, winter, apples, the natural world. We’re not separate from it, despite what the Industrial Revolution taught us. We’re a part of it.
In my story, when visitors Tommie and Amaranth enter Ys by boat for the first time, they see a windbreak made of rows of juniper trees. The native Yssians salute and thank the trees, which welcome them home, which make home safer. The city began to feel more real to me.
I know that in Ys, the street food of choice is steamed dumplings, while the liquor of choice is gin. Yssians cheer on their football team against Paris—which may or may not have sunk, but they haven’t given up football. (Plus ça change…) I’ve set the stage as well as I could in less than 800 words, but now it’s up to the readers to furnish Ys with texture and light. I hope the readers enjoy their visit.