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Kelly Robson on burlesque and privacy in a futuristic Toronto

Our Q&A with the author of Skin City from Better Worlds, our sci-fi project about hope

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Illustration by Deborah Lee

In Kelly Robson’s “Skin City,” a street burlesque dancer becomes infatuated with a privacy-shrouded woman and tries to find a way to spark a connection.

Robson has earned considerable acclaim for her works of fiction. Last year, she earned the Nebula Award for her novelette A Human Stain, and she earned the Prix Aurora Award (for excellence in science fiction in Canada) for her novella Waters of Versailles. We also enjoyed last year’s novella Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, which is about time travelers who try to fix their broken future.

The Verge spoke with Robson about burlesque and privacy in the far future and how people separate themselves from one another.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Tell me a bit about how you came up with the idea for “Skin City.”

One of my big fandoms here in Toronto is Nerd Girls Burlesque. They are a wonderful troupe of nerdy burlesque dancers who recently put on a Game of Thrones burlesque show, two fantastic and incredibly well-attended the Harry Potter burlesque nights, and a Doctor Who burlesque show. I love them. I think they’re fantastic. They’re so witty and so delightful. So when I think about Toronto or when I think about a better world in Toronto, it definitely includes them. I wanted to write about a nerdy burlesque dancer, and I wanted to put her front and center in the city, and I wanted Toronto to be known for that kind of thing.

Photo by Maxwell Ander

Your protagonist Kass is telling her story to Janet, a fellow prisoner, who is from a very different upbringing. Why go this route? What do you hope to convey with those two perspectives?

I wanted to show how much the world has changed. Kass is very young, and she lives in a world that’s not only safe but supports freedom of personal expression for everyone. Janet is very old. She grew up in our world where women face gender-based violence every day.

A big part of this story is the digital privacy that you’ve set up in this world that lets people walk around anonymously. How do you see that fitting into this future?

I allude to “The Privacy Wars” in the story, and in a story that short, you can’t get into it. But we’re headed into a situation where the conflict between safety and privacy is going to come to a head. There’s absolutely no doubt that surveillance has downsides, and we don’t want to live in a surveillance society. But if you pile a bunch of people into a really big city, expect them to get along, and expect them to live safely, surveillance is necessary.

For example, I live in a condo. Our floor of the condo provides access to all of the building’s amenities. It provides access to the gym and to the library and to the party room and to our hot tub and all of our backyard stuff. We have cameras in our hallway, and we kind of have to have them because we have a lot of drunken people walking down that hallway on the weekend. That’s not so nice to know that when you’re walking in your hallway, there are people looking at you. But on the other hand, I know who they are. I know the building concierge, I know they’re nice people, and they recognize us when we come in the door, and they recognize people who live in the building and question people who don’t live in the building. While I may not like having a camera in my hallway, I do really like the fact that our building’s security is looking out for us in downtown Toronto. That’s where that comes from, and that’s going to come to a head.

So, in the story, the privacy wars that will happen — “privacy wars” is hyperbole — it’s a privacy conflict. The city of Toronto in 2103 is the kind of city where a girl can dance burlesque on the street corner in the middle of the day, and nobody is going to harass her. I think that’s a beautiful thing. The downside of that is there are people who don’t want to be watched, who don’t want to be seen. So they drape themselves — they have a privacy drape — nobody can tell who they are. They live in specific buildings that are licensed to provide private accommodations. Nobody can know who exactly is coming in and out of that building.

By the end of the story, Kass and the woman she’s infatuated with finally meet. How do you see their prospects, given that they come from very different worlds?

I think they’re going to have a very dynamic life together. Kass isn’t going to give up her optimism and inclusive values. If the woman wants to stay with Kass, she’ll have to leave Fearsville and embrace the real world.