The boisterous collective talks writing sci-fi for the present, early internet nostalgia, and what it means to have a Philly state of mind.
Metropolarity is a collective of science fiction writers and activists, that write brilliant stories, perform, do workshops, and make zines and websites. The collective consists of Alex Smith, Eighteen, Ras, and Rasheedah Phillips. They have been around since 2012 and in the words of Eighteen, have been “boisterous nonstop.” Based in Philadelphia – home of MOVE and Samuel Delany and kids on dirt bikes who pop wheelies on potholed roads that sometimes open up into sinkholes – the Metropolarity crew are experts at making space. They take over galleries and make them feel like home. I read their work and it feels like putting on armor. If you like science fiction, if you’re interested in time travel, if you’re pissed off about gentrification, or if your other body is in the shop, Metropolarity is for you. If you’re in Philly, visit the Community Futures Lab or keep your eyes peeled for an event.
For me, Metropolarity has always been a guiding light of how to do it right. Not just in terms of writing smart sci-fi that plays with and busts through genre conventions – which they do. I love Alex’s queer superheroes and Eighteen’s genderfuck cyborgs and Ras’s tender and scary online romances in the chatrooms. But they also do it right in terms of how to have a collective and how to be in and of a place. To them, that means investing in that place and building a community, and bringing your resources and your energy to that community. To me, they define what Philly is really about. If you are inspired by them, the best thing you can do is to do your own good work in your own place: think about who your people are, who your community is, who your ride and dies are, and what you want to accomplish in this world. Hold your own local events. Make your own thing. As Ras says in this interview, “What are you doing in your neighborhood? Who do you know in real life? Who’s gonna ride for you when things get tough?” Be real, be careful, don’t front. Do your own good work, and pay Metropolarity for theirs.
Ras, Eighteen, and Alex from Metropolarity sat down with me one night after we had all gotten off of our day jobs. We were all tired but talked for hours about sci-fi and organizing, how much we love Philly, and their new book Style of Attack Report – which happens to be a Lambda Literary Award Finalist in LGBTQ Sci-fi/Fantasy/Horror. (Rasheedah Phillips, who is a founding member of Metropolarity, wasn’t able to be part of the interview. She founded Afrofuturist Affair, Community Futures Lab, and Black Quantum Futurism Collective and you can find more of her work by checking out those projects.)
Metropolarity seems like it’s blowing up right now – why now? Do you think it has to do with science fiction being “in”? Who seems to be paying attention, and has that shifted as you’ve been doing this work?
Alex: I think art and activist communities are interested in what we do because we are artists and activists. We also speak to a sense of reality, urgency, time and place, and storytelling that is somewhat familiar to them while still challenging them. The science fiction community is the exact opposite – they don’t like change, they don’t like all those darn “coloreds” coming into their institutions. No it’s real, they don’t like it at all. So when they see us approach their institutions and demand space, they get agitated and they close things off. You know, to a lot of them it’s not fair, because they have spent hours applying to get these grants, trying to get into Clarion, they did this MFA stuff and all the schmoozing at conventions like Comic Con and all this stuff. And here we come, putting out zines and websites, holding readings and making it visceral, you know.
Ras: I think we all have had experiences of trying to access those spaces and not being able to because our writing seems like gibberish. It seems rachet in some manner.
Eighteen: There’s an anecdote that somebody told me. They were like, “My parent is black and they were writing sci-fi and submitting all these years and they never got accepted. I started to think my parent was a bad writer or something. But lo and behold, it’s just that motherfuckers are racist.” Now they are getting published, but they had stopped entirely because no one was accepting them. Scifi people who do get ahold of us are like “holy shit”.
Alex: Yeah, there are people who have been into us, we haven’t been totally dissed.
Ras: Yeah, we love everyone who messes with us.
It seems there’s a growing attention for things like afrofuturism, folks who have been around for a while are blowing up – like Nedi Okorafor. Do you think there’s a particular reason for that?
Ras: It’s probably because of the internet, things like zines, and other ways of forming independent social networks. People have been able to form schools of thought with people they wouldn’t have been able to geographically meet. In the past, they didn’t think other people nearby them were into the same things or looked like them or had been through similar experiences.
Alex: Also, we fought for it. We can never discount how much struggle and fight and determination we put forth. It’s not that these institutions have decided to let a few of us in, we kicked down the door. I think the will of people gets brushed aside sometimes when we talk about a select few people getting in. We formed those networks, like Ras mentioned. We fought and did the work to raise the walls ourselves.
You mentioned the Internet as a way of forming networks. A lot of your work seems to be about living online, but in person you also talk about being wary of the Internet. In what ways does being online work for you, what is it for and what should we be aware of?
Alex: Like we said, there is good. There are people forming networks. A fourteen-year-old trans person in Iowa might read one of our stories and connect with it online and make one of these communities. But there is negativity in living completely online.
Ras: It can be a survival tactic. I lived online. It kept me safe in some ways but it changed me in a lot of ways too. It affected my relationship to the real world.
Eighteen: In my mind, the worst period of my life was when I was online only. The thing that makes me have so many feelings about the internet right now is my nostalgia for the old 90s internet and being like, damn the place where I had the most mobility is now gone. It’s been shuffled in with this bizarre hyper-alienation of your emotional states and everything.
Ras: But it also comes with a spotlight on your real physical body. People see this thing about you and feel like they know you, but they don’t fucking know you. Then in real life they skip the whole getting to know somebody and try to treat you like they know who you are, like they’re your friend. I have real friends, I have people who I talk to on the regular even if it’s just a phone call across the country. I can tell when shit is not real for me at this point. So, I feel it is best to just divest from some of those networks.
Alex: My relationship with the internet is really just using it as a networking tool. I’m one of those people who is super old school in a lot of ways. Like, if you’re going to say something, have it mean something and carry weight. Even if it’s just a joke. We have so few resources and so few chances to actually say something and effect something. For people to squander it makes me sad, and it kind of makes me wonder, do you know what you are really in it for? A lot of bands do that, a lot of musicians, a lot of artists – it’s just art for art’s sake. For the sake of social capital. For me it has always been important to be about something and being more communicative about things. The first time I ever saw the internet it was Prodigy.
Ras: I liked Prodigy. I liked the name of it. I used to look at all the icons and all the ISPs. I had CompuServe, AOL – I had all of these ones and I was like, I like Prodigy. It’s a nice name. I was like, these are all the fucking same. Dial me the fuck up, I don’t have an AOL disk right now.
Alex: I think it was ’96. The first time I was on there I was arguing with someone. Within two minutes of my first time ever being on the internet I was arguing with someone and I’m 90 percent sure it was about Aquaman. This guy was like “Aquaman sucks. DC comics suck.” And I was like, no, you’re wrong and this is why. I was heated for days. All because some dude in Vancouver disagreed with me. My first experiences were just of arguing with someone online. It made me be like, I’m wasting all this bandwidth, all this typing energy, I could be writing stories. It was just writing paragraphs after paragraphs until it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t a place to escape – it was a place to argue.
Eighteen: I have a great concern for the government and corporations in a global sense, Google specifically. I think social media is an active and deliberate distraction. It just feels like it in my bones. It’s like the desert of the unreal, where things that have meanings are being removed from their meanings and transformed into other shit. I feel weird about liking images. There are people I don’t see in person, but I know what they are up to because I follow them on IG. What is this relationship when I remove the mediation of the IG platform? And what kind of emotions and feelings does it cause in me, how does it affect me? The answer is that it affects me negatively a great deal of the time.
One of the things I am super invested in when it comes to Metropolarity’s work is that movement between contending with nostalgia, utopian and dystopian possibilities, and also this deep investment in the real. Not only in terms of social realities but also being physically together in physical space. There’s a moment in the book where Eighteen talks about corporations purposefully creating the most dystopian shit that they find in sci-fi. The critique not only of sci-fi but also of the internet is present throughout the book.
Alex: But always with a sense of hope without providing a solution. Something the four of us share, Rasheedah included, is that we don’t just critique the government, like, “the government sucks.” We give people a vision of how you can participate in a loving relationship. That’s what attracts me to the writing of Rasheedah, Eighteen, and Ras. When I’ve finished reading their pieces, I feel like I can literally fly. You read a lot of dystopian stuff and anti-government stuff and you feel things are going to come to shit. With us it is a true warning and a true critique because we are letting you see the vision of how things are going to be totally screwed up. But we are also saying, look, as bad as everything seems, nihilism is not going to get you anywhere. There’s still hope, there’s still power inside of you, and you can still create things like communities of power. That’s always been super inspiring to me.
That kind of hopeful critique is reflected in the other work that you do. The writing is an element that gets sent out but you’re talking about community and networks and being where you are, and that seems to be the heart of Metropolarity. To me, your project is in Philly.
Eighteen: I feel like a lot of opportunities, people putting us in their gallery shows or whatever, stemmed from us just having a steady internet presence and documenting the local shit we were doing. The majority of what we have done stems from holding local events. It’s my opinion that it started when [our reading series] Laser Life started. We had house parties and readings and aesthetics salons and fundraisers. Then we started getting invited to universities to get paid to read, that’s when our lives got all hectic. We were all very active on the internet and our Tumblr and in our neighborhood. This was all before Instagram was very strong and it was before Facebook was as toxic.
Alex: We created and are part of a larger community – Laser Life and Chrome City. I did events that combined what we were doing with Metropolarity with the punk and underground scenes. We really stretched what sci-fi can be. The Metropolarity family is massive.
Ras: People really ride in Philadelphia. When I look on IG and see people with crews I wonder, do you all even like each other? Do you all even go to each other’s house? Do you all even eat together? I don’t know, sometimes I hear about drama going on in places. I am lucky that I live here and found good people and thorough artists. Where your art is your life and you’re crafting relationships and trying to have strong queer family and working through things and talking through things and trying to understand things in each other’s bedrooms.
Alex: You need to break down these rigid binaries if you truly want a community. I think community can be really scary for people. They are afraid of a socialistic view of things because they don’t want to get hurt and putting yourself too far out there becomes dangerous. That danger is part of the fun. It’s part of the journey.
Ras: I prefer that danger than some sort of existential nowhere place where I’m inside my own mirror image of nothing. That’s hell.
Alex: I used to be worried that [Philadelphia was] going to be the next tech jump, but I really don’t think we are. I’ll be online, on a gay app or something, and guys’ profiles will say “I just moved to Philly, I’m thinking about moving away.” It’s grimy as shit and snobby uppity people think it will be this overnight fix like San Francisco or Brooklyn was. It’s not going to be overnight. Like, it might happen but it is going to be kicking and screaming. It’s going to be hard to take Philadelphia. It’s not going to be like Brooklyn or San Francisco.
What is a Philly state of mind?
Eighteen: A Philly state of mind is kind of harsh – no tolerance for nonsense, for wasting my time, for bullshit or hype. There’s a shirt that says “I’m not mad, I’m from Philly.” There’s this ongoing thing of strict behavior modification from your peers. Like, my whole childhood was spent being made fun of. There’s some sort of working class conformity, but also because it is working class you can be weird. People want real shit to be happening. If you’re not real you’re fake and if you don’t have style, you’re goofy. A classic example is this Drake and Meek Mill feud. I stand for Meek Mill on the basis that his IG is always practical advice-giving and he is talking about real, serious issues that affect real people – stuff about prison abolition and fuck proper English.
Alex: Here, everyone talks about prison abolition the way we talk about a show that we watched on TV or some new Jordans we got, because it is a part of our lives and we do not deny that. If you are Philly, you have style. You have these constantly churning massive political ideologies that people get paid hundreds of dollars to write think pieces about but we live with every day and talk about and process. I’m sure there are some aspects of it in other big cities, but in Philly it is so palpable. That’s why movements like MOVE can happen here. It is this mystical griot-type thing happening within every individual and it comes out in these rare forms like the Meek Mill IG. I think the only other city that has that kind of energy, well, I’ll give it to two other cities: Oakland and Detroit.
Eighteen: I fuck with Detroit. I fuck with Chicago. I fuck with Baltimore. But all those cities have the same kind of shit happening.
Ras: Shout out to Long Beach, shout out to Newark. For me, Philadelphia has been real integral to surviving leaving my family and coming here. The one thing I needed from Philly that Philly gave me was truthful anger and truthful pain. The ability to be angry, vocally, publicly and to express the pain behind that anger. I’ve been able to do that in mental hospitals, in the ER waiting room, on the sidewalk, the Chinese store, at Karaoke. Just being like, man, fuck this shit, fuck you too, I’m just upset right now. People always respect you here. That is something I needed to heal from certain trauma.
Alex: I will also say that Philly is not without its own gatekeepers. It definitely has its super white institutions and its white gaze. The media is extremely white even though the people are not. It is creating this uneven picture of Philly, if I am being nice about it. If I’m being mean about it, it is some racist shit. Everything we said before about Philly being powerful is because we created it, it is cause we carved it out. We make the zines and we do the shows and we constantly make sure we are taking care of the movement. We do benefits for us and other organizations that need it, but the white established art scene doesn’t do any of that stuff. It tokenizes here and there, but otherwise is a complete and total gatekeeper. We are still fighting against this monolithic white artistic culture.
After the Oakland fire, some of my friends in Baltimore got evicted, at the Bellfoundry for example. I think there is a particular feeling right now that those kind of spaces are under threat. What are your thoughts on that, what is your directive?
Ras: People need to know that they have always been [under threat]. I don’t think our directive has changed. It’s still to support local spaces, being in solidarity with other ones across the country, but looking after our own and focusing energy on our own. Anytime we get called away to do something in another place I just want it to come back to Philly. I want it to work here, you know? I want to get resources back.
Alex: I think a little bit of perspective is helpful, too. They had the military at people’s doors in New Orleans just a few months ago, you know? Pulse got shot up. The Dakota pipeline is a real thing, just like people being displaced from their homes all the time right here in Philly. It totally sucks and it is going to be a battle, but we have to put things in perspective, we have to be transient, be ready to move, and be constantly connecting. That’s what is really going to help the movement. If it’s stationary, you can attack it, but if you’re an idea and it’s palpable, then it is hard to sniff it out.
Eighteen: Culture is the tool.
Ras: That’s what transcends spaces.
Alex: The BLM movement does that a bit because it’s like, who leads the BLM movement? It was easier for them to attack the Black Panthers in the 60s. They’re like, we get Huey P. Newton, Fred Hampton, H. Rap Brown, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver and Assata Shakur; if we get those guys, then the movement’s over. We attack the Oakland chapter of the Black Panther party, arrest everyone in there, burn it down and bug it – do whatever we got to do and it is done. But we can start a BLM chapter right now with the people in this room. The idea is not going anywhere, you can’t kill it now. You can’t arrest the heads of all the chapters of the BLM movement all over the country. I think that is a better way to do it now. That is one thing that the internet has done, it has given us these modes of existing that you cannot shut down.
What do you think about this whole situation with fake news?
Eighteen: All of a sudden this buzzword started to appear. It felt a little late to me. This shit has been fake for a hot second.
Ras: It reminds me of people who can’t tell when a popup alert is a virus, who don’t know what command messages look like so they don’t notice that the edges are not beveled correctly. Were you not paying attention when those kinds of messages showed up on your computer before? Have you never had to go inside your computer to do something to it, to see what things are called and how they fit together? Why would you pay so much for a computer and never learn how to use it?
I think that is similar to this whole fake news thing. What the fuck were you reading before? You thought that was real? What were you doing? We all lived through major shit like Hurricane Katrina, the Bush Era, the Iraq war. There were conversations about this back then, too. I was having them as a child so I don’t know what was happening for people that now all of a sudden are confused. Like, why are you confused?
Eighteen: I don’t want to shit on people for not being able to tell fake news because journalism is a business. You have to keep it in mind that all of this shit is for money. Somebody is paying for this to happen, for you to read this. Somebody wants you to read this. Who wants you to read this and why? Why did they make it? Pay attention to things like that, ask those questions. That’s how you’ll be able to tell if something is fake news.
Don’t be trusting things implicitly just because they’ve always been there. Be like, why is the sky blue? Why is that bug there? What happened to all the fireflies? Why is the news topic this all of a sudden? Just today? I’ve never heard of it before. Did somebody want me to know about it?
Media messages we encounter that are not made by us are ads and distractions and coercive messages. You used to only see them when you opened a newspaper or turned on the TV or went to see a movie. Now every aspect of it is all ads. Even ourselves. We are advertising to each other. Buy our thing. Check out my jawn. Look at me, respond to me.
So I want to end going back to sci-fi, as a genre of writing – what draws you to science fiction?
Ras: For me, sci-fi is is a tool for recording the present and the future for people. It is a tool to write down ideas that are happening to keep them in the air and keep them in the community. But, I also think it is a psychological tool for combating trauma and combating depression and misery that comes with living under certain machines that are grinding you. It helps create a space where you are managing with the help of others, in spite of the world that could be described as a dystopia for some, but for others is just reality.
When I write sci-fi, I am just writing a different type of now. It is based on the now and on things that happened to me. It is a way to heal from things and see a way forward when there isn’t one presently. So, it is like, now we are living together, now we are supporting each other together, now we are creating cultures that ensure our survival together. Sci-fi is a tool to practice and remember things that are real for us, a way of dealing with our current reality. That is not some message for a dystopia, that is a message for now.
Alex: It is a way to exist.