Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Review of Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller (2018, Orbit)

Post-apocalypse, the world has been shattered geopolitically into a myriad of cities and wandering tribes. Qaanaaq is a floating city powered by geothermal energy constructed above the Arctic Circle by an alliance of Thai-Chinese-Swedish corporations and government bodies. It is structured hierarchically through capital and crime syndicates with seemingly little state-led control. Over a million people call it home, scratching out a living providing services or contract working to gather resources and paying rent to stakeholder owners and protection to crime lords. There’s unrest among the inhabitants and many suffer from ‘the breaks’, a condition where they experience other people’s memories. Then a woman riding a killer whale and accompanied by a polar bear arrive spawning rumours and unease. For four people her presence provides an impetus to resist the present order, though they are unsure about what they are seeking to achieve.

Miller tells the story through the perspective of these four characters, each chapter following one of their lives and the points of intersection with the others. This produces different viewpoints onto the social life and politics of Qaanaaq and provides historical context and world building. Blended into the mix is a swirl of climate, gender and bio- politics. This world building is very nicely done, creating depth and intrigue yet never feeling laboured or separate to the story. The lynchpin to the tale is the ‘orcamancer’, a woman who immediately seems to spawn her own myths and legend, simply through her presence. Gradually the four characters fall within her orbit, discovering hidden truths about themselves and gaining strength and purpose. The story rolls along at a well-judged pace, building to a strong denouement that provides a glimmer of hope without dimming a dark, stratified future. An engaging, enjoyable, thought-provoking read.

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