Sam J. Miller – Blackfish City

After the climate wars, a floating city was constructed in the Arctic Circle. Once a remarkable feat of mechanical and social engineering, it has started to crumble under the weight of its own decay — crime and corruption have set in, a terrible new disease is coursing untreated through the population, and the contradictions of incredible wealth alongside deepest poverty are spawning unrest.

Into this turmoil comes a strange new visitor — a woman accompanied by an orca and a chained polar bear. She disappears into the crowds looking for someone she lost thirty years ago, followed by the whispers of a vanished people who could bond with animals. Her arrival draws together four people and sparks a chain of events that will lead to unprecedented acts of resistance.

Sam J. Miller wasn’t an unknown name to me when Blackfish City arrived on my doorstep. I’d heard some of his short stories on the Clarkesworld podcast (read by the inimitable Kate Baker) and they were great, so I was excited to read a novel from his hand. And that excitement turned out to be completely justified. Because spoiler alert: I LOVED IT. Blackfish City may be my favourite read of the year thus far. I will try to not gush and fangirl too much, but that might prove hard with this one. 

There is so much to unpack in this story and so many ways to start talking about it. From the drowned world setting of Qaanaaq, to the political and social structure of the city, to the complicated and rich characters we meet in the book, it is almost hard to know where to start. So lets start where the book starts, with the arrival of Masaaraq on the back of her orca. The visual of her coming to the city as a post-apocalyptic Boudicca on a floating chariot pulled by an orca was basically enough to hook me. Miller is really good at allowing you to visualise his world without resorting to endless description or purple prose. His writing style is very effective and efficient in that sense and one that really suits my reading tastes.

One way we learn about Qaanaaq, its history and its present is through interludes from The City Without a Map. A mysterious audio feed, which is realised anonymously and read by different peoples each chapter. I love this conceit. It is like the podcast that went viral, such as Serial, S-Town, or TANIS. The one that everyone is listening to and everyone is talking about. It is a brilliant storytelling device and turns out to also be an integral part of the plot. The reveal of the author was rather cool and ties in to so many narrative threads.

Another fascinating concept that is threaded through the book is the breaks. This disease is reminiscent of HIV in its spread and the way those who have it are ostracised. And in the way The Man (or in this case The Programs) is keeping people from the truth and finding a cure. It is considered a poor people problem and there doesn’t seem much impetus to actually help them. Capitalism at its finest, there. Or rather, is it still capitalism? Because, as capitalism proved the undoing of the planet and the global society we know today, humanity has tried for some different solutions. Qaanaaq is a reflection of this and here in order to keep from making the mistakes of the past, they created a version of Elon Musk’s nightmare. The AI’s have taken over decision making or at least that is what the populace at large thinks.

The politics of Qaanaaq are complex and corrupt and it is Ankit’s insider view that helps us see it more clearly. Ankit also shows that while people often go into politics with the best intentions, in the end many if not most of them are ground down and end up betraying their own intentions. I love that Ankit resists this and decides to act according to her ideals and not expediency. But it is not just the internal politics of Qaanaaq that come up, the larger political situation of the world at large also influence the city, if only in the fact that refugees from other conflicts flock there to find a safe haven. One heartbreaking piece of this is the genocide of the nano-bonded: people who could bond with animals due to a pharmaceutical mishap thanks to big Pharma not testing their products properly. Because humanity fears that which is other and in the breakdown of order, religious fanatic decided that other must be evil and responsible for the troubles of the world — clearly, this is a history that humanity is bound to repeat indefinitely.

Into this human stew of corruption, politics, and fear Miller drops a group of uniquely dysfunctional individuals — and I say that lovingly. All of them are immensely flawed and incredibly human, even the at first blush unapproachable Masaaraq. I loved how Miller intertwined the stories and brought them together. The family dynamics are complicated and awesome. My favourite characters were Go and Soq. Go as a character is great: she is ruthless, ambitious, scared, fragile, and oh so fallible. I also loved the symbolism of her name. Go as in she is always on the go, always striving for more power, money and security. But also Go as in the game of Go, which is incredibly strategic and hard to master.

Soq is amazing. They are stubborn, independent, ambitious and so, so angry. Their reaction to having caught the breaks from Fill interesting with them not being mad at Fill and even feeling something of affection for them, though that might also be a side effect of the disease. To me they were the heart of the story. Their determination to survive and their love for Qaanaaq, in all of its squalor and splendour, is what drives them and for me my investment in the story. I wanted to know how the plot would resolve, but above all, I wanted to know how their story ended.

As I said, there is so much to unpack in this book and I cannot do all of it justice in a reasonably sized review. So I’ll end this one with a recommendation: just go read Blackfish City. It is a terrific read and a hell of a story. You don’t want to miss it.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.