Arkady Martine’s debut novel just won the 2020 Hugo and is shortlisted for the Clarke, so indeed, it has all the hallmarks of what people seem to like: a picture of a sprawling throne on the cover, and a “glossary of persons, places and objects” at the end.
There’s much to like in this book, especially a “cunningly plotted” story of palace intrigue centered around the new ambassador of a mining station in the capital city of the galaxy spanning Teixcalaanli empire – an empire that loves literature and poetry, and an empire in the midst of a succession crisis.
So let me be upfront: this was an okay book, a nice book, an entertaining book, a Tor book, and I’d even recommend it if you need your contemporary space opera fix. But at the same time, it was very, very generic. Maybe that calls for a checklist?
A.I. – There’s a mysterious algorithm controlling the city and some of the police, and it is supposed to signify the dystopian side of the empire: controlling how people walk, what they see, what they read. But it’s totally underdeveloped, and a sideshow only. Martine manages to slip in some stuff about bias, as algorithms reflect their creators, but the bias, nor the the A.I. ever has a real influence on what happens in the story, and as such the social commentary is surface level only, and not baked into the story’s blueprint.
ALIENS – The Teixcalaan are human, as are the people from the station. But the book has no ‘ontology’. Are all these people far future descendants of Earthlings in a diaspora that forgot their history? Or are these cultures that exist somewhere in another galaxy of the universe, and coincidentally all happened to evolve with a human biology and human cultural habits? Or does this book take place in Fantasy Land? By the way, there are other aliens too, of the kind that can’t be reasoned with, mentioned in passing only, and waiting in the wings for the second act.
EMPIRE – Indeed, empire. It’s even in the title! What an easy target imperialism has become. Sadly, the Teixcalaanli empire is never menacing, it never shows its teeth. It is supposed to be a remorseless, planet gulping military machine, yet the Emperor is a friendly old man that managed peace for 80 years. The fact that Lesl Station – the home of our protagonist Mahit Dzmare and 30,000 other souls – managed to remain independent for decades only shows that the Teixcalaan aren’t the boogeyman. To Martine’s credit, the book does portray a believable form of cultural imperialism, but it’s seen only through Mahit’s eyes, and as she is a Teixcalanophile that again kinda removes the sting. At the end, I was rooting for the Emperor, and I never felt the opposition between Lesl & Teixcalaan – part of that is the fact that Lesl Station is never fleshed out. The same goes for Teixcalaan: while it does feature the outskirts of the Shiny City & its proletariat once, the book firmly focuses on the elite. As social or political critique it does not work, because Martine seems more fascinated with the Imperial Court and its mother-of-pearl exotica flower inlays.
GENDER – Never mind the puppies! Most characters are female, and there’s some non-heterodox romance. Well done, effortless, never preachy, never showy.
GLOSSARY – Every self-respecting speculative fiction book on a vast, ancient culture needs one, but this one is more marketing than necessary. I consulted it only twice, and even in those two cases I didn’t really need to, had I waited a few pages for clarification. It even has the name of the protagonist, just to point out the level of redundancy it has just to beef up its page count.
INTRIGUE – This could have been a fantasy novel too, as it is 100% palace intrigue – I’ve seen comparisons to The Goblin Emperor. Yes, there’s the imago machine (see technology) – but as that is never scientifically explained, it could have just as easily been written as a magic, ritual possession.
NAMES & LANGUAGE – Obviously an empire uses numbers to form names. The Romans did so too! As did the Borg! And the Aztecs! And they have cool sounding terms for professional occupations: scientists are called ixplanatl, members of the Information Ministry are called asekreta. You get it? Explainers and non-secrets? It kinda wrecks Martine’s efforts to build a believable alien language, as disguised English doesn’t really transport me out of my couch to another world. There’s a poor effort at a guide to pronunciation and writing the Teixcalaanli language after the glossary too, but all the sounds are just basic sounds from English. What’s all the more baffling is that the book only mentions ELEVEN words in Teixcalaanli. Why bother writing a guide at all? Especially as even the Teixcalaanli names are in English entirely!! And although the guide also claims the language spoken on Lsel Station sounds like “Modern Eastern Armenian”, who cares, as there’s even less words of the Lsel Language in the 461 pages. Klingon or Elvish this is not, just a half-assed, lazy attempt at looking like serious scifi. Or a labor of love, as Martine writes in the acknowledgments that she “began this book (…) two weeks into an intensive language course in Modern Eastern Armenian: my head full of shapes of words that weren’t mine.”
SERIES – Yes, of course this is a series! A duology for now. But this first one stands firmly on its own, and it neatly wraps up its story. The finale is actually great.
TECHNOLOGY – The book has jumpgates, and a few space ships, and a city with gates controlled by AI, but as I wrote, it could have been fantasy too, so most of its technology is just set dressing. The book’s one major technological thing is the imago machine, a small brain implant that allows for the memories and experience of another person – normally a deceased predecessor – to merge with a new, younger person. ‘Other memory’ a fixture of science fiction at least since Dune, this particular version reeks of Ninefox Gambit, throws in a bit of the mechanics of Altered Carbon, and references clearly to Dune‘s Abomination as well: it’s not safe for children. It must be said, Martine’s mixing manages to keep things fresh enough, and doesn’t just go down the plagiarism road. For my tastes however, it’s a missed opportunity that she sidesteps the mind-body problem. It’s also rather pulpy that a surgeon of the Nick Riviera kind manages to perform a highly-complex-and-to-her-previously-unknown-brain-operation-involving-alien-technology without training, prep, guide or help.
UNIQUE FEATURE – A book like this has to have a focus, a unique selling point, the thing that makes these aliens or this empire special. For the Teixcalaan it is literature. Their elite just loves poetry, speaks in metric verses to show off & uses it for political scheming. It didn’t rub me the wrong way, but do not expect mind-blowing creativity from the part of Martine either. There’s actually only two instances poetry and politics crossed in the book, and the first time it isn’t even significant for how the story develops, it’s just a poetry slam where one of the contestants uses a poem to utter thinly veiled critique. That’s not cunning plotting to me, that’s just using something Earthlings have done since they started declamating poetry. The second time, our heroes use a poem as a coded message to get out of a pickle. That’s about it. The focus on literature also ties in to the cultural imperialism I mentioned: the empire’s stories (written literature, movies) infatuate those beyond its borders. Sociology 101. For my taste, Martine stresses things too much, just as she feels the need to explicitly spell out the ring composition of the book numerous times. Leave it to the reader to solve the puzzle, I’d say.
For a speculative fiction book where poetry is truly an engine in the story, check out Daniel Abraham’s excellent debut series, the Long Prize Quartet.
One final thing in this regard: Camestros Felapton drew my attention to the fact that the book plays with the “idea of a society that is so obsessed with its own drama”, which “neatly parallels how the genre of space-opera is itself obsessed with empire and in particular the operatic scale of empire. This gives the book a very interesting element of critique of science fiction’s imperial obsession while also indulging in it.” Maybe that’s a valid way of looking at it, and it is surely an interesting thought, but I don’t really buy the “critique” part. A Memory Called Empire never felt critical to me, never sharp for itself, never sharp for the genre. The empire is rather charming, the good guys win, and in the end, Mahit Dzmare is respected and free.
Lists aren’t nuanced. All of the above is too harsh. As I said, I enjoyed this book. It’s generic, yes, but still crisp. Most of the time, I was interested in where the story would take me. Arkady Martine’s prose goes down easy. All that is no small feat. At the same time, the book didn’t challenge me, didn’t challenge my conception of reality, didn’t teach me new things, didn’t make me think, hardly surprised me. That’s okay.
I do want to read A Desolation Called Peace when it comes out in March 2021, but those lurking aliens – real aliens – better be cool, bloodthirsty & illiterate.
Maybe this is the perfect metaphor for the book. Tor’s golden lettering doesn’t withstand even one reading. Visual poetry, if you like.