A Review of Sam J. Miller’s “Blackfish City”
Them’s the Breaks
Science fiction isn’t about the future, it’s about the present. Sam J. Miller’s Blackfish City fulfills this premise. It’s about an artificial city that has sprung up in the Arctic Ocean, where its residents are besieged by organized crime and ruthless politicians, even if the city is essentially run by machines. Without possibly even realizing it, Miller has written a book about the Trump presidency with all of its malevolence within the plot. It’s a creepy, unsettling novel, one full of action and bloodshed, but written with a literary sheen. It is reminiscent of the work of William Gibson superimposed with Jeff VanderMeer. And, despite some time warming up to it and getting used to its knotty story, it is very, very good.
At the centre of the novel is a strange woman who arrives in the island city of Qaanaaq on an orca, with a polar bear at her side. We don’t really hear from her until halfway through the read, but she’s enough of a stranger to warrant other characters being drawn to her. The book alternates between four or five alternate voices: Fill, a queer man whose grandfather is a powerful landowner in the city; Soq, another gay character who is a messenger boy; Kaev, a man who is a professional fighter who loses rigged fights for his boss, the underworld character Go. And then there’s Ankit, who is a politician’s lackey who is on a quest to find her mother.
These threads come together in the centre of the novel like strands being weaved by a spider. There’s enough in these stories to keep the reader riveted, though some readers may be confused at first given the intricacies of the cityscape — which is very Blade Runner-esque — and ideas lingering in the background. For instance, some of the characters suffer from a disease called the Breaks, which is sexually transmitted and allows the victim to access other victim’s memories (again, a very Blade Runner-like move). Also playing central to the novel’s plot is a kind of podcast called City without a Map, which at first seems to be more aimed at new immigrants to the city, but may be so much more as the novel progresses.
There are, because this is sci-fi, other great ideas buried within the story, but never at the risk of overpowering it. The novel introduces the concept of nanobonding, which is where tiny machines inside a person’s blood allow the person to bond with an animal and vice-versa. Those who are nanobonded have drawn the ire of the fundamentalist Christian sect, who fear that these people are an abomination of God’s will. (Strange that they don’t seem to have a problem with the novel’s LGBTQ characters, but that’s a digression.) Right there, the book is a powerful indictment against those who have supported Trump and his moves to ban people from certain countries from visiting the United States. Funnily, the book supposes that the United States has fallen, thanks to a ranging ocean caused by climate change to submerse much of it underwater.
I suppose if you think about the underlying theme and plot points a bit much, the world that Blackfish City conjures up could fall apart. The city, after all, is run by technology, which makes the idea of human intervention in the form of politicians and shareholders seem to be redundant. Wouldn’t the technology make the city to be some kind of island utopia? No matter, the novel has enough interesting characters, all of them flawed but somehow likable to make up the difference. The action and stylized violence additionally play a big role in the enjoyability factor of the book. The deeper and deeper that one gets into the perplexing city of Qaanaaq, the faster and faster the pages turn, making this an easy novel to rip through — once you get past the machinations of the introductory plot.
In fact, I would argue that Blackfish City is a novel that is more enjoyable the less you know about it (so I hope I haven’t given too much away in my synopsis). As such, things lead to an explosive and dynamite climax (in more ways than just one). I suspect that this is a book to be savoured and reread again from the very beginning once you’ve had your way with it just to untangle the plot threads and nuances that you might have missed the first time around. This is a brawny, yet brainy novel that one can derive immense pleasure from. Whether you’re an action fan, or just want to read something that is impeccably well written, Blackfish City has so much going for it that one wants to enthusiastically wave your arms and declare from the rooftops that this might be one of the best science-fiction novels to come down the (geothermal) pipe in quite some time.
Overall, Blackfish City is a delight of a read. I was struck by just how densely packed with ideas it has, but it seems to be something that is constantly moving forward — a little like dipping a toe in a surging river and getting carried away by the current. I liked the inclusion of gay characters, which actually has a role to play in furthering the plot, and liked the strong female characters that the novel employs. The ideas are interesting enough, even if they may seem to stretch credibility, and the political undertone makes this a book more for 2018 and less 2068. Blackfish City warns of what we already are as much as what we are slated to become, and ultimately is a damn good read about gender relations, political wrongdoing, and the ever increasing role of technology. It is a civics lesson without ever feeling too preachy. You may draw your own conclusions about this volume, but Blackfish City is certainly a must read for died in the wool fans of SF. There’s nothing out there quite like it.
Sam J. Miller’s Blackfish City was published by Ecco on April 17, 2018.
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