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Blackfish City


Blackfish City

There are rough patterns that can be traced throughout the predominant science fiction narratives that have inspired media within the past century. At first, space exploration and technology were wondrous things, new vistas to be explored and fresh possibilities for adventure. Then we actually went to space, in a mess of politics and terror. We found possibilities, yes, but from a cultural standpoint they’ve been vastly mediated by the incomprehensible loneliness and lifelessness of the ever-expanding universe.

So sci-fi trends have turned more towards dystopia, mass extinction, apocalypse and post-apocalypse --- many of which have turned out some truly iconic media, but often tend towards hopelessness, and the sense that we as a species need to start over. All of these stories arguably have a significant place in the canon. Too often, though, it polarizes and neglects to explore the actual work of surviving in the landscape of earth after the inevitable desolation we wreak through fast-encroaching climate change and violent capitalism. And if they steer clear of hopelessness, they err on the side of saccharine quick fixes and deus ex machina, which can feel like a slap in the face, especially during our current complex cultural moment.

"Functioning at the intersections of science fiction, speculative fiction, revolution and not-quite-apocalypse, this is a wise and heart-filled novel."

BLACKFISH CITY navigates all of these extremes to deliver a fiercely exquisite, conscious novel that neither whitewashes a possible near future nor renders it despondent, one that works towards hope while never shying away from the extent of the damage we are doing to ourselves and each other. It’s a challenging balance to strike, and Sam J. Miller does it with such heart and prescience that I constantly found myself awed.

The book gives us much to admire, from its ambitious plot and setting to its rich cast of queer and diverse characters you’ll fall in love with. Qaanaaq is a floating city constructed in the Arctic Circle in the aftermath of the climate wars. It’s rife with compelling and plausible technology (from slide boots to jaw bugs and other tech implants embedded into your body), but issues of class plague it as much as the cities of its forebears in the Sunken World. Qaanaaq is in the shape of an asterisk, eight arms jutting out into the frigid sea. Each of its arms is run by an Arm manager, with little power over the crime, corruption and climate of their domain.

In recent years, Qaanaaq also has been plagued by a seemingly incurable disease referred to as “the breaks,” a predominantly sexually transmitted disease that causes an individual to steadily become overtaken by the memories and emotions of the person who gave it to them. Entire strains of personhoods take over one’s mind until it, and the body, breaks.

We meet Fill, a privileged but relatable young man who finds himself suffering from the breaks. Soq is a gender-fluid youth who makes their living on the streets, running not-so-legal errands, getting by on their wit and skill, searching for something like purpose. Ankit works in a crumbling political sphere, alternating between ignoring the secrets of her past and being tormented by them. Kaev is a celebrated fighter who is much more skilled than he seems and has made a career as a “journeyman” --- publicly throwing fights to younger fighters to stay on the right side of a local crime syndicate.

Miller eases us into the intricacies of his tightly imagined city, introducing us to each character, and then ramping up the stakes as their lives intersect in smart, emotionally astonishing ways. The lives of these four people change --- as do the lives of everyone in Qaanaaq --- upon the arrival of a so-called orcamancer. She arrives within a sphere of legend and violence, alongside a polar bear, nano-bonded to a predatory orca. However, nothing is simple or straightforward in Qaanaaq. Miller explores the consequences of human actions, the logistics of rebellion, the power and fallibility of family.

Functioning at the intersections of science fiction, speculative fiction, revolution and not-quite-apocalypse, this is a wise and heart-filled novel. I came away from the ending feeling wholly fulfilled, but also wishing to stay in Blackfish City longer. It wraps up in such a skillfully balanced way, in keeping with the rest of the story --- neither too saccharine nor too devastating. I’d argue that it’s one of the best endings I’ve ever read. I put the book down and just sat with it for a moment, letting it wash over me. I know it will stay with me for a long, long while. I cannot recommend it enough. Sam J. Miller has crafted something truly unique and urgent, mesmeric and tender, full of heartache and love.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on April 20, 2018

Blackfish City
by Sam J. Miller