15 April 2018

Review - Blackfish City by Sam J Miller

Cover by Ellen Rockell
(see http://samjmiller.com/uk-cover-for-blackfish-city/)
Blackfish City
Sam J Miller
Orbit, 19 April 2018
HB, 326pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of Blackfish City.

One might expect the coming (it's probably more accurate to write actual) climate apocalypse to influence the field of speculative fiction, both in a "what is happening and what the blazes do we do" sense and also as a backdrop to anything set in the future.

Blackfish City is I think an example of the latter. Some 100 years in the future (it's not completely clear) this is a story of life on (aboard?) Qaanaaq, a vast water-borne community named for a shore settlement and built in the shape of an asterisk (a central hub with eight arms). It's clear from the history given that climate change and pollution have caused havoc in this wold - there have been wars, states have fallen and huge populations of refugees are on the move, so one of the most precious resources on Qaanaak is space. The most fortunate have apartments: the merely lucky have a "nook", enough space to sleep, the rest simply have to take shelter where they can. And there is a hierarchy among the Arms.

It is a polyglot, multicultural place filled with traditions, history and languages, a thick broth of a society which the protagonists sample in very different fashions. It's also diverse in other ways, with gender fluidity (one character is referred to throughout as "they") and a key thread in the story built on the missing mothers of another of the characters. Against this jostling background, Miller spins a dazzling story of gangsters, political operators, family, and revenge, all catalysed by the arrival of a woman: "people would say she came to Qaanaak in a skin towed by a killer whale harnessed to the front like a horse. In these stories... the polar hear paced beside her on the flat bloody deck of the boat."

The woman is Masaaraq, and soon all of Qaanaak is agog at her arrival. Where has she come from? What does she want? Is she really "bonded" with the orca - or the bear - surely all those people were massacred years before?

The story shows how Killer Whale Woman's arrival impinges on the lives, hopes and fears, and schemes of a cross section of Qaanaak's people, with chapters following each in turn. There's Fill, heir to one of the comfortable fortunes of Qaanaak as grandson of a Shareholder. There's Kaev, a reliable pro in the world of illegal all-in beam fighting, who has links to up and coming gangster Go. Ankit, part of the political machine for an Arm Manager seeking re-election. And Soq, skate messenger, who's looking to advance himself by working for Go.

All of these characters are pretty much flung at the reader early on, with little overlap (at first). It does take some time to orient and begin to follow the distinct strands, but once you've established who is who and what they're doing there is a firm narrative here as well as a rich sense of place, with the story exploring some of the the distinct strands in Qaanaak society. We hear from City Without a Map, the cryptic broadcast(?) exploring the past, present and future of Qaanaak and whose whispered hints both comment on and direct events. And we are told about the incurable disease known as The Breaks, which overwhelms suffered by feeding them memories of those who infected them, and of those who infected them, and so on. This condition will have a central place in the story, both as a motivation and as a mystery to be solved. the scraps and hints of Breaks-mediated experiences tell us more about how the world came to this pass.

I could happily have lingered much longer enjoying all this (and the hints of catastrophe behind the presence of the different races, tribes and peoples - in particular a fragmented narrative of the fall of New York.) but this is a fairly short book and Miller soon begins to bring his main characters together. I did feel that when this happened, things slowed down at first, rather than sped up. This was first because the characters come with radically different interests and objectives so a bit of work is needed for them to establish any common cause and secondly, due to the story rotating between all the point-of-view characters. (Miller keeps giving chapters from the perspective of the different characters even once they have teamed up and are working together).

But. BUT. Then the book powers on to a nail-biting final third involving plenty of action and with a real sense of jeopardy till the very end, due to precisely those different aims and alliances. These lead to so many possibilities and different futures that it did feel by the last page as though the real story was only just beginning and the book left me wanting more.

An impressive debut novel which was great fun to read. I'd eagerly read a sequel (though I don't sense that's on the cards).

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