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Guest Book Review: Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller

Today, we are giving the floor over to Charles Payseur, a member of our Smuggler Army with his monthly column X Marks the Story and a Book Smugglers Author, to talk about Sam J. Miller’s recently published novel Blackfish City.

Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Ecco /Orbit
Publication date: April 2018
Hardcover: 328 pages

After the climate wars, a floating city is constructed in the Arctic Circle, a remarkable feat of mechanical and social engineering, complete with geothermal heating and sustainable energy. The city’s denizens have become accustomed to a roughshod new way of living, however, the city is starting to fray along the edges—crime and corruption have set in, the contradictions of incredible wealth alongside direst poverty are spawning unrest, and a new disease called “the breaks” is ravaging the population.

When a strange new visitor arrives—a woman riding an orca, with a polar bear at her side—the city is entranced. The “orcamancer,” as she’s known, very subtly brings together four people—each living on the periphery—to stage unprecedented acts of resistance. By banding together to save their city before it crumbles under the weight of its own decay, they will learn shocking truths about themselves.

Blackfish City is a remarkably urgent—and ultimately very hopeful—novel about political corruption, organized crime, technology run amok, the consequences of climate change, gender identity, and the unifying power of human connection.

Stand alone or series: Standalone Novel

Charles’ Review

The world is a much different place in the pages of Blackfish City—waters have risen all over the world and the old governments have largely given way to new alliances, corporations, and crime syndicates. On Qaanaaq, a floating city engineered to withstand the great natural shifts the world has endured, it’s now the social pressures that threaten to tip everything into chaos. And one woman (with an orca and a polar bear) acts as spark to a powder keg that has been building since long before the city was even founded.

For everything else that I could try to define, genre-wise, about this book, I think the most appropriate might be urban science fiction. Because, at its heart, Blackfish City is very much about cities. About populations in tight proximity, and corruption, and vast inequality, and how those with power stay in power. And, sometimes, how they don’t.

There’s a relatively large cast to pay attention to throughout the novel. Fill, a young gay man raised in idle wealth and intense guilt; Kaev, a journeyman fighter who can’t rely on his mind outside of focus of a fight; Soq, a nonbinary courier hoping to rise up in the criminal underworld so that they can stop sleeping in a box; Ankit, assistant to a politician up for reelection. The characters begin the book in very different places, and yet are drawn together, caught in the wake of the orcamancer and her quest. And they are bound together in other ways, as well—by family ties and by something else in their blood that might destroy them, or might help to set them free.

So much of the action of the book is focused on space. In a city that cannot expand, every square foot is valuable, and those that own the real estate have fantastic power over people’s lives. Many live without homes, vulnerable to violence, exploitation, disease, and more, while others have space they don’t even know what to do with, that sits empty in the face of the epidemics sweeping the city’s arms. The characters are largely divided about what to do about it. For some, the answer seems to lie in rising up in the corrupt system, or trying to move away from it, or agonizing over a what to do with a privilege that only seems good for personal fulfillment. And I love the weight the novel gives to each of these characters and their hopes and dreams, their frustrations and joys. Because as faceless as the forces controlling the city are—the AI that seem to run the bureaucracy, the capitalism and nepotism that defines its elites—the evils committed in the novel, and those that make up so much of the novel’s backstory and history, very definitely have faces. Faces that belong to those who either exploit hate and fear in order to create wealth, or those who exploit rhetoric and corruption to create violence.

And like so much of Miller’s work, Blackfish City is not without its heartbreaks, its tragedies. It’s not always an easy or a neat book. But that’s a large reason why I like it, because it embraces the sprawling, dirty, beautiful mess that is Qaanaaq. And through that, it’s something of a love letter to all large cities, and perhaps particularly to New York, which is where so much of the tragedy that blooms in Qaanaaq was planted. The novel flows with the momentum of an epidemic, an outbreak, and it doesn’t slow down until the floor is littered with blood and bodies, and the air smells of fire and ash and hope.

Family also plays a large role in the novel, and I deeply appreciate the way it’s framed. For many of the characters, family is their salvation, is the vector by which they organize, protect, and support each other in their goals. But the novel also recognizes that any system that passes along resources and aid based on blood relation, even one that benefits those hungry and marginalized, recreates the same kind of corruption that concentrates power and access to a small number. That, for as important as family can be, there is no justice where people define family based on exclusion and heredity. Like with so much else, the novel seems to push readers to reconsider what family can be if a system is to reach for real justice.

For all my own focus on the glorious wealth of themes and layers to explore, though, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that Blackfish City is also an incredibly kickass book to read. From battles involving polar bears and orca whales to daring rescues through maximum security installations, the novel brings a vivid action and fast pace. Safety is an illusion, and a calm conversation can quickly turn into something much bloodier. There’s sex and love and rock and roll, and an entire city to turn on its head. It’s fun, even if that fun isn’t always pretty.

Fans of Miller’s short work will find a lot to enjoy (and far too much too try and puzzle out inside Miller’s extended writing landscape), but no previous knowledge is required to understand (and enjoy) Blackfish City. For me, the novel represents so much of what I love about near-future science fiction—a vividly rendered (and terrifyingly believable) setting, a diverse set of characters put in an impossible situation, and a defiant hope that even with all the pain in the world, all the damage done, we can still find ways to fight back against corruption, and tyranny.

Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfect


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