A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE by Arkady Martine (BOOK REVIEW)
High-grade sci-fi performs a tricky balancing act: inventing a world that is different to ours in important respects but at the same time providing a narrative that reflects critically on the way we live.
A Memory Called Empire achieves such a balance with aplomb, though to hail its brilliance in terms of being a space opera – as Ann Leckie does in one of the numerous quotations praising the book inside its front cover – is a little off the mark. There are no interplanetary battles and what melodrama there is takes the form of intensely political conflicts filtered through an imaginatively conceived future. Simplistic good/bad polarities are absent; characters’ motives are often mixed; weaponized intrigue abounds.
Lsel is a small ‘dull metal toroid, spinning to maintain thermal control’, where 30,000 people dwell with meagre resources but manage by mining molybdenum and trading it with imperial Teixcalaan.
Lsel’s intellectual shtick is the imago, a memory stick of a person’s mind and memories, implanted in the brain stem of someone else who blends with it neurologically. The non-elitist purpose is the preservation of experience and expertise, a consciously devised adjunct to Singularity that has evolved as a means of survival. People on Lsel are a precious resource; women have contraceptive implants at the age of nine and babies come from artificial wombs.
The Empire that is Teixcalaan is vast in size, governed by an oligarchy but with rival factions jockeying to replace the ailing Six Direction, the name of His Brilliance, the reigning emperor. The aetiology of personal names on Teixcalaan exemplifies a playful side to the author’s finely wrought imagination. A number and a word constitute someone’s name, with the number being chosen for luck or desirable qualities: a low number like three is popular because it suggests stability, like a triangle; brassy, new money prefers a high one. The word attached to the number should have pleasant connotations, hence the appeal of plant names, but tradition can be broken by flashy arrogance and so we come across individuals named Thirty-Six All-Terrain Tundra Vehicle and Six Helicopter.
Lsel fears for its autonomy as the imperial sweep of Teixcalaan draws closer with its request/demand for a new ambassador. Mahit Dzamare is chosen for this delicate assignment and she arrives on Teixcalaan to find herself disconcerted by the suspicious death of her predecessor and a volatile succession issue. The novel’s plot is driven by the unfolding politics of the situation and the machinations this entails will be familiar to anyone following contemporary geopolitics and power struggles within nation states.
The ingenuity of Arkady Martine’s prose is found in the details of Teixcalaanli culture, a complex society that underneath some of its apparently futuristic aspects is not unlike our own. There are rigid hierarchies, people’s behaviour is strictly rule-governed and the depth of state control reveals itself when dissent is organized. For instance, when corralling a crowd is deemed necessary by the government, a kind of armature emerges from the ground that creates a glass wall crackling with blue light. Warnings appear on the glass – ‘Stillness and patience create safety’ – and everyone must remain in place until police arrive. Anyone touching the glass receives a nasty electric shock. Futuristic it may be but such a technology will probably not have to wait until the 22nd century to be in operation in our major cities.
A rather unique feature of Teixcalaanli culture is the way literary quotations and allusions, given expression in generic haiku-like verse forms (15-syllable lines are a favourite), are used to convey political points of view and messages. The author develops this idea with flair and it becomes part of the pleasure of reading A Memory Called Empire.
Characterisation in the novel is finer than any run-of-the-mill sci-fi novel and the reader warms to Mahit Dzamare, the new Lsel ambassador, as she struggles to unravel the intricacies of the politicking that come to threaten her life. Her Teixcalaanli liaison officer, Three Seagrass, becomes a friend and the bond of affection that develops between them provides an emotional dimension to the malign intrigues that engulf them.
A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine, is published by Pan Macmillan.