Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller. ★★★★
Blackfish City is an incredibly immersive science fiction novel that’s likely to be one of my favorite books of 2018.
In an ecologically devastated future, floating cities are created to house refugees from flooded nations. One such city is Qaanaaq, situated near the Arctic Circle. The city is governed mainly by various AI programs, with only minimal human bureaucracy, and the class divide is stark. The rich leave luxurious apartments sitting empty while the poor crowd into re-purposed shipping containers. A STD called “the breaks” gives its victims memories from the others infected, but it eventually leads to madness and death. Meanwhile, the majority turn their backs to the inflicted, and nobody with power is interested in a cure.
Into this contentious city, a stranger arrives riding an orca with a polar bear in tow. She may be the last of an oppressed culture of nano-bonders, people who use an unknown science to create neural bonds to animals. Her purpose is unknown, but four citizens of Qaanaaq find their lives becoming intertwined in the wake of her arrival.
Blackfish City is told through four primary POV characters, although the mysterious “orca-mancer” does get her own spotlight later on in the novel. Fill is a privileged young gay man, the grandson of one of the stock holders who own Qaanaaq. Yet, for all his wealth, Fill’s life is empty, and he fills it with meaningless sex. The story opens with him realizing he has the breaks, which has some strong parallels to AIDS. Ankit is a government worker who’s frustrated by the powerlessness of her position and the vast injustices she encounters. She’s been luckier than most, but she still thinks of her mother, locked up in Qaanaaq’s asylum/prison for unknown reasons. She knows she has a brother, Kaev, but she doesn’t actually know him. Kaev is a beam fighter (a mixed martial arts sport unique to Qaanaaq) who’s made a career out of losing rigged fights. Finally, Soq is a nonbinary message runner with an eye to moving up in the world. This aim in mind, they take a job with a local crime lord to uncover everything they can about the woman with the orca.
Ankit was the character I liked most at the beginning, but I warmed up to most of the others over the course of the book. Except maybe Fill. He did some highly aggravating things. I don’t want to say too much, but I really loved how we eventually got insight into the orca-mancer. Oh, and Soq could be pretty darn charming! There’s notable diversity in Blackfish City‘s cast too. Obviously, there’s quite a bit of queer representation (Soq, Fill, and also a f/f couple), and many of the characters were of Inuit descent. I can’t speak to that aspect of the representation, but I did enjoy the breadth and variety of queer characters.
Inter spaced with the main narrative are episode transcripts of a podcast known as “The City without a Map.” The podcast has an unknown creator with a cult following, and many in the city, including Fill, have become obsessed with the mystery and vision the podcast presents. It would be easy for these sections to feel like an infodump or just a device for conveying world building information. And while it does fulfill that purpose, it has the effect of making Qaanaaq a character in and of itself. Besides, “The City without a Map” ends up playing a larger role in the story than I would have initially assumed…
Qaanaaq may be one of my favorite ever fictional cities, up there with Ankh-Morpork from Terry Pratchett’s work. It’s just so immersive! I felt like I was there, smelling the sea and shivering in the arctic breeze. Qaanaaq is so vibrant, so complex, that it feels like it could actually exist. I could sing the praises of Blackfish City‘s setting and world building forever. Blackfish City is an entirely stand alone novel, but if Sam J. Miller ever wanted to return to Qaanaaq, I certainly wouldn’t complain.
A central theme to Blackfish City is the importance of family. Fill lives off his grandfather’s wealth, but he doesn’t know the family history or what dark deeds his grandfather did in the dying days of New York City. Ankit’s got vague memories of her birth mother and a desire to reunite with her. Kaev and Soq both think themselves without family. In general, I found this to be a powerful theme that lent a lot of warmth and heart to the book. However I was conflicted in that Blackfish City seemed to prize blood family as superior to found families or adopted families. I don’t agree with that sentiment.
Although Blackfish City might have felt a bit slow at first, by the second half I was flying through the pages. I always love when a book is able to make me feel as strongly as Blackfish City did. I would recommend this novel to anyone looking for a hopeful dystopian, a queer cast, a splendid setting, a focus on climate change or the strength and resilience of community and family.
I received an ARC in exchange for a free and honest review.