A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE

by Arkady Martine (a book review)

I’ve often wondered why Star Wars hasn’t generated a subgenre of literary fiction. I don’t mean tie-in novels, I have shelves of those. I don’t mean space opera more generally, I’ve got shelves of that, too. I just think it’s odd that those of us who grew up with Star Wars as a dominant narrative didn’t end up reading and writing a great mass of smart, poetic books about galactic empires that are clearly reactions and challenges to Star Wars in the same way a lot of ‘high fantasy’ novels are to Tolkien. Not just Aldi own brand remakes, but ones that use the original as a lens to discuss bigger themes, or as a place to jump off from at a complete tangent. There are discussions of race, politics, gender, philosophy and so on and so on around Star Wars, but they never seem terribly meaty. There’s not been the artistic response that would seem to have been inevitable. Where’s the deconstruction?

Perhaps it’s that Star Wars is already found poetry, that it’s constructed from bits of lots of other things. Perhaps it’s the exact opposite, and that Star Wars is an incredibly specific thing that’s very hard to play with. Or that it’s, at heart, a swashbuckling adventure for kids, and it can’t really bear the weight. It may just be that if you want Star Wars, there’s not exactly a shortage of branded stories, and they’re offering enough of a critique of the saga to get by. I think the best answer is that Star Wars is so good at bombarding you with sights and sounds that it’s never going to translate well to the written word, that any novel trying to do an introspective, emotionally complex Star Wars will just be dancing about architecture.

This is a slightly long walk to get to me saying that I’m always on the lookout for ‘smart space opera’: stories about galactic empires that pick away at all the ‘good and evil’ stuff, that have some relationship with the empires of history. [I know they exist. Ask me about my dramatic recital of the whole of Player of Games from memory. But there aren’t that many, and a lot of them – like a lot of science fiction – plays to the home crowd a little too much.] Last year, Arkady Martine’s debut novel A Memory Called Empire scratched the itch for me, to the point that the other day I realised that I’ve been planning my other reading around finishing everything in time to clear the decks for the arrival of the sequel, A Desolation Called Peace, which is out on March 2nd. The first book won the Hugo, and if you’re reading this, there’s probably a good chance you’ve already read it, or you’re planning to. I won’t intentionally spell out or spoil plot points here.

What did I like about it? It’s got a title that could easily be for a book that’s a popular history of, say, the British Empire, or a general history of what empires leave behind, and that’s … what this novel is, basically. It’s set on the edge, then quickly right in the heart, of a Star Wars-ish galactic empire. It’s about empire. How it works, the elusiveness of what it’s for. Martine pulls off the impressive trick of making the Texicalaanli Empire echo the empires of history and space opera, while not just being a generic mush. It’s a very specific place, but it’s sort of Aztec, with a palace that feels like the Forbidden City in China, at the heart of a planet that feels like Space Constantinople, or perhaps Space London in the Astronaut Warren Hastings era. You know this place, this very odd place. It’s not alien, it’s just that everything they do there is completely different. This is a book about empire, how empires work, what sustains them, the story they tell about themselves, how they dominate the lives of those in and around them. What they take for granted.

I think it’s Gore Vidal’s line that a civilisation is defined by what it never needs to talk about, and what I love about A Memory Called Empire is that it very, very rarely falls into the black hole that a lot of SF (and historical fiction, come to that) does of characters expositing to each other to keep the reader up to speed. We start to piece together the Texicalaanli’s worldview by what’s not said, by what they take for granted. The newly-coined Ambassador Mahit Dzmare really, really doesn’t want anyone to know how little she knows about her new posting, which means she’s working it out as we do … and in turn we readers piece together her own culture from what she doesn’t need explaining, because she’s not an everyman character, either.

The Empire is seductive. Even when Mahit’s placed under house arrest, we see she lives more luxuriously than she ever did at home (she’s from a sterile space station packed with miners, who have to live frugally and precariously). The heart of Empire has amazing architecture, spectacle public places, civil servants progress based on the quality of their wit and poetry. Mahit falls in love with it. She falls in love with her liaison, Three Seagrass, but so subtly that it’s hard to say when, or how, and it’s not entirely clear Mahit herself has noticed until long after the reader has. Martine keeps us tightly focused on what living there is like for one person. And she falls in love with it, and some of it is Stockholm Syndrome, and some of it is that she’s surrounded by beauty and melodrama. It’s a place that seems poised between conquest of the whole galaxy, and toppling tomorrow night, and it feels like Mahit is right at the heart of that destiny.

There’s something far more interesting here than a standard plot where there’s a dark secret at the heart of the empire which only our heroine can learn which, once uncovered, collapses the story and the whole galactic order with it. For one thing, we’re never quite allowed to take a reading from the moral compass of the Empire. It’s clearly bad and wrong and stuff, but it’s very hard to say where and how it’s being or doing bad. The Empire, like all Empires, is a hyperobject. It surrounds your whole life, but you can never quite point at it, only collect datapoints. The Empire contains, controls and assimilates all dissent from stray thoughts to terrorist cells. It’s all part of the story, because Empire means everything is part of the story.

I find the plotting really quite fascinating. It’s a detective story, and follows the rough arc of a detective story, but the image that struck me was that reading it was often like watching an unboxing video. In a good way, in a good way! As we move to each different location, Martine just very deftly unpacks each situation, shows us around, explores nooks and crannies, lets little details stand in for the whole, and it never outstays its welcome, but it definitely takes its time. We get the sense something’s being hidden, even as everything is opened up, and displayed for us. Then just as we’re on firm footing, and we’ve figured out what the story is, and where it’s going, there’s something jarring in there (at one point a literal explosion), that propels us to the next, very different, stage of the story. We’re in an art exhibition, and there’s something wrong with the picture we’re staring at. It’s not quite clear what, then we move on to the next picture, and the same thing’s wrong … no, not the same thing, but … there’s a gallery here, and it adds up, you can sense there’s a theme, but no one’s there explaining what that theme is.

What we have is an Empire where everything can be qualified by saying ‘ostensibly’. It is ostensibly meritocratic. Ostensibly, there is sex and gender equality. Ostensibly, everyone is well-educated. There’s no obvious racial discrimination, there are poor people but no one seems abject. It’s a police state, but there’s very little we’d think of as crime anyway. It all seems rather well run and abundant. But there are clearly power dynamics, there’s clearly dominance and submission, just … not where you’d usually look. It’s all in the gaps, and the reader can’t help see the gaps.

Underlying all this luxury and poetry is violence. Actual violence, the threat of it, the ability to wield it, the reality of it and the ability of people to ignore that reality. In the end, all the rules, traditions, and the stories they tell each other aren’t as much use as commanding a battle fleet, or being able to raise a mob. And you’ve just read me saying that, and you know it’s a SF novel, and so you think that in the penultimate chapter, there’s going to be a scene where the protagonist leaves the city and sees the real suffering, or that there’s a dark secret like the fact what they’re eating is people, or something like that. I said Aztec before, so go on, it’s gotta be human sacrifices, right? And this is a book full of twists, but none of them cheap ones like that. It would be really easy, wouldn’t it, if all an Empire was was a vampiric Emperor and his loyal minions who deactivated when he died?

This is the sort of science fiction that I pretend all science fiction is like. No, hell, it’s what I pretend all fiction is like: smart, well read, political conscious, funny, seductive, memorable, a journey that illuminates our world by confronting us with one that’s not ours, beautifully constructed. Loved this book.

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