Blackfish City by Sam J Miller
Publisher - Orbit
Published - Out Now
Price - £12.99 hardback
I wish to thank the publisher for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review
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 they will learn shocking truths about themselves
We are used to the megacities in science fiction. Those places where humanity clusters for it’s final days. Be they forever raining, neon-lit or patrolled by grimacing helmeted police warriors this is where stand and fall. In this new entrant to the genre we visit Qaanaaq a city that resembles multiple rigs merged together in the far arctic while most of the rest of the world is drowned or uninhabitable. As often is the case it brings all of humanity’s darker impulses but the stand-out message I got from this was a sense of hope making it a truly remarkable start to what I hope is a fascinating series.
Qaanaaq is a fascinating place ruled by AIs but also purely there to make the people feel better there are human officials (who do little) and at its heart (as always) the powerful and the wealthy protected from everything. People have biological communicators but are still may be squashed with many others into decaying living quarters that may be next to billionaire’s empty holiday home. A vibrant black market thrives; regional tensions still exist in miniature and cross the wrong person you may find yourself throw in the freezing ocean waters. Initially this is exactly what you would expect from a future world where the cataclysms we fear finally occur.
The story primarily focuses on the lives of four characters from all parts of the society. Fil is a young gay man who comes from the richer side of society. A lost soul who tries to renounce his past he is suddenly shocked to find he appears to be infected with a new disease that means you are connected to all those previously infected; “The Breaks” means you increasingly are experiencing time our of reality. Then we have Ankit who has slowly worked her way up through government and is working hard to get her candidate re-elected but suddenly finding a child with The Breaks she realises her conscience wants to help people rather than simply say what people want to hear – this was not the wisest move.
At the other end of the spectrum we have Kaev who as he has a severe issue with communication and apparent emotion has found himself as a journeyman fighter constantly having to lose games to allow hot young marketable talent to win and when not doing that works for the an up and coming gangling boss he fell in love with. Finally, we have a non-binary character in young So who has been building a reputation as a fearless deliverer of ahem questionable goods but finally has found himself with an opportunity to work for Go who finds him a promising new worker. Impressively and quite organically these four characters will build up your understanding of the world and cultures that resides in Qaanaaq and slowly we see the dotted lines as each one crosses paths with the others discovering many connections which as a reader I loved how it wasn’t simply spoon-fed in exposition. The way the group then bonds felt completely logical and it’s a team you really route for and fear for their survival.
Into this city of standard competing factions comes the rogue element – an orcamancer. Someone mentally bonded with an animal through a form of biochemistry science. Many years ago, this was deemed as heretical science and those who had received it would often find themselves hunted and destroyed. However, as our unnamed Orcamancer is a vicious fighter aided by both a killer whale and polar bear the few factions who try to pick up the mantle of executioner soon find it was a bloody bad idea…emphasis on blood. Our quartet and the Orcamancer however do have work to do and this will challenge the city’s power struggles which will result in retaliation...
At first, you really do think you’ve heard this one before and it just appears beautifully realised. All the characters stand out in their personalities and the way it has been plotted where they cross paths is done subtly and really is quite stunning in how easily the world and its history is explained. But what I feel is the books selling point is that this book becomes much more about a found family as the characters start to work together and slowly its less about purely grasping for power but doing the right thing for the better of humanity. It’s a book that asks the question that if we did truly lose most of the world do we really need to carry on all the conflicts and social rules we have created, or could we work to be better? Is that our only source of hope for the future? This really creates a freshness and then slowly you look at the city and realise people are evolving learning other languages, cultures and crossing boundaries. Add to that potential changes in technology and while it’s a story with deceptions, lies and violence there is a sense of optimism that a future can be developed although it will have to be hard-won.
This is one of those novels I’ve been mentally coming back to several times since I finished it exploring why it capture my attention so much. My impression is that its taken a verrrrrrry familiar idea in SF and given it in these darkened times a more progressive outlook than we have had for a while with a sense of hope is something we all need right now. Strongly recommended to SF fans out there to pick up now