Book review: Blackfish City - Sam J. Miller

Blackfish City - Sam J. Miller ****

Sam J. Miller's Blackfish City presents a refreshingly different look on the now popular and always relevant subject of an imminent post-society, post-USA, post-apocalyptic world. It doesn't get too bogged down in the details of the global meltdown, but the indications here of an America on the verge of self-destruction exacerbated by global environmental concerns about rising sea levels are familiar ones and we should already have a good idea of how that will play out (and be concerned about it in real life). Miller's interest is more about how society might cope with it afterwards, and it has more ideas than the common Max Mad-like dystopias of marauding red-necks preying on communities for scarce resources. Blackfish City however also has some other interesting ideas of how society reforms itself in the aftermath of disaster and returns to deeper foundations.

The obvious consequence of rising sea levels and the downfall of the American republic and the type of society that it represents is that everyone is now a refugee. Instead of land-based cities, people now live on floating cities based on oil-rig technology that have in some cases expanded to vast dimensions. One such city is Qaanaaq, perhaps the most famous of grid cities, located in the Arctic Circle above Iceland and off the coastline of Greeenland. Qaanaaq has proved to be more stable than most cities who have succumbed to class wars and loss of structural integrity as it is governed by an artificial intelligence. All however is not well on Qaanaaq.

Qaanaaq is not immune to social inequalities. It has various 'arms' that keep the wealthy citizens well away from those who are in rather more difficult circumstances. The inequalities provide opportunities - for different reasons - for politicians and for organised crime lords, both of whom however are interested in the amount of cubicles that are believed to be lying empty while many live in shared, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Another concern is the spread of a disease known as 'the breaks', thought to be sexually transmitted, but it is now even affecting children. Its symptoms are unusual, manifesting in a whirl of memories that don't belong to the person afflicted, transmitted perhaps from someone else.

The various problems on Qaanaaq, as you might expect if you want a thrilling science-fiction adventure, seem to be coming to a head. One sign that things are about to change is the rumour of a female warrior with a polar bear arriving at the floating city on a skiff towed by a killer whale. Among the various citizens in each of chapters of Blackfish City who will become involved in the mission that has brought this 'orcamancer' to Qaanaaq, are Fill, a promiscuous young gay man from one of the wealthy founding families of the city who is afflicted with the breaks; Kaev, a journeyman 'beam fighter' who works for the city's most powerful crime boss, Go; Ankit, a former 'scaler' who works alongside an elected official and carries out administrative and operational functions for one of the Arms of the city; and Soq, a young slideway messenger who witnesses the social injustice and hopes to be able to gain power and influence in Go's organisation.

There's a good cross-section of characters in Blackfish City to give a broad overview of life in a post-apocalyptic grid city, along with all the various social problems and personal ambitions that each of the characters have to deal with in their everyday lives. It's the focus on the personal lives of the characters rather than the global and environmental issues however that gives Miller's novel more of a human heart than you would normally expect from a book of this type, and it remains expansive on that level at least, even if it doesn't try to look too far out beyond Qaanaaq for what is going on in the rest of the world. There are however outside issues leading to the breakdown of social order in the old world that do prove to be important, particularly on the question of 'nanobonding', a technology that has been developed to connect humans to animals.

Which of course brings us to the 'orcamancer' Masaaraq and the part that she will play in what develops in Blackfish City. Without getting into any spoilers, a warrior with a polar bear and a killer whale under her command brings all the action and turmoil that you might expect, and certainly upsets the order on the city. Miller balances this well and ties it in with the personal circumstances of each of the characters who all find themselves connected in one way or another in the situation that develops, even if it's just in passing. The writing is superb in how it brings all this together, Miller demonstrating a distinct literary quality in his writing that doesn't get too wordy, poetic or showy, but rather seeks to establish that sense of connectedness that brings characters and situation together.

In some respects, Blackfish City reminds me of Philip K Dick - not so much in the writing style, which is far more accomplished here, as in the underlying focus on the ordinary individual caught up in grand schemes and exceptional experiences that seem beyond their control to influence. It's about survival though forging a strong sense of personal identity, and each of the characters that Miller focusses on in Blackfish City do that. More than that however, what helps each of those individuals forge that sense of identity is family. Here in Blackfish City, Miller expands on the idea with the concept of 'nanobonding' but essentially it's all about family connections. When it comes to establishing control and power bases, family can work both ways, holding one back as well as giving a purpose, but it's always important, and along with the great writing and the explosive action that develops, this underlying theme gives a firm foundation for this wonderfully creative SF tale.

Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller is published by Orbit on 19th April 2018

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