Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller (book review).

April 24, 2018 | By | Reply More

Two books came to mind as I started reading Sam J. Miller’s book ‘Blackfish City’: ‘Austral’ by Paul McAuley and ‘America City’ by Chris Beckett. Of course, it turns out the book is not particularly like those novels at all, except in some superficial sharing of tropes. It’s set in a future where climate change has drowned much of the world and where political breakdown, riots, disease and violence have radically changed society. In ‘Blackfish City’, huge cities based on the concept of oil rigs have been built out at sea, including Qaanaaq.

A city governed by rich shareholders, software algorithms and landlords and where every stratum of society is piled on board in well-ordered chaos. The super-rich live in luxury while the poorest sleep in boxes on the open decks, entertainment is provided by fighters who balance on the precarious beams and pilings and the masses live on dreams and legends.

The story of ‘Blackfish City’ follows the lives of several characters whose lives initially overlap only marginally: a political aide called Ankit; a beam fighter named Kaev; a messenger called Soq and a rich kid named Fill who likes to live dangerously. Each of them is affected by the increasing tension behind a gang war that is brewing in the background by the social unrest that is ready to turn to revolt without much further provocation and by the tragedy of a mystery disease known as ‘the breaks’. Quotes from the anonymous podcast ‘City Without A Map’ are interspersed with the text and this subversive message that seems to touch the hearts of the residents of Qaanaaq also affects the book’s characters in varied and subtle ways.

Stirring the public imagination and bringing things to a head is the arrival of the orcamancer, a wild-looking woman riding a killer whale and accompanied by a polar bear, one of the legendary nanobonded it seems. While the four characters wonder who she is and where she is from, the interconnections that link their lives slowly become evident and they each get tied up in a personal mission as well as being caught in a turf war between a gang boss and one of the city’s founders.

This is a magnificent and lyrical novel where a wonderfully described and complex city is overshadowed by fabulous legends and glorious dreams. I found myself as much enchanted by the orcamancer as were the inhabitants of the city’s slums, drawn into the myths and half-truths that surrounded her arrival and her mysterious origins. Sam J. Miller has given much thought to how this huge edifice of a city would work and how his alternative vision of governance could keep such a society balanced on a knife edge. There is sufficient detail to give the setting authenticity without resorting to a surfeit of explanation.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and read eagerly to find out not only how and why the characters’ stories would coincide but also how the whole city of Qaanaaq worked. Despite revenge being at the heart of many of the characters’ back stories, the novel had an air of optimism that was contagious and I was left wanting more.

Gareth D Jones

April 2018

(pub: Orbit/LittleBrown. 336 page paperback. Price: £ 8.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-35651-002-6)

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Category: Books, Scifi

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