A Spring Break/Pandemic read! Whether or not you’re in quarantine, right now’s a great time for us to do another review from The Naked Truth, where I break down a published novel as if it had appeared in a writer’s workshop. Very few books ever come close to being perfect, and for a debut author, I think Arkady Martine delivered a solid effort with the 2019 release of A Memory Called Empire from Tor. Arguably, this book is more of a murder mystery with a science fictional setting than what I would consider a true space opera, and many parts of the plot, involving a fair bit of court intrigue, feel like they’re lifted out of high fantasy rather than science fiction. Yet, somehow this story pulls off a hybrid synthesis of multiple genres—and in the end it’s a slick read that I would recommend picking up for fans of stories with imaginative, otherworldly cultures.
A quick synopsis: We follow the new ambassador, Mahit a Teixcalaanli super-fan who’s also very young for her post at only 26 years old, to the homeworld of their galaxy-spanning empire. Mahit is from a community of “Stationers” who are an independent entity on the edges of this empire, and they’re afraid of being the next target of Teixcalaanli annexation. When Mahit arrives on the planet, she finds out the previous ambassador is dead—assassinated—and this sets off a chain reaction of political events that leads all the way to the Emperor himself.
Let’s start with the three “+”s*, or where I think the novel is strongest:
(*mild spoilers ahead—see the mighty Sun Throne below)
+ Insane Depth to the Empire’s Cultural Layers
Martine does a fantastic job drawing the reader into this world in the first few chapters. She’s done something very clever with her protagonist Mahit: not only she is an ambassador for the first time to this strange new world, but she’s also crazy for Teixcalanni poetry and culture, so the reader gets to experience her spikes of joy as she witnesses this society up close for the first time. This appears across a broad spectrum in the prose itself that hits lots of highlights: food, language, clothing, and etiquette are given emphasis, and the author uses the right amount of weird vocabulary, with words like asekreta and ixplanatl appearing just enough to give the world texture. The only thing that I found off-putting at first was the strange custom of Teixcalanni names, which fit the format of “number” plus “noun.” For example, Mahit’s cultural contact is named “Three Seagrass” while the emperor is “Six Direction,” etc., but once you get used to this element, the rest of the world slides right into place.
After reading a chapter or two, I found myself wondering how many parallels the fictional Teixcalanni empire has with the actual historical empires, and a quick Google search yielded this result: the author has a PhD in History with a focus on the Byzantine empire…a-ha! Knowing this detail provided me with an interesting meta-textual read of the story, as I felt like I was watching Martine twist elements of history with her own touches to invent a totally new culture. In the end, I liked this aspect of my reader-experience, as it was not unlike going back to The Wheel of Time and watching Robert Jordan reforge dozens of different cultures into his own unique societies.
+ Intriguing Philosophy Regarding Colonialism
Martine dedicates this book to anyone “who has ever fallen in love with a culture that was devouring their own,” and specifically references two Armenian scholars who resisted their own culture’s absorption by the Byzantine empire in the early 1100’s. This simple quote provides the entire theoretical context for the book and posits an interesting question: can a smaller society successfully integrate itself within a larger empire, or is it in their best interest to remain independent? Also, when threatened with violent annexation, is it better to capitulate to an invader to minimize the damage?
This novel provokes more questions than it has answers, but nonetheless the reader is forced to ponder larger questions about ethics relating to colonialism, with perspectives from both the outside culture and from those within its walls.
+ A Story About Poetry that Includes Real Poetry!
One of my favorite more recent books is 2006’s Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge, but even though that story focuses on a fictional famous poet, the reader never gets to see any of his poetry, which I found pretty frustrating. Martine’s Teixcalaanli people have poetry infused into nearly every aspect of their culture, and while I am not a poet and only know some of the most basic rules of the genre, the poetry featured in A Memory Called Empire feels authentic in the world where it lives. The most epic work is by a poet named Nine Maize, and the untitled poem features as a kind of backbone for the mood of the entire novel:
Every skyport harbor overflows
Citizens carry armfuls of imported flowers
These things are ceaseless: star-charts, disembarkments
The curl of unborn petals holds a hollowness
The inclusion of original Teixcalaanli poetry in this work is a major flex by the author, as the poem itself serves as a kind of anti-empire political message in the story by a controversial character. This kind of world-building is truly next level, and is likely why this book is now nominated for a 2020 Nebula Award.
But, The Naked Truth isn’t a review blog where we simply hand out stars and likes; we dissect the book down to the granular level to see where the stitching doesn’t hold up. For all of the strengths of this book, there were some aspects that irked me, more as a fellow writer of science fiction rather a reader, so other people may not have even noticed where I was scratching my head and rolling my eyes.
Here are the three “Δ”s, or where I think things should have been reconsidered:
Δ Inconsistent World-Building Related to Technology
This glitch really broke the “fictive dream” of this world into more of a fantasy universe than a science fictional one for me. Immediately the idea of the “imago,” or what Martine describes as, “the implanted, integrated memory of one’s predecessor, housed half in her neurology and half in a small ceramic-and-metal machine clasped to her brainstem,” threw up a lot of red flags for me. She takes the idea of being able to “copy” another person’s entire nervous system, a tried and true science fictional trope I’m okay with, whether in the style of Altered Carbon or Revelation Space, and then adds the extra dimension that didn’t make a lot of sense. Okay, so Mahit has the former ambassador in her head, some dude named Yskander, and he keeps trying to take over her nervous system…but what does that mean? His emotional response to a stressful event acts on her own endocrine system…somehow…and he speaks to her through invisible thoughts, and she replies by thinking the words?
Martine tries to “hang a lampshade” on these problems by stating that Mahit didn’t have the proper amount of time to “adjust” to Yskander, but that hand wave really breaks the world for me. (Note: full-body scanners: not yet available at Teixcalannli space-ports…)
A minor spoiler here—the imago device quickly fails and Yskander disappears for a large portion of the book, but this is just the start of a trend of technological oddities that continues all throughout the story. The entire plot also hinges on the imago technology not being discovered until after Yskander is already dead, but it makes absolutely no sense from a civilization that has ubiquitous technology and a massive space empire would not have full-body scanners. Also, other things like the “warp gates” used for interstellar travel never being fully explained (they are mysterious alien tech…I think?) and the appearance of an “illegal projectile weapon,” aka, a forbidden gun (*cough* there are no guns in space *cough*) towards the end of the story was an almost laughable addition in a spot where the tone was supposed to be dire/dangerous.
Δ Plot Slowly Unravels Into Utilizing “Saturday Morning Cartoon” Logic
This “space whodunit” starts out promising, as we have a couple of neat twists that I won’t give away here, but about halfway through the book the pace starts to slog and the plotting gets lazy. I marked p. 124 as the first place where Martine really starts exposition-bombing the reader about how neat the Teixcalaanli language is, and after this point the story arch goes a little bit too railroad for my tastes. We fall into the familiar formula of situation-objective-disaster sequences as Mahit struggles from one problem to the next, but the climax of her meeting the Emperor Six Direction happens too early, and we can never get the same momentum of that instance again.
I still think the book is worth reading, so I won’t give anything important away, but the story devolves quickly into a plot more at home in the world of YA fiction than adult sci-fi, a disturbing trend that’s I’ve noticed is becoming more common in Nebula nominees over the past few years. The space operas I tend to like get crazier and crazier as we go deeper into the imagined world, like those of Zelazny, Le Guin, and Philip K. Dick. As a reader, I kept skipping off the surface of this world rather than sinking into its murky depths. Some examples that successfully did this are: Lord of Light, The Word for World is Forest, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.
Δ Character Motivation Warps: Vindication Becomes Validation
This is the weirdest observation I have about this book. We start out with an ideal story question—who killed Yskander?—but Mahit isn’t our typical hard-boiled detective, and somewhere along the line it’s like the reader is forced to jump onto an entirely different narrative ship. The murder mystery aspects of the plot become absorbed by a bildungsroman, as Mahit’s acceptance into Teixcalaanli society and her success as an ambassador become more important than the now-minor detail of Yskander’s murder. On the one hand, this makes sense for her narrative arc, but the shift is another strain on the fictive dream for me. There’s a few other subplot twists, including a really tacked-on romantic element, but after Chapter 17 I found myself just not caring anymore about what was going to happen. While I did finish the book, the last hundred pages were a skim-read because I felt the story had already ended with Yskander’s reveal. I’m sure many other readers didn’t react this way and they were satisfied with Mahit’s arc, which finishes with the ultimate validation of a Teixcalaanli fangirl—she writes a poem that changes the way their society operates—but this all felt inauthentic to me.
In conclusion, A Memory Called Empire is refreshing addition to the genre for its unique use of language and culture, but at the same time there’s something about the novel that feels only half-real. Like Philip K. Dick said in his speech, “How To Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” science fiction writers have a problem on where they get their authority, trapped between the worlds of science and literature, and Martine is stuck in this annoying limbo, doing some things well and others poorly. A savvy reader can kick down the cardboard facade of this world pretty easily, but at the same time, even if those Teixcalaanli cut-outs are somewhat two-dimensional, if you can afford yourself a little cognitive dissonance, the staging of this empire is as fascinating as it is beautiful. Star-charts and disembarkments indeed.
Until next time,
BONUS: I’ll give a “+” for the meta-textual documents before the beginning of each chapter, which show little snippets of Stationer and Teixcalaanli society. These were great world-building elements that drew me further into Mahit’s mindset as a member of both cultures.
SPOILER: I’ll also throw a minor “Δ” at the introduction of merciless, non-communicating killer aliens as the solution for the ultimate philosophical problem of the novel. How do you stop your culture from being absorbed by an empire? By distracting them with an even more dire problem, apparently. Like the unexplained jump gates, this kind of hand-waving solution really irks me as a fan of science fiction. Aliens I never get to see but I keep being assured a dangerous threat? This makes me want to throw your book across the room.