Blogging the Nebulas: Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire Marries Cyberpunk, Space Opera, and Political Thriller

The Nebula Awards could be described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature; they are voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are six nominees in the best novel category this year. Every day this week, I will be reviewing each of them and figuring their odds of taking home the prize. Welcome to Blogging the Nebulas 2020.

The Pitch

I’d like to begin with a bit of a mea culpa; I started writing this review series back in early March, at a point when it seemed unimaginable I’d have trouble finding time to write a few thousand words about six fantastic sci-fi and fantasy novels before the deadline of the Nebula Awards ceremony on May 30. But then I got a new full-time writing and editing job, which became a work-from-home job when the pandemic shut down New York City, including—perhaps most significantly w/r/t my productivity—its elementary schools. Regardless, I’m back, and I still have…a couple of weeks to go until we have a new Nebula winner to celebrate, and I’d certainly be remiss not to discuss the rest of this shockingly good ballot. Beginning with…

A Memory Called Empire, by occasional Tor.com contributor Arkady Martine (née historian AnnaLinden Weller) is one of my favorite kinds of science fiction novels: the political thriller. That is to say, it a political thriller pasted into science fiction, or perhaps the other way around; its story functions as an exploration of the politics of a future human society that feels sensibly extracted from that of our present day, plus cool spaceships and a dash of cyberpunk. I like books like this because they usually have a lot to say about the world around us, but can do so with enough cool technological ornamentation that you might not notice if you aren’t paying attention. Iain M. Banks is the master of this sort of thing; The Player of Games is the best political SF novel I’ve ever read. Ann Leckie is no slouch either; in fact, the sequels to Ancillary Justice disappointed a contingent of readers when they revealed the Imperial Radch trilogy to be less about the flash of space battles and more about the small moves of political gambits.

A Memory Called Empire is also a very, very good political sci-fi novel (see: the Nebula nomination, I suppose, but even still). It takes place within a dominant future human empire known as Teixcalaan, which has control of a network of wormhole gates that have given it the means and the methods to absorb the cultures and resources of one human civilization after another (there are no on-the-page aliens to speak of in this space opera, though signs of a mysterious, unconfirmed alien presence encroaching on Teixcalaan space do kick the plot into gear). Our protagonist is Mahit Dzmare, ambassador to the Teixcalaan from the strategically located but otherwise unimportant Lsel Station, a self-sufficient outpost that is doing everything it can to avoid annexation by the empire.

The question of independence is a bit clouded as the novel opens, as Mahit is making her way to the Teixcalaan capital to replace her predecessor, Yskandr Aghavn, who has been incommunicado for 15 years and is also recently dead. With no knowledge of the alliances Yskandr had forged on the station—nor the enemies he’d made—Mahit’s position is a tenuous one from the outset, especially considering the fact that the Teixcalaan elite tend to view Lsel as a backwater and Mahit as an uncultured barbarian of sorts.

What the Teixcalaan don’t know is the Lsel Station has maintained its independence for so long thanks to a remarkable bit of proprietary technology: the Imago, a small biomechanical device implanted near the brainstem that records the experiences, skills, and personality of its host, preserving them for implantation into another body and mind down the line. (It might help to think of it as a mix between Altered Carbon‘s cortical stacks and the Trill of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.) Unfortunately, Mahit’s Imago of Yskander dates back to his last visit to Lsel Station, meaning the voice in her head can only offer so much help—and less than that, once the device stops working altogether for mysterious reasons.

The question of the faulty Imago is but one of the mysteries that drives the plot. Another concerns the fate if Yskander himself: Did he die of natural causes, or due to lethal misadventure, or outright murder? Certain there are plenty of suspects, for the Empire is in the midst of a succession crisis, and various key players seem to have viewed Yskader as either a threat or a potential ally—or both. Minus the aid of her implanted predecessor, Mahit must rely on the aid of her cultural attaché, an ambitious young diplomat named Three Seagrass (Teixcalaan naming conventions are a delight I’ll let you discover for yourself). Plots and counterplots pile atop one another as Mahit begins to unravel a conspiracy involving a potential civil war, with Lsel station serving as an unlikely lynchpin keeping things in balance.

I knew within a few chapters that A Memory Called Empire was going to be an impressive first novel, and my opinion of it only improved in the reading: It’s a nearly flawless one. It’s been a long time since I’ve read such a cohesive debut, so assured in terms of narrative voice (slyly amused and expertly controlled), plotting (dense but never confusing), and character (Mahit’s maturation from naive tourist to savvy operative is entirely believable; the supporting characters are succinctly drawn and memorable, if not downright endearing). It’s incredibly rich thematically as well, musing on the push and pull of colonialism, cultural appropriation and gentrification.

I am not quite sure it is my favorite novel of 2019 (if anything, it shares the top spot with another book I’ll be discussing in this series), but it is unquestionably the best thing I read all year.

Why it could win

It may seem silly to say this, but I think A Memory Called Empire is one of the top contenders for the Nebula this year for no other reason that it is an appallingly impressive novel; frankly, I find it slightly infuriating that its author managed to write something so accomplished right out of the gate.

While there’s certainly no accounting for the individual tastes of Nebula voters, it’s hard to imagine a whole host of them won’t be supremely impressed by the skill with which this thing has come together. As a work of political science fiction, it excels; Martine has crafted a careful consideration of the politics of colonialism and empire, power and exploitation, subjugation and interdependency.

As a feat of worldbuilding, it is playful and imaginative; the peculiar language and politics of the Teixcalaan Empire are massively interesting and enormously fun (try to finish the book without choosing your own Teixcalaan name), and are woven into the narrative so effortlessly that you won’t be bored by infodumps—nor will you strictly need to consult the appendix at the back (though I recommend doing so; it’s quite delightful).

In particular, the clever epigraphs that open each chapter offer truly economical yet intriguing background on the history of this civilization. In the form of customs paperwork, a guidebook, a news transcript, a screenplay and more, they are amusing to read and doubly so to puzzle out—particularly because half of them pull from Teixcalaan sources and half from those of Lsel Station, and their accountings of the way of things don’t always agree.

As a political thriller, it is first-rate. The plot starts off as a murder mystery and builds from there, the death of Mahit Dzmare’s ambassadorial predecessor turning out to be most consequential indeed, and for reasons I definitely did not see coming. There are many factions vying for power on Teixcalaan, and none of their motives are quite the same. But as complex as they are, the politics are never confusing, which is no mean feat in a book with so many characters and, yeah, I’ll say it, such challenging naming conventions (so maybe I did use the appendix a few times).

All this, and the characters are memorable too: Mahit’s is a comfortable mind to spend a few hundred pages inhabiting; she’s both incredibly competent and occasionally naive to a fault. The supporting cast is peppered with fascinating foils and allies who you’ll come to know and hate or love in appropriate measure (and weep for, on occasion; not everyone makes it out alive). I didn’t know there were plans for a sequel until I’d finished reading it, and I was delighted at the prospect, if only for the chance to see a few of these folks again.

In short, I can’t think of much negative to say about this novel. I fairly loved it, and remain deeply impressed at the feats it accomplishes more than a year after reading it for the first time. Amazon twice named it one of the best science fiction book of last year, and I’m finding it hard to disagree.

Why it may not win

As I mentioned in the first post in this series, debut authors don’t have the greatest track record at the Nebulas; typically an author will have a better shot at taking the top prize if they’ve got a few more books (or even Best Novel nominations) to tout on their Wikipedia pages. And while she has assembled a respectable list of short story and non-fiction publications over her eight years writing in the genre (which you can peruse on her website), this is Arkady Martine’s first awards season.

To grope blindly for other points of analysis, I might also suggest that the Nebula winners over the past have decade have indicated a general preference for fantasy novels over science fiction; last year’s victory by Mary Robinette Kowal’s fairly realistic SF alt-history The Calculating Stars notwithstanding, the last winner that really slots alongside Martine’s debut in terms of tone and subject matter is Ann Leckie’s 2013 novel Ancillary Justice; in the years in-between, voters favored works of fantasy of one sort or another over space opera the likes of The Three-Body Problem, Ancillary Mercy, and Ninefox Gambit. Space opera in general doesn’t tend to take home the top prize often (you can count the number of winners in the past quarter-century that prominently feature spaceships on one hand.) And speaking of which, there’s another splashy big-ideas sci-fi novel crowding the ballot this year too, threatening to steal some of Martine’s high concept thunder.

Of course, hemming and hawing about track records and past precedent is only somewhat efficacious. A book’s only real competition in a given year are the other nominees. Martine happens to be one of four debut novelists vying for the award, meaning there are pretty good odds one of them will take it—and if you’ve read A Memory Called Empire, you know it pretty goddam well deserves to.

Joel Cunningham was the founding editor of the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog (RIP), where he explored the galaxy for 5 years, picking up a Hugo Award (well, tangentially) along the way. He’s now managing editor of Lifehacker, which means he’s managing at least one thing nowadays. He lives in an apartment in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and hopes to go outside again someday. He tweets @joelevard.

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