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Blackfish City by Sam J. MillerUK cover3.5 stars
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Blackfish City is a gritty and propulsive novel that combines the aesthetics of classic Gibsonian cyberpunk with a more contemporary concern over such pressing issues as climate change, wealth inequality, political corruption and xenophobia. Sam J. Miller, who won the Andre Norton Award for his first novel, The Art of Starving, has set his first SF novel for adults aboard a massive oceanic city named Qaanaaq, located near the coast of Greenland above some geothermal vents from which it draws energy. Most of the old world is discussed in the past tense. What was once the United States has descended into a kind of Mad Max lawlessness following numerous wars over resources, and Qaanaaq, which is built in the shape of something like a massive starfish with eight arms, is straining under the influx of refugees from “the drowned world.”

Qaanaaq has a hands-off approach to government that seems like a Libertarian dream, and no, that’s not a good thing. City security is administered by benevolent AIs, while actual ownership of the city is divvied up among a cabal of anonymous shareholders, and any kind of human leadership exists in the form of elected Arm Managers who ostensibly tend to the needs of the citizenry. What this has allowed is the rapid ascension of organized crime and complete laissez-faire capitalism. The wealthy, as in most dystopian stories, live in rarified luxury and keep hundreds of residential properties off the market and empty, driving up real estate prices through artificial scarcity and forcing working people and refugees to settle for little more than repurposed shipping crates.

Like a lot of dystopian SF, the plot will involve a vengeful quest to even the scales of justice between the haves and have-nots. But where Miller helps his story rise above the pack is in refusing to offer tidy moral clarity between idealized, noble champions of the oppressed on one side, and one-dimensional sinister overlords on the other. Nearly everyone is a bit dirty in this town. Qaanaaq is one of those vividly realized SFF cities that becomes a central character in its own right. And though some of its influences can feel a bit obvious — like all the food carts selling ramen that are a definite homage to Blade Runner — it does feel like a living, breathing place. It’s tactile and amazingly vivid.

It’s also a city that, for obvious reasons, cannot expand. The rush of refugees from the American mainland is a source of growing stress, and when space is limited, those who control the living space have the greatest political power, no matter who else says they’re in charge.

Miller offers us no fewer than four viewpoint characters. And while a lot of books that try this kind of thing can often end up wildly confusing, you’ll never feel lost in Blackfish City, though it must be said that Miller is much stronger at creating sympathetic people and exploring intellectually stimulating ideas than he is at keeping his narrative as smooth as it can be. There is something about the story structure that can occasionally feel messy, but it’s our connection to these very broken and believable people that keeps us on the hook.

Fill is a young gay man who’s also the grandson of one of the city shareholders. Ankit is a woman who works as an assistant to one of the Arm Managers, and her boss’s political career is in peril as she is very likely to lose her next election. Kaev makes his living in the city’s most popular sport, fighting on steel beams suspended over the ocean, and he’s paid by Go, a powerful female crimelord, to throw fights to younger guys that the syndicates are grooming as upcoming champions. Kaev has a kind of neurological disorder that only fighting offers him the mental focus to overcome, but he’s getting older and his days in the sport are numbered. Finally, Soq is a nonbinary courier who parkours his way up and down the arms of the city, and is hoping for a little career advancement from Go.

The lives of these characters are brought together in fairly inspired fashion by a couple of events. First is the spread of an epidemic called “the breaks,” which causes its victims to experience the memories of not only the person who infected them, but other people in the chain of infection as well. Ultimately fatal, it’s typically spread as an STD. Fill has it, and Ankit has a moment of awakening in her personal conscience, you might say, when she sees that the disease has even spread to small children living among the huddled masses in the poorer arms where refugees end up. The parallels to the rise of HIV in the 1980s are intentional.

The second event is the arrival in Qaanaaq of a woman whom we come to know as Masaaraq, who turns up in the company of both an orca and a polar bear. It’s assumed, correctly, that she is one of a group of people who were nanobonded, their minds melded through nanotechnology to those of animal companions. They’re considered abominations by many. But when a mob of fundamentalists decide to confront Masaaraq with violence, they get themselves massacred as a result.

Precisely what Masaaraq is doing in the city, who and what she’s looking for, her relationships to the main characters, and their relationships to one another, serve as the engine of an impressively complex and twisty plot. But it is one that takes its time weaving all of its strands together, only to ramp up considerably in the book’s second half as events hurtle towards an action-packed (and somewhat abrupt) conclusion. Miller also uses the device of an illicit broadcast called City Without a Map as a way of providing context and backstory. It is thankfully not nearly as infodumpy as it could have been.

In the end, Blackfish City is about the bonds of family, and in a world where being displaced is far more normalized than being secure, family — whoever they may be to you — is really where home is to be found. Miller’s characters, again, become quite real to us, sometimes heartbreakingly so. But your mileage will vary widely in terms of who you might identify with. I had particular sympathy for Kaev, both in terms of what he gains and what he loses as a price. And I liked Soq and and Ankit a great deal. But Masaaraq felt emotionally aloof to me.

Blackfish City is an imperfect but rich and challenging adventure that doesn’t tell us comfortable lies that the future is entirely ours to make. It’s honest that forces more powerful than we could dream of being, forces that are seductive precisely because of that power, will usually have the upper hand and impact our lives against our will or our own power to effectively resist. But it also reminds us that however much the system is stacked against us, we can find the people in it we love, and choose whatever small part we can to change it for the better.