Friday Fictions: “A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine

This week’s Friday Fiction is “A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine. I want to thank @superyarn for cluing me into this book. She did so by first recommending Martine’s short story “The Hydraulic Emperor,” which was so cool that it made me want to read “A Memory Called Empire.”

By the way, if you’ve already read one story, I think you would probably like the other. Both feature poetic and Borgesian turns of phrase and an aesthetic that I think of as cyberpunk Byzantium (Martine is a historian of the Byzantine Empire). Their aims are quite different though–Hydraulic Emperor is an incisive thought experiment that instantly put me in mind of a William Gibson/KJ Parker mashup, except with aliens.

Whereas Memory is a gorgeous sprawl of space-opera-as-political-thriller. What surprised me was how much it luxuriated in every beat of the plot. The story never rushes, even during scenes where characters are dying. The bulk of the plot–flashbacks notwithstanding–takes place over a couple of sleepless days, which you wouldn’t guess from the sheer mass of the book. Which you also wouldn’t guess from the e-book (which is the version that I bought, because living abroad discourages the purchase of paper books), because the engine of the story flowed so frictionlessly that I was never tired or bored or anything but gently propelled from one page to the next.

Speaking of plots. Lsel Station is an independent world near the enormous and enormously influential Teixcalaanli Empire, which spans multiple star systems. When said empire abruptly requests a new ambassador from Lsel–without disclosing what happened to the previous ambassador, Yskander, who had been there for decades–Mahit Dzmare is chosen for the role.  She must go to the Teixcalaanli Empire’s capital city-planet and try to untangle the situation, not to mention survive.

Fortunately, or so Mahit thinks, she will have help in the form of an imago: a chip surgically implanted into her brainstem that carries the knowledge and personality of her predecessor. It’s not another person in your body. It’s more akin to the Trill/Symbiont situation from Star Trek: Deep Space 9, only the Symbiont is another member of your own species.

Naturally, the imago promptly malfunctions when Mahit, and the ghost of Yskander, face their first crisis. Now Mahit can only rely on herself … and the Teixcalaanli people around her. Who consider her rather a credit to her inferior culture.

This sets up Mahit’s primary internal conflict. On the one hand, she knows that Lsel is always in danger of being swallowed up by the ever-hungry empire. On the other hand, she loves consuming the empire’s culture: its language, its names, its popular culture.

And through Mahit’s point of view, we experience the gorgeous culture. The capital planet is a lush and golden place where you may dine on stuffed flowers (plus or minus poison), where jewel-colored birds dance in vertical gardens, where the emperor sits on a sunburst throne of golden spears.

(A brief aside. Although Lsel’s technology is far more important to the plot, and the #Teixcalaanli #Aesthetic is generally about being lush and beautiful and quite literally organic (Mahit says at one point that Lsel station doesn’t have many animals), there is one very important bit of Teixcalaanli that is technological: their capital city is run on algorithms. The subways are fully automatic based on traffic patterns, and–anxiety of our times–the city’s police force, the Sunlit, are an unholy fusion of people and AI into a collective mind. They are literally faceless and indistinguishable behind their identical gold masks. The algorithms governing their actions are said to be flawless and impersonal, but the text reminds us that no algorithms are. Very au courant.)

Even Teixcalaanli names are gorgeous: they are mathematical poetry. We meet Three Seagrass, Twelve Azalea, et al. Speaking of poetry, the Teixcalaanli cultured elite communicates through poetry to an extent that is, in my opinion, only matched by Chinese palace dramas.

There is a scene where Mahit watched several Teixcalaanli natives spontaneously play with poetry forms, and she realizes that even though she has studied their language and culture all her life, she doesn’t have that skill. And she is pulled apart on the inside between wanting to have that skill and being ashamed of having that want. Because the Teixcalaanli Empire are colonizers who would swallow her world whole. Because to Teixcalaanli citizens, she is and will always be a barbarian who cannot compose such verses, who does not have that native fluency in language and cultural understanding.

This was the part where I fell in love with Mahit. Because I know that immigrant feeling all too well, even though we have experienced vastly different aspects. The major difference between us–other than her ambassadorial status–is that I applied for citizenship. I joined the empire. (No regrets. But that’s a different blog post.)

SFF is full of empires, because empires have power and power makes for stakes and stakes make for plot (YMMV; I’m being general here). What’s interesting to me about “A Memory Called Empire” is that Mahit, an outsider, is helping to stabilize the Empire. You don’t see this a whole lot. You get overthrowing the monarchy and restoring the rightful heir and so on, but rarely do you get a protagonist who decides that the only winning move is not to play.

At the end–mild spoiler alert–Mahit gets to ask for whatever she wants from the Empire. She asks to be allowed to go home before the Empire can conquer her, too. In a book full of politicking and rebellion and murder, it’s a zen moment when she seizes back her destiny. She knows that in a day, a week, a month, a year–she could get recalled anytime–but in the meantime, she is home.

I think the part of the fantasy that grabs me the most isn’t even how gorgeous the Teixcalaanli Empire is, but that Mahit both wants to go home and has a home that she loves to go to. My home is different now, and I’m happy enough with it, but I am very slightly envious of Mahit. Only very slightly, because who knows what will happen in Book Two, which I have preordered! (Well, book one set up a future plot involving aliens so I imagine the payoff will come, or start to come, in book two).

But in the meanwhile, I would like to imagine myself there on Lsel Station, in spirit, to welcome Mahit home.

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