Blackfish City

By Sam J. Miller
Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
ISBN-13: 978-0062684820
Hardcover, 336 pages. ©2018

Blackfish City is a dystopian, post-climate-change novel set in Qaanaaq, a floating city north of the Arctic Circle. Political corruption, organized crime, and a mysterious illness called “the breaks” shape life in Qaanaaq, where life is gritty and the environment unforgiving. Daily survival is a struggle for most residents. No one looks too closely at anything around them. Few ask questions that might draw attention.

When a stranger shows up, a woman riding an orca and accompanied by a polar bear, people look up. They notice this nanobonded human, Masaaraq, wonder to many and abomination to some who would kill her, given the chance. But Masaaraq has other plans. The last survivor of her kind, she’s come bearing change—and justice—to Qaanaaq.

Blackfish City is told through the experiences of four very different main characters, as well as a narrator who relates pieces of backstory through “City Without a Map” broadcasts on a frequency available to all residents of the city. In the beginning, each of the characters’ tales are given to the reader in isolated patches. Yet as the story evolves, its threads begin to form a recognizable pattern until we see that these individuals are connected in unexpected ways.

The city itself is also a sort of character. Warmed by a massive underwater geothermal vent and built on a floating platform with boats docked at stations all around it, Qaanaaq is shaped almost like an asterisk, with eight arms. Each “arm” is distinct in income level and thus lifestyle, and each has its own offering for the city. The uppermost arms, pointing northwest, north, and northeast, are home to the least fortunate of the city. Personal space is non-existent. Residents rent sleep bubbles, stacked atop one another in columns and rows that make the most of available space. Migrant workers, paid to harvest ice for water, fill the ships that dock at the edges. The southernmost arms hold gardens, glass tunnels that connect the buildings at the upper levels, comfort unthinkable to the masses. Most of the story takes place in the contrast between those extremes.

The world that produced Qaanaaq is one the current climate change predictions could have foretold. Coastal cities are flooded. Heat extremes have forced people to move north. Water wars have waged for years, as well as race riots and shortages of space. It’s a very different global situation than what we have today, and though this sort of scenario has appeared in a number of sci-fi novels by now, it remains a stark and unsettling view.

The characters themselves are distinct, intriguing, and well-rounded. Fill is distinguished by his wealth, and naivete. Ankit, by her conflict between ambition and doing the right thing. Kaev, by his fighting skill, and his emotional turmoil. Soq by their deliberate distance from the people around them and by their pragmatism. Each character deepens as the story unfolds, slowly drawing the reader in. I was unsure how these very different individuals would connect, but was certain from the beginning that they would, somehow, some way. While I did foresee part of the eventual reveal, I was surprised by at least part of the conclusion.

Interestingly, the name of the book is taken from Masaaraq, “the orcamancer” as she is known by city residents. She is a heavy presence throughout the story from the very first page, yet she is given point-of-view voice in only one chapter. Bonded to her orca from a young age through nanite therapy, she doesn’t quite think like other humans. Part human, part animal, her perspective is unique in the story, and offers some insight as to how she can see solutions everyone else overlooked. It also explains the savagery of her sense of justice. An orca is not known for its gentle nature, after all.

The other unspoken character in Blackfish City is the mysterious illness called, by most, “the breaks.” Characterized by mental instability, a loss of capacity for clear speech, onset of memories in a victim’s mind that come from someone else, and other odd symptoms, no one knows what it is or where it originated. The breaks is always fatal. There is no known cure. Several characters in the story are infected, some to a greater degree than others, and it is this looming death sentence and the mystery surrounding it that drives at least part of the subplot.

Author Sam Miller did a splendid job in building this grim world, which is not at all like most Western settings I’ve seen. Qaanaaq is a blend of Norse, Swedish, Mandarin, Thai, Icelandic, and other cultures, and American voices are few and far between—as well as being viewed with some disfavor. I actually liked that departure from the usual expectation. Qaanaaq itself strikes me as a bit of a cautionary element in the tale. I can see parts of it, enough to know I wouldn’t want to live there. But some of the details – the slide boots and slideways used by Soq and the other messengers, the implants in their jaws to allow communications and messaging, the type of commerce that takes place here – was so alien to my experience that it was hard to imagine. Some of it, the sleeping capsules for example, might not be far removed from contemporary reality in overcrowded cities where climate does not allow sleeping on the streets. I’m not sure, but I can imagine it being a possibility.

I must admit that I found some of the plot resolutions a bit of a stretch. Overall, though, I enjoyed the story.  It’s definitely worth a read.