By: Sam J. Miller
Release Date: April 17, 2018
Blackfish City is a dystopian science fiction novel from Sam J. Miller whose novel The Art of Starving won the Andre Norton Award. The story takes place on an earth drowned by the sea. Climate change has shrunk livable land, countries have fallen, and refugees migrate to places like Qaanaaq – a floating city near a geothermal vent close to Greenland. But as much as Qaanaaq is a savior for the displaced, it has its own problems. Steeped in corruption and with no housing or work for incoming refugees from “drowned cities,” disease is rampant. A disease referred to as ‘the breaks’ spreads among the people while outside the city a mysterious woman riding an orca and with a polar bear companion can be seen, a woman steeped in mystery and rumor.
The book is told from several viewpoints. The narrative weaves from one to the other rather seamlessly. Jumps in viewpoint were never jarring. Ankit works for an arm manager, one who may not win the next election. Fill is a young gay man and the grandson of an arm manager. Kaev is an old fighter, making a living throwing fights to younger, up-and-coming fighters on behalf of Go, a woman runs a crime syndicate. And, lastly, there’s Soq, a young nonbinary courier who also works for Go.
These characters tales weave in and out of one another, becoming endlessly entangled. Characters who might, upon first appearance, would never seem to cross paths do so in quite real, believable, heart wrenching ways. These characters are real, fully realized people. They are complex, with intricate relationships to one another and the city itself. The bonds of family are a major theme within the narrative – how people deal with familial bonds in a world torn apart, the ordeals refugee families go through, and the complexity of families. And, perhaps most importantly, the lengths and trials a person is willing to go through in order to be reunited with their loved ones.
At the heart of things, this is what the story is about – people and their relationships. It is also a tale of revenge, or maybe vengeance. It’s about xenophobia, political corruption, wealth inequality, and climate change. Though set in the future, this is most definitely a novel of the present.
There are few books with a setting as alive and thriving as Blackfish City. Qaanaaq is a floating city, a massive place with arms reaching into the sea. The place is rather self-governing, opting for anonymous shareholders and benevolent AI programs for funding and security. The only elected officials are Arm Managers whose purpose it is to deal with the citizen’s needs in their district. But the influx of refugees have strained things to the breaking point, and the cities few wealthy citizens have gobbled up real estate, falsely inflating prices and leaving refugees and the poor living in little more than shacks. Qaanaaq has a life to it, a real spirit that few other fictional cities do. We see it not from one viewpoint, but from many – those that love it, those that hate it, those that would use it for their own ends, and those who wholeheartedly want to help the poor, sick, and oppressed.
Qaanaaq and its people are further explained in snippets of an illegal broadcast called City Without A Map. These sections are told in utterly beautiful prose, and, despite relaying volumes of information about Qaanaaq and the history of the world, it isn’t info-dumpy in the least.
Tension and pacing ramp up as the story unfolds. The slower story about the people of Qaanaaq becomes more immediate with higher stakes and consequences which reach much farther than perhaps first assumed.
This is a book I devoured, and one I highly recommend. Absolutely check out Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller. While this is a standalone novel, other stories by Miller are set within the same universe, so if you enjoyed the novel there’s more content to come.