Blackfish City

Sam J. Miller
Blackfish City Cover

Blackfish City


I received an e-arc of Blackfish City from the lovely folks at Little, Brown UK via Netgalley in exchange for my review - thank you to the publisher and the author!

Blackfish City is a post-apocalyptic tale with an unusual premise: it's set on Qaanaaq, a floating star-shaped city in the Arctic, built by a coalition of nations with private sector investment to be a haven for those fleeing climate change related disasters in the rest of the world. In Qaanaaq, everyone is a refugee, and much of is culture is based on the many remnants of human societies bumping up against each other to create new food, music and art. The city itself was built to be administered almost exclusively by AI, with elections for largely powerless posts on each of its eight "arms", but decisions otherwise made by infallible machine logic. Unfortunately, what seemed like a good idea thirty years ago has turned out to be inadequate to the challenges Qaanaaq is now facing, and the city is decaying as its government fails to keep up with the impact of inequality, overpopulation and criminal extortion on its people. On top of this, a new epidemic called "The Breaks" is sweeping through the population, causing fear and stigma towards those it affects (it's transmitted through body fluids, so sexual transmission is assumed to be the most common method of contracting it) and infecting its sufferers with strange delusions which appear to give them knowledge and memories from other places and times before inevitably killing them.

Into this city floats a woman, an orca, and a polar bear, representing the last of another strange technological experiment on humans. Her presence is the catalyst for events in the lives of other residents of the city: hapless rich boy Fill, coping with his new Breaks infection; Ankit, an election aide trying to understand the mystery behind her mother's disappearance in the city's prison-cum-psychiatric hospital; Kaev, a martial arts fighter who struggles with his own unexplained mental health issues; and Soq, a genderqueer teenager scraping together a living at the bottom of Qaanaaq's socioeconomic heap. For the first half, Blackfish City reads rather like a fast-paced mosaic novel, with events and characters overlapping between the different stories, but no obvious whole. Things do coalesce in the second half, however, with a lot of new connections revealed between the characters which brings them together in a single story, though not necessarily on the same side. The narrative structure is mostly done very well, although there are elements from the characters' individual plots which fall by the wayside as the group narrative overtakes the rest - most notably Ankit, whose political career and decisions get pushed quickly to one side as the plot to find her mother intersects with everyone else.

Blackfish City's greatest strength is its atmospheric worldbuilding, using its different points of view to bring an odd and yet, in many ways, familiar city to life. My favourite parts of this were the little touches: like calling the main public services are "Health" and "Safety", reminding us that Qaanaaq is a corporate idea of how a perfect city would be run, or having Fill react to a public art installation which involves projecting living images onto street fog. There's also the chapters involving a piece of media (something we in the early 21st century would most likely call a podcast) called City Without a Map, which is an entirely anonymous production where different people read out monologues about different aspects of the city, and its culture and history. The whole thing adds up to a fictional city with a strong sense of place, where its easy to sympathise with the characters as they go through various stages of nostalgia and frustration with their deeply imperfect home. We also build up a picture of what the rest of the world looks like from asides and the occasional character moment, providing a grim but necessary backdrop.

It's interesting to contrast this realistic portrayal of a future city with the journey the characters themselves go on, which I felt took a lot of beats from less realistic, more mythological styles of storytelling. The mystery behind Masaaraq, the orca woman, is also technological in nature but the way its handled, and the cultural understanding that she brings to who she is, gives it a strong note of fantasy, as do the revelations behind the nature of the Breaks. I felt this blending of realism and science-indistinguishable-from-magic was very well done, adding another layer to the sense of culture and place which Qaanaaq evokes. (I should add the disclaimer that I'm not sure if Masaaraq's culture is supposed to be based on any particular indigenous traditions, and if so how well the parallels were handled - it felt like it was supposed to be its own thing but it's not my area of expertise.)
My main source of frustration with Blackfish City was its depth. This isn't a particularly long book, and it uses its space to cover a great deal of worldbuilding ground, as well as bringing in four main characters, an occasional fifth perspective, and a number of interludes for the different City Without a Map monologues. Inevitably, this means that it touches on a lot of things briefly which then never come up again - Ankit's aspirations to change the political narrative being one, Kaev's participation in the intriguing martial arts spectator sport of the city another. I could easily have read another hundred pages in this novel bringing "side quests" to a more satisfying close (or integrating them into the whole), as well as fleshing out character relationships and diving deeper into their particular corners of the city. The ending also felt a little rushed, although it did leave the story on a note which is true to both the characters and the city itself: tentative hope in the face of a broken world.

All in all, Blackfish City is a very strong piece of speculative fiction, creating a fully realised fictional city whose problems provoke us to ask difficult questions about the present and future of our own world. While it didn't do everything I'd wish for, what it does deliver is well worth anyone's time, and I'll definitely be looking out for more of Sam J. Miller's work in future.