Monday, June 29, 2020

"Politics by Means of Literary Analysis": A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Recently I was talking to a friend who has been reading the Dune series, and I noted that you don't see many books that try to emulate Frank Herbert's Dune. The Dune books are weird and work in a way that wouldn't work for any other author. Most classics spawn lots of imitators or even their own sub-genres. While you see a lot of space operas out there, none of them have come close to being much like Dune in the last 55 years.

It's not that I was looking for a Dune rip-off (nobody should really want that). But I was excited to read Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire because it sounded like it might be jumping somewhere near Dune space with a far future space empire filled with a melange of cultural influences. It even has epigraphs from historical documents before each chapter. And as I suspect is the case with many Dune fans, having a glossary at the end makes me roughly 37% more excited to read any science fiction book.

Then I saw the blurbs on the inside cover comparing it to Ann Leckie or Yoon Ha Lee. These are also apt given the space empires in both authors' works, especially with one particular idea that's very similar to an idea Lee uses in Ninefox Gambit.

While one could make those comparisons, in the end A Memory Called Empire is its own thing. And this is a wonderful thing. Once I realized this was not an imitator or merely a riff on old themes, I could let the book speak for itself and appreciate it for the unique work that it is. This is the first of the Hugo Best Novel nominees I've read this year, and I have a hard time believing any of the other nominees will come close to beating it.

Another thing about this book: it's far more complex than I can describe in this review. My advice: if it sounds like your thing, just jump in and see if you can swim.

We start when an Ambassador from a small, but independent space station is summoned to the center of a vast space empire called Teixcalaan after her predecessor has mysteriously died. A lot of the plot is a murder mystery of sorts, combined with plenty of political intrigue that's actually interesting, likable characters, and some heavy philosophical meditations on identity: political, personal, metaphysical, and even linguistic.

And one of the coolest parts: the language of the empire is inspired by Nahuatl (the classical language of the Aztecs also with modern dialects), which means it is written in glyphs, and poetry written in this language is appreciated both aesthetically and politically. At one point a character refers to "politics by means of literary analysis" (p. 175). Brilliant.

This isn't even scratching the surface of this complex and immersive novel (one thing it does share with Dune is the feeling of being immersed in a strange but believable world). The political intrigue is simultaneously high-stakes and complex without feeling forced or hard to follow (many other political science fiction books could learn something here!).

While a lot of this intrigue of double-meanings and secret plans from duplicitous authorities in complex hierarchies might come from the author's background as a historian of the Byzantine empire, as an academic myself I suspect some of it might come from her experience in graduate school (another byzantine social hierarchy with occasional duplicitous individuals on power trips). One more unique thing about A Memory Called Empire is its ring composition, which is mentioned with regard to poems and stories in the novel all the while the novel itself is an example. Another brilliant aspect.

Before diving into the philosophical bits: another thing this book has the Dune doesn't--a sense of humor. (Minor exception here for Chapterhouse: Dune). I chuckled a lot and laughed out loud a couple times, but the humor is part of the story and the characters and never feels forced or out of place. This is a feat given how culturally-dependent a lot of humor is. Some science fiction humor doesn't work because it tries to drop in 21st century American jokes (this is why The Orville gets old for me quickly).

If you go into A Memory Called Empire expecting some of the deep meditations on human nature that you find in the Dune books (especially the later, weirder, more philosophical ones), you may not find that. At least not quite. But you find a different, equally interesting, kind of meditation on human nature. Martine dedicates the book "to anyone who has ever fallen in love with a culture that was devouring one's own."

The main theme of the book is the sort of double-consciousness of people who are not at the center of the Teixcalaan empire but who feel its cultural gravity. This theme is explored in two intertwining ways. The main character, Mahit, comes from outside the empire, but has always loved Teixcalaan culture, especially its literary culture (which in her defense sounds pretty cool). The people inside the empire often barely consider her to be human in the way humans on the upper echelons of power dynamics have tended to discount the humanity of outsiders. But Mahit loves them, anyway.

She experiences a lot of something similar to what W. E. B. Du Bois called double-consciousness: she sees herself simultaneously from her own perspective and from the perspective of the Teixcalaanlitzlim (residents of empire). But this experience is too complex for her to simply wish it away even if she wanted to (which she doesn't): she is condemned to be always the outsider looking in and seeing her own double reflection. But even more deeply, it's not clear what is "her culture" and what it Teixcalaan given the gravity the empire exerts on other cultures.

The other sense of this consciousness is explored a way I can't discuss without mild spoilers.

<mild spoilers ahead>

It turns out Mahit's people have developed a technology to preserve a person's memory after death, which can then be implanted into a living person's brain so they carry the dead person's memory in their own mind. This started because they were a small station that needed a continuity of knowledge to survive (especially among its pilots, and by extrapolation, as does any culture that wants to last more than one generation). Mahit has the memories of her predecessor implanted to help her navigate her diplomatic duties, but it's not just his memories: they can actually talk to each other. 

It gets even more complicated later in ways I won't spoil, but it provides a perfect science fictional mirror of Mahit's cultural double-consciousness. Who is Mahit? Which memories are hers? Can she ever just "be herself" after this merger? Is this an example of what contemporary philosophers like Derek Parfit refer to as personal fusion? Do they become one person, or are they multiple people in one body? 

<end spoilers>

Both of these senses raise some deep personal and cultural questions (they are also linguistic: how does Mahit refer to herself or her culture in all this?). Is her very sense of self always mixed with the other? Is this hybrid identity a blessing or a curse? Or something stranger and more interesting, and at any rate unavoidable?

And reflective readers might wonder: are human identities--personal, cultural, grammatical--always hybrid, fractured, and more multifarious than we let on? Is this true even for those with the power to tout the purity of their identities? And might we be better off for relinquishing that purity?

While these aren't the same questions that drove the Dune series or even exactly the questions of Leckie and Lee, I think they take something from these influences to create their own new, interesting hybrid identity, and we the readers are better for it.

See my Goodreads review.

Reading on the porch

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