Orbit | 2018 (19 April) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book
In our near future, perhaps a hundred years from now, much of the world is drowned and the parts that aren’t have been ravaged by war. Qaanaaq is a haven, an immense artificial city floating in the northern Atlantic. It is composed of a series of arms reaching out from a central hub and each arm is packed with humanity – some more packed than others, because the first arm is reserved for the wealthy. And the wealthy don’t have to live in coffin-sized spaces or even just wrapped in a blanket. Qaanaaq is a place where enterprise, or crime, pays and the biggest gangster of all is Qaanaaq’s richest businessman, a man made rich on pharma, technology and software.
One day a stranger arrives at the city, towed through the water in a skiff by a killer whale, a polar bear by her side. Rumours spread about the woman. People are tasked with discovering the truth. For she belongs to a bygone age, a time when humans could be tied by nanotechnology to animals, a practice that was stamped out mercilessly. But with her she brings hope, she pulls people together, they learn more about their society. And never has the city needed help as much as now – there’s a fatal disease going around, the breaks, transmitted largely among the poor, and it carries with it a curse. Those afflicted with the breaks must endure the memories of the person who infected them, and the person who infected them, going back and back and back. This is a city at the limits of its endurance.
Blackfish City is a hauntingly beautiful novel that focuses on the stories of a few individuals whose lives become connected for a whole variety of reasons, including the breaks. As we move between them, a picture is created of the damage that has been done by Qaanaaq. People like Ankit, Kaev and the young Soq are missing something and they’re now finding out just how much.
Qaanaaq is a wonderful creation and we’re given background on it through a series of extracts from City Without a Map, an oral social document and history. Citizens are hooked on it but nobody seems to know who created it. We’re shown many aspects of life in the floating city – its politics, social structure, its underworld, its injustices, all set against the intriguing backdrop of a world that’s been torn apart by war and greed and flood. At times it doesn’t feel a million miles away from where we are now.
I particularly enjoyed the idea of the breaks and its origins. It’s an AIDS-like virus which incites a similar prejudice. One character in particular bridges both rich and poor worlds and I especially liked spending time with him. There is an optimism about him which I appreciated because Blackfish City presents a bleak future. Another element which I loved is the bonding between humans and animals – Sam J. Miller describes this beautifully.
As I’ve mentioned, I did find Blackfish City very dark at times despite the beauty of its prose and its intriguing setting. Its characters, though, are brilliantly curious and odd, even though they can also be vicious and shocking. Blackfish City transported me to another place, one that frightened me while at the same time filling me with wonder at the potential of these descendants of ours.