In Blackfish City, Sam J. Miller has crafted one of the richest and most interesting dystopian landscapes I’ve ever read. Set in a future ravished by climate change and climate wars, the book concerns the floating Arctic city of Qaanaaq. Ruled by a small elite class and near-autonomous AI, home to refugees from every corner of the “Sunken World”, plagued by corruption and unrest, a heady mess of culture, language, technology and tradition–Qaanaaq is a fictional city unlike any other.
The story is told in the alternating point-of-view of four characters, all trying to survive–in vastly different ways–amidst the ruin and beauty of their city. When a strange woman comes to town, know as the “ocramancer” because of the orca whale she’s bonded to, the lives of these four people intersect and become forever entangled.
I was completely blown away by Miller’s world-building. The history and mythology of his dystopian future, and especially of the city of Qaanaaq, is absolutely seamless. He did not explain every detail, or every important historical moment in the undisclosed amount of time that has passed between now and the present of this novel. There were no info dumps, or moments when the book dragged due to endless exposition. But I never once felt lost. There was such depth to every facet of this world: the various languages spoken in Qaanaaq, the governmental structure, the press, the specific technology, the street culture, the weird superstitions of its inhabitants, the city’s infrastructure. It all felt incredibly real. I could sense Qaanaaq’s culture on every page, running though every sentence, and I just wanted to breathe it all in.
I love dystopian fiction, but sometimes I find myself getting distracted and irritated when an author either gives too little explanation of their vision, or too much. Miller strikes a perfect balance. His world is creative and unique, but feels entirely plausible. The realties that the residents of Qaanaaq faces are unique: there’s a new contagious disease called “the breaks” that’s unlike anything we experience today, people nanobonded to animals, the technology of the future. But their problems are also familiar: the discrepancies between the very rich and the very poor, immigration policies, health care.
Miller skillfully builds this world through the eyes of his characters, so that it always felt immediate–the things that were important to them became urgent and important for the reader If the past was sometimes hazy, it made sense–it was hazy for the characters as well.
Where this book did not excel, for me, was with in Miller’s characterization, and in the plot. The charcters, while compelling, did not quite feel whole to me. I think part of this was that, for 2/3 of the book, their stories were very isolated. There was little interaction between the POV characters, and even less so between the POV characters and non-POV characters. It was like these four people were all living in their own isolated worlds, which gave the book a dreamlike quality. Thought I found the characters interesting and sympathetic, and though their backstories were intriguing, I never quite fell in love with them. I always felt a bit too far removed.
Then, when their lives finally intersected and everything came together, it felt rushed. There was an action-packed climax, complete with dramatic revels and mysteries solved, but I couldn’t quite relate to it. I found myself thinking, “but, wait…what?” The book went from four intensely internal and separate stories to one very interconnected story, but the pacing was off. For me, the end of the book felt like a let down. It should have been emotionally impactful, but instead I was left with a sense of emptiness. I wish Miller had given his characters more time to build relationships and wrestle with each other. As it was, though I enjoyed this novel, it was wholly less satisfying than I anticipated, given the first forty pages.
Ultimately, If you’re into dystopian fiction, I think this book is worth reading for the world-building and the setting alone. Qaanaaq is a city I won’t soon forget. I also really appreciated the casual queer representation–several of the main characters are queer, and one is genderqueer, and it’s not a thing at all, and whenever that happens in fiction, I’m happy. While I didn’t end up loving it, I still found a lot to appreciate in this novel.