Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The first book of Sam J. Miller's I read, The Art of Starving, was definitely a mixed bag--good on one hand, flawed on the other (review here). In that instance, for me, the flaws won out: the book wasn't sufficiently SFF to satisfy me. Thankfully, that isn't the case here. This book is all in on its science-fictional concept: an Earth deep in the throes of climate change, with refugees and cities flooding and burning, dire enough to get a new name that says it all: the Sunken World. Governments are being overthrown and humanity is fleeing to floating cities, in particular an eight-armed city in the newly opened Arctic (because of complete polar ice melt, one assumes) called Qaanaaq.
This is an exploration of the horrors of climate change, but it's also an indictment of capitalism, the system that has led (and will lead, if humanity doesn't come to its senses and muzzle it) to this worldwide disaster. There is no police or law enforcement presence on Qaanaaq, and the "government," such as it is, consists of a very uneasy balance of shareholders and crime syndicates. The rich live on the upper arms of the city, One through Three, with plenty of food, room and warmth, and the poor live on the lower arms (Six through Eight), stacked worse than sardines, with dozens of people per living space and many with no homes at all, just renting sleeping bubbles for the night. Due to these conditions, there is a sexually transmitted disease called "the breaks" sweeping the city, a poorly understood disease that behaves like a virus but also seems to transmit memories from its previous hosts.
Naturally, this explosive, immoral status quo cannot stand, and the arrival of a woman on a skiff, accompanied by a nanobonded killer whale (a rather clever idea, using nanotechnology to explain what has traditionally been psychically bonded humans and animals, in SF's past) and a polar bear, is just the match to set this smoldering city alight. But we don't get the revolution right away. Instead, we get several viewpoint characters, each with their own storylines and a slow, careful braiding thereof. It's a measure of Miller's skill at characterization that all of these characters held my interest, even when I didn't have the slightest idea how or if they would eventually meet. But about halfway through the book, the death of one of the POV characters snaps everything into place and sets the rest of the plot in motion, and from there on we have a wild, fast-paced ride. The secrets from the past come to the fore, a newfound family is discovered, and those who have created this terrible set of affairs are going down.
I believe this is a standalone story, although a sequel could certainly be written. I do appreciate the tight focus on Qaanaaq--the author could have pulled back to show the wider drowned world, but the horrors of what humans have done to themselves are effectively communicated through implications and the wise use of fragments of backstory alone. This is definitely not a future anyone would wish, and I think books like these are essential in pointing out the hell we will unleash if we don't get serious about climate change.
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