Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Review of Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller

We are living in expansive times. Genre fiction is abound. One can barely lift a rock without finding the remnants of a nuclear apocalypse or wisp of fairy hair. And where genres and sub-genres were once relatively insular, things are now blended together into one big smorgasbord of fantastika unlike fiction has ever seen. Cowboy robots, cyberpunk trolls, dystopian elves—there are seemingly no limits on what writers are doing in an effort to poke their noses above the genre tide inundating the current market. Wild west drowned Earth with nanotech, and biopunk, and mob bosses, and animal companions, and…? Why not, asks Sam Miller in his 2018 Blackfish City.

While that intro would seem to pave the way for Waterworld in book form, there is, in fact, a much stronger Klondike, Alaska feel to Blackfish City. Yes, global warming has taken its toll and flood waters have inundated the majority of civilization. Yes, most of the novel takes place aboard a city floating on the sea. And yes, there are bouts of Hollywood heroics and superhero action. But overall, the mass emigration west in the mid-19th century and resulting mix of culture and affluence, the search for a better life, and the relative lawlessness as people looked to (re)establish ‘civilization’ is a stronger analog to the premise of Blackfish City.

While pockets of humanity try to survive on what remains of the continents, a relatively thriving city called Qaanaaq rides the Arctic Sea at the outset of Blackfish City. A floating structure comprised of cobbled shipping containers and luxury high-rises, it’s heated by underwater thermal vents and uses waste to produce electricity. Human blood sport as readily available as 5-star dining, homeless living alongside wealthy, and disease running rampant even as new medical technology comes available, Qaanaaq encapsulates the dynamics of 21st century urban life in the West, that is, until a woman towed by an orca with a captive polar bear comes riding into town.

Blackfish City’s story rotates through four main characters. Kaev is a beam fighter with a questionable hold on sanity. One of the best in the arena, outside it he is trying to play—and win—a game of his own. Fill is a young, well to-do man who, unfortunately, has caught the HIV-esque STD everyone calls ‘the breaks’ and dares not tell his aristocratic grandfather, one of the city’s ruling elite. Soq is a slider, a near-future equivalent of a NYC bicycle courier, who whips around the dangerous, undercity rails delivering packages for a mob boss named Go. And lastly is Ankit, chief-of-staff to one of the leaders of Qaanaaq city’s eight arms, who tries to do what she can within the system to help people in need.

Possessing a graphic novel style, Blackfish City goes heavier on setting and action and lighter on character and message. (In one scene, Soq notes the detailed textures of furniture in a corporate office, yet his/her character is never opened up to the same extent—a fitting representation of the novel as a whole.) This means Blackfish City is as much a vivid, imaginative place where 2D people’s stories play out as it is an attempt to represent and comment upon contemporary western life through personal dramas and comic book heroics. The message attempting to be serious, the underlying elements are often less so, resulting in a semi-juxtaposition that waters the book down (no pun intended).

Flowing with contemporary cultural zeitgeist, Blackfish City runs a gamut of representation: homosexuality, culture, race, gender (or lack thereof), feminism, social inequality, etc., which leads to the question: how has the author couched their gamut? Are they just winking at SJWs, or are said elements developed and integrated with the narrative in holistic fashion? In Blackfish City it is some of both. Conservatives will be rolling their eyes at pronouns, but should probably be paying attention to the power structure/class discussion, just as liberals will nod their heads in approval at having non-cis, non-binary main characters, but should probably be paying attention to the fashion in which Miller makes blanket statements about corporations, religion, etc. (Those are gray areas my friends, not black and white—and I’m an agnostic, political moderate so don’t even start...)

In the end, Blackfish City feels like an early Samuel Delany novel. Flashy science fiction elements occupying major parts of the story, a more communal, inclusive, human agenda is intended to fill out the remainder. The distance between these two sides shorter and longer, there are moments they cannot see each other (e.g. the bits of comic book heroics, the never ending familial coincidences, the plot climax, etc.) and moments they stand nicely side by side (e.g. the setting, the message in the denouement, etc.). Another way of putting this is, Blackfish City is a vivid, enjoyable story that trades a portion of its relevancy for storytelling. Given the current genre mood, I wouldn’t be surprised if the novel was nominated for a couple of the popular awards next year.

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