“Do not talk about the past here. Do not ask your neighbor why they left wherever they are from; do not expect your newfound friends to wax nostalgic for homes that no longer exist. Perhaps the past holds more than merely pain for you, but you can't assume that this is true for anyone else. We want to smell it, taste it, hear its songs, feel its desert heat or summer rain, but we do not want to talk about it. The things we've been through cannot hurt us here, unless we let them. The Fallen cities, the nations drowned in blood. The cries of our loves ones. Those stories we lock away. We will need new ones.”
A woman arrives in Qaanaaq, a city made possible with advanced technologies iterated from oil rigs; she arrives with an orca and a polar bear and is called an "orcamancer". Her arrival is the impetus that drives together the characters. In this post-climate collapse, each character is an intersectional lens used to critique cyberpunk tropes and showcase how much fiction with characters of diversity and queer identities can enrich fiction with established tropes.
“Slums are always a marvel; how human desperation can seem to warp the very laws of physics.”
Kaev is a veteran fighter used for the express purposes of launching other fighters' careers, manipulated by his ex-lover and crime boss; Soq, a slide messenger (think Jet Set Radio, using installed rails that cross the various "arms" of the city to navigate to their destinations) with a non-binary gender identity (using they/them pronouns), living in poverty, and ostensibly, wishing to dismantle the city entirely. Fill, on the other hand, is the other side of the coin. Born into a high-status life that is lacking a purpose. Ankit, a government worker who is struggling with her purpose as bureaucracy proves that her wish to help citizens must continually go unanswered.
As disparate as they all are, both in social status as well as identities, the narrative serves them well. Bringing them together in unexpected and nuanced ways as the story drives toward the climax and conclusion. Interspersing the orcamancer's story throughout their narratives, colliding the narratives together.
Qaanaaq has a rich history. One that is spotlighted throughout in chapters labeled "A City Without A Map", how it was developed and how human the problems are there, even in a society having lived through multiple crisis points in human history. These chapters are broadcasted to the denizens, highlighting people and places, hopeful in nature and with a goal to bring the inhabitants together despite stratification resulting in a city filled with advanced technology, such as the A.I that literally runs the entire city. Cramped quarters as real estate means that most folks don't have the space they need and hunger for. It's a cyberpunk setup that gets subverted in delightful ways.
“Multicolored pipes vein the outside of every building in a dense varicose web: crimson chrome for heat, dark olive for potable water, mirror black for sewage. And then the bootleg ones, the off-color reds for hijacked heat, the green plastics for stolen water.”
The city already being ravaged by "The Breaks" when the orcamancer arrives. Little is known about this viral disease plaguing the city. But it feels very much framed as the AIDS epidemic. Ostensibly transmitted through body fluids that causes neurological degradation, opening the mind to thoughts and even memories of others... until it ultimately kills the person. This is an outbreak the city seems incapable of dealing with, or unwilling, as the city's multiple A.I can't seem to figure out what to do even years after an initial diagnosis.
“Bodybreaking, they called it. What happened when the breaks finally killed you. The moment your mind's hold on the here and now finally ruptured forever and you broke free from your body.”
This, together with the different character lenses' at work regarding the crisis and the upheaval the orcamancer causes, are a major upset in the status quo. When she begins carving a bloody path through the city searching for a truth the city has long since attempted to bury, we also get chapters that reveal her own past and what she is doing in the city, along with what it means for the main characters.
“Wood smells like wealth”
As snippets of the city's own sordid past are revealed via people with The Breaks, the author does a masterful job weaving a cohesive story between all the characters. Targeting the wealth gap and the corruption that is all but inevitable in political structures based on class, and the importance of questioning anything systemic, even when it's your own family. There is no easy decision. No dark, simple evil to combat in these villains.
Instead, there are contemporary, powerful, and meaningful subjects tackled from many perspectives, all colored in shades of gray. It feels like the subject matter was tackled with respect, including indigenous aspects brought into the text. Pairing the crisis of The Breaks with what is revealed of the orcamancer's past is an emotional and impactful choice. And conjoining that plot with the meta-structure of the book makes for a cyclical, satisfying ending.
“...the most myth-shrouded story of all is that of the nanobonded. A whole community of people who were either deliberately or accidentally exposed to the experimental wireless nanomachines that established one-to-one networks between individuals, and who, through years of training and imprinting, could "network" themselves to animals, forming primal emotional connections so that they could control their animals through thought alone.”
Everyone and everything matters. It's got traces of solarpunk in its surprising hope. It's subverting cyberpunk by injecting multiple, intersectional, and marginalized identities while being both sex-positive and framing embodiment in an affirmative light. The primary advanced technology in nanites and their purpose and how they are used, and the choice to frame technology in a neutral relationship along with the depiction of villains, all work together to craft a unique experience.
I'm going to call Blackfish City a post-cyberpunk novel and recommend you not miss it.