Blogging the Nebulas: Blackfish City Carries the Zeitgeist on the Back of a Whale

Editor’s note: The Nebula Awards are often described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature. Like the Oscar, the Nebula is voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are six nominees in the best novel category this year; every two weeks between now and the awards ceremony on May 18, Ceridwen Christensen will be taking a look at each of them, and figuring their odds of taking home the prize.

The pitch:

As the title suggests, Sam J. Miller’s Blackfish City is as much about a place as it is about any given character. Its chapters cycle through four point-of-view characters: a messenger, a civil servant, a fighter, and a scion of great wealth. The perspective of the fifth character, the city of Qaanaaq, is told in chapters taken from “City Without a Map,” a mysteriously-sourced chronicle of a built city floating on open arctic water somewhere east of Greenland, north of Iceland.

As the book opens, we’re somewhere midway through a climactic apocalypse. Every nation you can think of has fallen (often several times), or changed irrevocably, or disappeared beneath the waves. Qaanaaq—a municipality run by artificial intelligence and owned by anonymous founders—gathers up the flotsam and jetsam of a drowning world.

While reading the first couple chapters, I did something I don’t usually do: I sketched a map of the floating city. It’s an eight-armed starfish of a place, and each numbered spoke has its own particular flavor: the wealthy enclaves of one and two; the slums of seven and eight; the docked ships off of five, where gangsters hold court. Each character pins themselves to the place—or places—they are from, or are going, or where they want to go. Qaanaaq is as callous and as kindly as any city, beholden to the tides of wealth and influence, but still carved out with shifting cultures that owe nothing to the systems of governance.

Qaanaaq’s fragile equilibrium is upset by the arrival of a woman on skiff. Alongside her vessel swims an orca; on the prow sits a polar bear in chains. She’s rumored to be many things, a figure of gossip and myth. Though everyone seems to have heard tell of the orcamancer, her exact location is hard to triangulate, her origins are mysterious, and her motives are opaque. Meanwhile, the city moves to its own rhythms: a young man learns he has a fatal, mentally withering disease; a zipline messenger makes a play for a different life; a brain-damaged fighter upsets his place in the criminal hierarchy; a woman tries to free her mother from a prison in everything but name.

Blackfish City is a peripatetic novel, ranging over the city of Qaanaaq—into its past, into the pasts of its characters, into the larger world and its complicated, strangling history. Its name is a palindrome, and we read it backward and forward in time.

Why it will win:

This may be an odd argument to make, but hear me out: I think Blackfish City is the novel that best encapsulates the zeitgeist of 2018.

It’s a cli-fi novel that isn’t preachy or (necessarily) a bummer, equally hard science-y and character driven. Though a lot of the overt action and submerged backstory is bleak, there’s a tremulous sense of optimism wending its way through the story. The fact of Qaanaaq—this impossible metal starfish clinging to place in the bitter north—makes it an object of wonder. So too is the orcamancer, though the repercussions of that wonder are harsh, if not fatal. Qaanaaq is a patchwork place, both made up of the histories of other places and the trauma of their fall. Like the novel that took home the Nebula in 2016, Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky, Sam J. Miller’s first novel for adults has an indefinable quality: it is a story that best encapsulated the weird right-now.

Moreover, the Nebula is an industry award, and Miller has the requisite chops—often a factor in who wins. Last year he picked up the Andre Norton Award for The Art of Starving. (Not too be too reductive, but the Andre Norton is akin to a Nebula for young adult science fiction and fantasy.)

Why it won’t win:

Per usual, I can take the reasons why I think this novel will win and read them backward as I argue why it might not. The novel I thought was the best finger on the pulse of 2017, Amberlough, didn’t take home the Nebula; the award went instead to N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky, the absolutely devastating conclusion of a juggernaut of a trilogy. Though Miller does have a well respected YA novel under his belt, Blackfish City is still only his second novel, and his first for adults. And though this may be a little outside the purview of this series, neither did Blackfish City pick up a Hugo nomination. While there is imperfect overlap between the Hugo and Nebula winners, the winners do tend to be taken from the pool of novels nominated for both.

Arguments aside, I fairly loved Blackfish City. Its themes and concerns are right smack in my wheelhouse. Any novel that starts me scribbling notes on a self-drawn map is one that has hit me hard. Reading through the nominees every year introduces me to books I would have otherwise missed. Even though this is a somewhat dippy thing to say, the nomination ends up being its own reward, for me anyway.

Follow along with this year’s Blogging the Nebulas series here. See previous years’ entries here.

Follow B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy